Views of Metro Vancouver’s ski hills looming over the city are a sea of green after a winter of record-breaking warmth, sparse snow and torrential rain.
Skiers and snowboarders have faced resort closures, barren base-level runs and hikes between lifts to access the few areas that are available, even at mid-mountain levels.
It’s been a dismal snow season, but scientist Michael Pidwirny says such conditions will be nothing unusual in just a couple decades.
“This winter is sort of a prelude to what we’re gonna see in the future,” said Pidwirny, a University of British Columbia associate professor of environmental sciences. “By 2050, the average winter will actually be warmer than this winter.”
He says skiers and snowboarders in B.C. should expect unseasonably warm winters to become the new normal.
Pidwirny’s research focuses on the effects of climate change on western North American ski resorts. He said data going back to the 1940s depicts a “clear trend of increasing temperatures for ski resorts in western North America.”
That fate was underscored by a series of atmospheric river weather events that brought a blast of warmth and heavy rain to the B.C. South Coast in late January, closing several ski hills during what would normally be peak season.
A wintry blast had dumped 28 centimetres of snow on Vancouver on Jan. 17. But by the end of the month it was a distant memory, as temperatures spiked past 18 C in parts of the Lower Mainland and rain poured for days.
Among those affected were three local resorts in Metro Vancouver and Mount Washington on Vancouver Island, which all closed last week due to warm weather conditions. Meanwhile, Mount Timothy in Lac La Hache in the B.C. Interior made the decision not to open at all this season, citing a lack of snow and a forecast of persistent warmth.
Jessica Griffin bought a Silver season pass to Cypress Mountain Resort in Vancouver’s North Shore, but said she now regrets it.
“I’m absolutely shocked to say that it’s February and I haven’t been up once,” she said in an interview. “This is only my second ski season. I didn’t realize that last year we were so lucky.”
Griffin says she has probably missed the season’s most skiable days by travelling in December. She also felt uncomfortable driving up the mountain during the cold snap in mid-January.
She hopes to get back on the mountain this season, but isn’t sure it will happen.
“It’s so frustrating,” she said, adding that she also paid for ski and boot rentals from Cypress for the season. “It’s like it’s a double impact on my finances.”
Cypress didn’t immediately respond to interview requests, but its website showed half of its six ski lifts open Wednesday. The resort is cautioning riders of “early season conditions,” including a 125-metre mid-mountain hike between two main lifts.
Grouse Mountain has meanwhile closed its snow school due to “limited terrain” and just one out of more than 30 runs were open to daytime skiing on Wednesday. Only one lift out of six was operational.
All ski and snowboarding operations at Mount Seymour were listed as temporarily closed.
It is not the first time the three Metro Vancouver resorts have been affected by warmer weather and lack of snow. The same occurred in 2014/2015, which Pidwirny refers to as “the year without a ski season.”
“This winter, so far, is kind of tied with 2014/2015,” he said, before adding the season is not yet over. “It could turn out that this winter is worse than 2014/2015.”
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Pidwirny said operators would have known about this year’s El Niño climate phenomenon, a periodic system that brings warm weather to much of North America.
“What we’ve seen this year, which is really unique, is usually when we have an El Niño year, the ski resorts that suffer are the ones on the West Coast,” he said.
“This year, warming was so great in December, that it not only affected the ski resorts in the West Coast, but also the resorts in Eastern Canada and eastern United States. They have poor conditions, too.”
Michael J. Ballingall, senior vice-president of Big White Ski resort near Kelowna, said it has been a “tough year” so far, though the mountain has recently received a dumping of snow.
“We delayed our opening four different times,” he said. “We normally open on the Thursday of American Thanksgiving in late November and we didn’t open until Dec. 8. Though it’s not our latest opening in history, it’s in the top five.”
He said that while he is “not worried” about what a warming climate may mean for the longevity of the sport, he is “skeptical” about the future.
“Climate change is real. I used to have a sign at our consumer shows, ‘It never rains at Big White,'” he said. “That’s no longer the truth. It rains now at Big White.”
He said Big White still gets about 25 feet of snow each year. He said while the mountain only uses two artificial snow-making guns, many resorts are increasingly reliant on man-made snow as they face milder temperatures, more rain and less natural snow.
Pidwirny said artificial snow-making requires low temperatures and, unless the machines are electric, they run on fossil fuels, which means they are contributing to the problem they are trying to combat.
“The problem with creating snow artificially is it’s energy intensive, and water intensive. It’s not sustainable,” he said.
“The message that resorts should be telling people is: listen to the scientists, listen to your politicians, let’s get a really good plan ahead of reducing fossil fuel emissions. Let’s try to reduce the impact.”
He said the sport will not “completely disappear,” but there will be fewer resorts within a half-century. He said a 2019 analysis by a UBC masters student found that out of about 150 West Coast resorts across North America, only about “10 per cent will survive by 2080,” given global warming trends.
“For the most part, we’re going to see that ski resorts having a harder time as we progress into the future, and the planet continues to warm,” he said.
“The coastal resorts are going to lose out. The resorts furthest away from the coast are going to be the winners with climate change.”
From December to February, Interior resorts typically see temperatures about 10 degrees colder than coastal resorts, he said.
More immediately, Pidwirny said he was curious how the lack of snow this year may affect season pass sales for B.C. resorts next year.
“They’re gonna remember the bad conditions,” he said of riders.
Griffin is one such skier. She said she won’t risk getting a season pass next year and will instead rely on day passes if she chooses to hit the mountain.
“I would never have got a season pass if I knew that there was a risk of there being no snow,” she said. “I wont take the risk again.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2024.