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Glacial change

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"But the amount used (on Horstman Glacier) is not likely to make a significant impact."

Slaymaker does, however, point out that salt and other chemicals, such as diesel exhaust fumes, that become trapped in glacial ice could influence water quality.

"In many parts of the province, glaciers are crucial for water storage and supply," he says in an interview from his office on the Vancouver campus.

Glacial ice holds the bulk of the world’s fresh water. If today’s glaciers were to thaw completely, the oceans could rise as much as 70 metres.

Meltwater from the Horstman Glacier forms Horstman Creek, which tumbles down from 2,000 metres above sea level before it meets Fitzsimmons Creek near Green Lake.

The water, and whatever else is in it, then returns to the Pacific Ocean via the Lillooet, Harrison and Fraser river systems before it is showered back onto the mountain slopes.

Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s environmental manager, is also concerned about the health of glaciers atop the local mountains.

Over on Whistler Mountain’s north face, Whistler Glacier has shrunk considerably over the years that the ski area has been operating. The Dave Murray Summer Ski Camp, which once made that glacier its home base, moved across the valley to Horstman Glacier in 1991.

"If we had a choice, we wouldn’t use (salt)," DeJong says.

He notes the resort operator is trying to do its part in slowing global warming by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases its equipment – snow cats and maintenance trucks – releases into the atmosphere by constantly upgrading its equipment.

According to DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb has lowered its fuel consumption by 20-30 per cent with the new diesel-powered snow cats it leased last year.

"All these things can have a micro-effect," he says.

Whistler-Blackcomb has won a number of ski industry-awarded environmental awards in the past and is a member of the National Ski Areas Association’s environmental charter.

Glaciers also contain a key to the past. Snow that falls each year – as well as dust, pollen and volcanic ash – forms into layers that record the Earth’s natural history.

Slaymaker says salt and other chemicals are not as big an issue in altering Coast mountain glaciers as they are in the Columbia and Rocky mountains, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to salt away Whistler’s glaciers.

"Any interference can cause unexpected results," he says.

DeJong says Whistler-Blackcomb hired a glaciologist in the mid-1990s to study the affects of skiing and boarding on Horstman Glacier.