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Glacial change



Global warming and human use seen as factors in Horstman’s shrinking size

After three chairlifts and one bus ride up from the Whistler valley, skiers and snowboarders leave behind grassy slopes and green forests for a world of rock and ice.

The sun’s rays radiate down from the summer sky but after cresting the ridge beneath Blackcomb Mountain’s peak, the air temperature drops noticeably.

Protected by the ridge’s north face – and spread out like a thick pancake on a tilted frying pan – is the 45-hectare Horstman Glacier.

The glacier’s natural features are covered by two T-bars, a halfpipe, terrain park, mogul field and groomed racing lanes.

Before the midday sun can start softening the snow, the glacier is home to eight different private summer ski and snowboard camps. At noon, it opens to the public.

But the pancake is not quite as thick this year as it has been in the past.

"Yeah, it’s definitely one of the lowest snowpacks I’ve ever seen," Stu Osborne, the glacier’s operations manager, says after parking his snow-cat for the day.

Horstman Glacier usually receives an average annual snowfall of 10 metres. This year’s snowfall fell short of that total by two metres.

"But the groomers have been doing an incredible job," says Osborne, who has been working on the glacier every summer for the past five years. "We’ll make it to the end."

The glacier, which opened June 11 for skiing and snowboarding, is scheduled to close for the summer season on Aug. 6.

"At first, we were hesitant," says Sarah Armstrong of the Dave Murray Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp. "But the conditions didn’t affect us at all."

No matter what the amount of snow on the glacier, Osborne says the majority of camps use salt to slow the surface from melting. "It keeps the snow firm," he says.

But salt also does another thing: it melts the glacial ice faster than normal.

And due to global warming trends, glaciers from the Alps to the Andes are already receding.

This year’s low snowpack doesn’t help either. A glacier is like a bank account; it needs more deposits than withdrawls for a positive balance.

At present, glaciers cover approximately 11 per cent of the Earth’s landmass. In Canada, glaciers cover 200,000 square kilometres – more than six times the size of Vancouver Island.

"Salt helps accelerate the melting process," says Olav Slaymaker, a UBC geography professor who specializes in the study of human impact on mountain environments.