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Spring weather gives glaciers a reprieve

Blackcomb makes it to closing day, but impact of weather won’t be known until end of summer

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The Blackcomb Mountain summer skiing season officially wraps up this Sunday, July 31, with some of the best glacier conditions in recent years.

Aided by late-winter snowstorms, and a cool, wet spring and early summer, the glacier has been slow to melt, making perfect conditions for summer camps, various national team training camps, and other visitors.

Contrast that to a year ago, when an early spring and drought forced Whistler-Blackcomb officials to close the glacier to public skiers five days early after some crevasses started to show. The camps were allowed to continue to the end in controlled areas, but Whistler-Blackcomb didn’t want people to go off exploring.

That was the second year of drought conditions for Whistler, resulting in concerns that warming weather trends could accelerate the loss of local glaciers.

According to Arthur DeJong, the manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler-Blackcomb, there is still good coverage of snow on the glacier. However, the company will be monitoring the glaciers themselves through the end of summer and into the early fall.

"What we’ve been given is a little reprieve here," he said. "If we were in another drought year the condition of the glacier would probably be very concerning right now, as opposed to being an ongoing concern."

Whether the glaciers on Blackcomb and other local glaciers will actually make any gains in mass this year won’t be known until the end of the summer. While there is still good coverage, it may be possible to lose that snow if warm, high-pressure conditions persist through August and September.

Even if the recent warm years were an anomaly and things get back to normal, the glaciers will continue to be an issue for Whistler-Blackcomb.

"The size of the glacier is still of concern to us," said DeJong. "The long-term trend is a continued retreat or reduction in size of our glaciers, both within the ski area and within the whole region.

"Glaciers have been receding for 100 years… and if the global climate continues to warm we will have to take action."

This year Whistler-Blackcomb tested the use of snow fencing to retain snow coverage longer through the summer months, and will put in more fences in the future. In Europe the fencing has been used to slow the decline of glaciers for years, with some success.

Whistler-Blackcomb has also changed its grooming practices and no longer moves snow from the top of the glacier. That snow is needed to replenish the ice that is lost as the glacier shifts downhill and as the tongue of the glacier retreats uphill.

Whistler-Blackcomb is also considering the use of snowmaking on the glacier, which DeJong says could extend the life of the glacier from 30 to 50 years if warming trends continue.

"Certainly the world’s scientists – and I’m referring to the UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – agree that we will continue to see a warming trend, so we needed a significant operational plan to address that," he said.

"I think if we enter back-to-back drought years again we would have to respond sooner than later. If we get back to the annual averages we saw in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we might have some time before we have to implement snow fencing and snowmaking."

Whistler-Blackcomb is not the only party keeping an eye on local glaciers. Glaciologists Karl Ricker and Bill Tupper have been monitoring Wedgemount and Overlord Glaciers since 1973 using photographs. Tupper passed away last month at the age of 70, but the project will continue.

The most recent maps are available at the Community Habitat Resource Project (CHiRP) website at www.chirpwhistler.info.

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