The views of Metro Vancouver’s ski hills looming over the city are a sea of green after a winter of record heat, scant snow and torrential rain.
Skiers and snowboarders have faced resort closures, barren slopes at base level and hiking between lifts to access the few areas that are available, even at mid-mountain levels.
It’s been a dismal snow season, but scientist Michael Pidwirny says such conditions won’t be at all unusual in just a couple of decades.
“This winter is kind of a prelude to what we’ll see in the future,” said Pidwirny, an associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of British Columbia. “By 2050, the average winter will actually be warmer than this winter.”
He says skiers and snowboarders in British Columbia should expect unusually warm winters to become the new normal.
Pidwirny’s research focuses on the effects of climate change on ski resorts in western North America. She said data dating back to the 1940s shows a “clear trend of increasing temperatures at ski resorts in western North America.”
That fate was underscored by a series of atmospheric river weather events that brought a blast of heat and heavy rain to British Columbia’s southern coast in late January, closing several ski hills during what would normally be the peak season.
A winter blast had dumped 28 centimeters of snow on Vancouver on January 17. But by the end of the month it was a distant memory, when temperatures soared above 18C in parts of the Lower Mainland and it poured with rain for days.
Among those affected are three local resorts in Metro Vancouver and Mount Washington on Vancouver Island, which closed last week due to hot weather conditions. Meanwhile, Mount Timothy on Lac La Hache in Interior B.C. made the decision not to open at all this season, citing a lack of snow and a forecast of persistent heat.
Jessica Griffin bought a Silver season pass to Cypress Mountain Resort on Vancouver’s North Shore, but said she now regrets it.
“I’m absolutely shocked to say it’s February and I haven’t gone up even once,” she said in an interview. “This is only my second ski season. “I didn’t realize we were so lucky last year.”
Griffin says he probably missed the most skiable days of the season by traveling in December. She also felt uncomfortable driving up the mountain during the mid-January cold snap.
She hopes to return to the mountains this season, but she’s not sure that will happen.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said, adding that he also paid for Cypress’s ski and boot rental for the season. “It’s like it has a double impact on my finances.”
Cypress did not immediately respond to interview requests, but its website showed half of its six lifts were open Wednesday. The resort warns riders about “early season conditions,” including a 125-meter mid-mountain hike between two main lifts.
Meanwhile, Grouse Mountain closed its snow school due to “limited terrain” and only one of the more than 30 runs was open for daytime skiing Wednesday. Only one of the six elevators was operational.
All ski and snowboard operations at Mount Seymour were listed as temporarily closed.
It’s not the first time Metro Vancouver’s three resorts have been affected by warmer weather and a lack of snow. The same thing happened in 2014/2015, which Pidwirny refers to as “the year without a ski season.”
“This winter, so far, is tied with 2014/2015,” he said, before adding that the season is not over yet. “This winter could turn out to be worse than 2014/2015.”
Pidwirny said operators would have known about this year’s El Niño weather phenomenon, a periodic system that brings warm weather to much of North America.
“What we’ve seen this year, which is really unique, is that when we have an El Niño year, the ski resorts that suffer are the ones on the West Coast,” he said.
“This year, the warming was so great in December that it not only affected ski resorts on the West Coast, but also those in eastern Canada and the eastern United States. They also have bad conditions.”
Michael J. Ballingall, senior vice president of Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna, said it has been a “tough year” so far, although the mountain has recently received a lot of snow.
“We delayed our opening four different times,” he said. “We typically open on American Thanksgiving Thursday at the end of November and don’t open until December 8. Although it’s not our last opening ever, it’s in the top five.”
He said that while he is “not worried” about what a warmer climate might mean for the longevity of the sport, he is “skeptical” about the future.
“Climate change is real. I used to have a sign at our consumer shows that said, “It never rains in Big White,” she said. “That is no longer the truth. “Now it’s raining in Big White.”
He said Big White still gets about 25 feet of snow each year. He said that while the mountain only uses two artificial cannons to produce snow, many resorts are increasingly relying on artificial snow as they face milder temperatures, more rain and less natural snow.
Pidwirny said making artificial snow requires low temperatures and unless the machines are electric, they run on fossil fuels, meaning they are contributing to the problem they are trying to combat.
“The problem with creating snow artificially is that it consumes a lot of energy and water. It is not sustainable,” he stated.
“The message resorts should be conveying to people is: listen to the scientists, listen to your politicians, let’s come up with a really good plan before we reduce fossil fuel emissions. Let’s try to reduce the impact.”
He said the sport will not “disappear completely” but there will be fewer resorts within half a century. He said a 2019 analysis by a UBC master’s student found that of about 150 West Coast resorts in North America, only about “10 percent will survive by 2080,” given global warming trends.
“For the most part, we’ll see ski resorts struggle more as we move into the future, and the planet continues to warm,” he said.
“The coastal resorts are going to lose out. “Resorts further from the coast will be the winners with climate change.”
From December to February, inland resorts typically have temperatures about 10 degrees colder than coastal resorts, he said.
More immediately, Pidwirny said he was curious how this year’s lack of snow might affect season pass sales for B.C. resorts next year.
“They’ll remember the bad conditions,” he said of the cyclists.
Griffin is one of those skiers. He said that he won’t risk getting a season pass next year and that, instead, he will rely on day passes if he decides to go to the mountain.
“I would never have gotten a season pass if I had known there was a risk of it not snowing,” he said. “I won’t take the risk again.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2024.