The good news is that from a climate change perspective, Whistler Blackcomb will continue to get snow — and possibly more of it — for a long, long time. Climate data collected over three-and-a-half decades helps to confirm what climate scientists have long predicted for this part of the world, namely that the Pacific Coast of North America will see wetter winters — and slightly drier summers — at a time when other regions are generally getting hotter and drier.
But while snow in Whistler might be reliable, Whistler Blackcomb has other climate change concerns, including the impact of climate change on the ski industry as a whole. For example, if ski resorts around the world are forced to close due to the lack of snow then who's going to come to Whistler to ski? And the economic impacts of climate change, such as the cost of natural disasters and rising food prices, could also impact the ability of people to ski.
To help combat the problem and share their many successes with other resorts and operators in the tourism industry, Whistler Blackcomb's mountain planning and environmental resource manager, Arthur DeJong, has released a book that contains all of the data and results from their own in-house climate change initiatives called "Whistler Blackcomb's Climate Change and Resource Efficiency Strategy."
According to DeJong, the goal is to share that research with as many people as possible, underlining the business case for combatting climate change and for resorts to invest in things like summer grooming of slopes and snowmaking.
"The more people we can inspire, the more meaningful it is," he said of the report. "The door can't be wide enough. (The book) is pointed at the ski industry and the tourism sector because that's what we're in, that's who we influence, but that's still significant — somewhere between nine and 10 per cent of the global economy, depending on which report your read, is the tourism sector. It's a very important industry that employs a lot of people."
The data for the report was gathered over 35 years, from 1976 to 2011. That includes snowfall, snow depths, temper ature data and other measurable information that's collected by WB as part of day-to-day operations.
Winter temperatures are roughly 0.5 degrees warmer on average, says DeJong, although it's been wetter and the amount of snow falling on the high alpine has actually increased over the study period. In the valley, snowfall is increasing as well, although snow depths vary.
Summers have been more dramatic with an average two degree increase in temperatures, something DeJong says could contribute to the wildfire risk with drier forests and more fuel to burn.
"I was very surprised by this," said DeJong. "My experience, having been here for over three decades, is that our snowpack has been stable. I was surprised to see that it's actually increasing in the higher elevations, and even more surprised to see that it was increasing in the valley.
"Keep in mind that these are trend lines and it varies from year to year. That was as far as we could get reliable data, or we would have gone further back."
While Whistler's weather data is consistent with long-term climate modeling, there is a chance that the amount of snow at lower elevations will decrease. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, a one-degree Celsius increase in the average temperature results in an overall rise in the snow line of approximately 120 metres. If temperatures do increase over the long term by three or four degrees, as some climate scientists are predicting, then that could translate to a rise of 360 metres to 480 metres, which comes close to Whistler's village base of 675 metres.
DeJong says the resort's activities over the last decade reflect this reality, with Whistler Blackcomb investing in opening more of the alpine with initiatives like the Symphony Express chair and the current project to replace the Harmony Express with a six-seater chair and move the old Harmony Chair to the Crystal Chair area. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which allows skiers and snowboarders to move between the low alpine of Whistler and Blackcomb without skiing or downloading to the valley, also reflected climate change concerns.
As well as increasing lifts and terrain in the alpine, DeJong says the resort's investments in snowmaking — the fleet is now 270 snow guns strong — helps to fill in the lower mountain and ensure that people can ride to the bottom for most of the season. Furthermore, the resort has invested over the years in summer grooming — levelling off ski runs, removing rocks and small trees and planting grass — to allow them to open runs to skiers with less snow.
Whistler Blackcomb recommends both snowmaking and summer grooming to other resorts as part of efforts to reduce the impact of climate change.
"We do want (smaller resorts) to succeed because they ultimately feed the destination areas like ours," says DeJong. "How we've built resilience into our operations should be an industry focus. Some of the smaller, lower areas need to look at more snowmaking, and they need to look at summer grooming, so they can sustain the experience with less natural snow."
The report also looks at the potential for diversification. While skiing and snowboarding is Whistler Blackcomb's core business, they've also invested in off-season facilities like the bike park, summer hiking trails and attractions like Peak 2 Peak.