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Sliding away...


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Valentine's Day is a day to celebrate what we love.

And here in Whistler, along with the people we love and cherish, we also love snow.

Indeed, snow and winter, in many ways, define what we are as a nation, which in turn leads to our love of winter sports... and by extrapolation to the way we generally embrace all winter-based games.

Even our money celebrates winter — the Toonie has polar bears, the old $5 bill has hockey players and skaters outside, the new $50 bills have icebreakers on them while the old ones had snowy owls.

That is why the on-going reports about the state of our snow should be striking fear into all of us whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on this white gold.

Instead the reaction is, well, just so Canadian of us — it is sort of a polite, silent terror.

The latest report comes out of the University of Waterloo and Austria's Management Centre Innsbruck. It tells us that as climate change continues only six of 19 previous sites for the Winter Olympics could host another Games by the end of the century.

By 2050, says the study, Sochi would be out of the running, likely along with Vancouver.

"Weather has challenged the Winter Olympics for years," said Waterloo professor Daniel Scott, lead author of the study and Canada Research Chair in Change and Global Tourism. "Unfortunately, under the warmer scenarios, far fewer places that have hosted the games in the past would still be able to do so.

"The cultural legacy of the world's celebration of winter sport is increasingly at risk."

Scientists predict that average February temperatures in past Winter Olympic locations are expected to climb as much as 2.1 C by 2050. By the last half of the century, temperatures will be up 2.7 to 4.4 C.

This week we heard from Sochi that Canada's women's hockey team warmed up for their game by playing soccer outside in the balmy 12 degree weather, and since last year we have heard of Russian Olympic organizers stockpiling snow at the alpine venue sites.

In 2010 we saw the same thing in Vancouver, which hosted the freestyle events at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver. El Niño combined with soaking Pineapple Express storms to make January 2010 feel like April in the city. The slopes looked better suited for mud wrestling than freestyle. About 9,000 cubic metres of snow had to be hand-shovelled, trucked, bulldozed and helicoptered it in from stockpiles up to 250 kilometres away. Straw bales and wood were brought in to shape the course, and dry ice was embedded in the moguls and aerials' ramp to impede the melting.

Meanwhile, Whistler had too much snow and getting courses ready became a problem — along with mid-mountain fog.

But by the first full week of the Games, the sun was back, the cooler weather returned and everyone's attention returned to sport.

Before the 2010 Games, the David Suzuki Foundation produced it's own report, On Thin Ice, urging all levels of government, indeed all citizens of Canada, to take action on climate change or risk loosing our iconic winters across the country.

"Winter sports are a crucial part of Canada's economy, culture, and identity," stated the report.

"Winter sports events and tourism are also an important source of income for many of Canada's cities and rural communities. Canada's ski sector contributes about $839 million to the economy every year while winter tourism, including festivals and cultural events, provides an estimated $5 billion.

"What would it mean to Canada if we could no longer play outdoor hockey for most of the winter? Or if opportunities to ski and snowboard were to diminish across Canada?

"For communities that depend on winter sports culture, it could be as devastating as the loss of an automobile manufacturing plant to an industrial community."

Globally, the permanent, late-summer snow line in mountainous regions has retreated uphill by about 200 metres — that's about the height of a 50-storey skyscraper — since the early 1960s, while glaciers are shrinking three times faster than in the 1980s.

This brings a greater significance to the construction of Whistler Blackcomb's $53 million Peak 2 Peak gondola, and the increasing reliance on snowmaking. But there is a cost in both energy, and on the environment for the man-made snowmaking option, which uses large quantities of water — the very resource at risk.

And let's not forget the carbon footprint of travellers getting here. A non-stop flight from London, U.K., to Vancouver is equivalent in carbon footprint to about seven 42-gallon barrels of oil per person.

With all the alpine available, Whistler may be one of the lucky resorts in the future — Grouse, Cypress, Mount Washington, which really never opened for this season, not so much.

Some may say, "so what?" to this scenario. Humans just adapt.

True, but that adaptation has consequences. For one, ski tourism here may go down impacting all of us.

But it's the wider impact that is of real concern, as outlined in a New York Times opinion piece by Powder magazine editor Porter Fox — the reduction in snow means a reduction in water, it means drought, it could mean the rise of pests like the Mountain pine beetle, it will impact streams and rivers and even weather patterns.

So for Valentine's Day this year maybe we should all focus on loving the planet — for all our sakes.