Mountain Town News: Whistler to make snow for glacier |

Mountain Town News: Whistler to make snow for glacier

Snow covered mountain
Getty Images |

WHISTLER, B.C. — The Whistler Blackcomb ski area will soon begin to make snow to augment its shrinking Horstman Glacier.

The glacier serves as just one of two places in North America where commercial summer skiing operations are conducted. In most recent years — but not the last two years — snowfall on the glacier has actually increased. But winter gains have been quickly lost to summer’s sizzling temperatures.

Arthur De Jong, the mountain planning and environmental resources manager at Whistler Blackcomb, says studies that began in the 1970s show that winter-time temperatures have increased 0.5 degrees Centigrade, but those in summer have increased 2 degrees C.

The result: an average annual loss of a half-million cubic meters of snow and ice.

De Jong says that after commercial operations end in July, four snowmaking guns and other infrastructure will be installed. It is expected to be used beginning in October.

“If the pilot project is conclusive, this unique project will become a significant addition to Whistler Blackcomb’s list of adaptations to ensure long-term resilience against climate change,” he said.

Data obtained from the one-year pilot project will be used to determine whether an expanded snowmaking system could assist with preserving the Horstman Glacier, De Jong added.

The glacier is located above tree line, in the alpine zone, which at Whistler begins at 1,920 meters (6,300 feet). The glacier is in a band between 2,100 to 2,300 meters. (6,900 to 7,500 feet).

De Jong tells Mountain Town News that initially the snowmaking guns will be used to cover 26 hectares (64 acres) to a depth of one meter (39 inches) deep. The glaciers covers about 2,600 hectares (6,424 acres).

If the pilot proves successful, he said, 26 snowmaking guns will be deployed.

All of this will be at the top of the glacier. “Any glaciologist will tell you need to do what mother nature does, which is feed it at the top,” he says.

One determining factor will be whether the effort pencils out economically. Whistler Blackcomb hopes to boost skier numbers in early winter, beginning in October, while also preserving business in June and July.

In recent years, various methods have been tried to preserve shrinking snowpacks and glaciers. One method involves covering snow. Whistler Blackcomb tried “glacier blankets,” and they work on small locations, such as critical spots for snow preservation, says De Jong. But they are problematic.

“You have to be quick to remove them, because they will stick to the ice,” says De Jong. And on a large scale, he adds, they are awkward. “Putting blankets over a 2,600-hectare glacier is physically impossible with any realm of economic sense.”

In contrast, Whistler Blackcomb is heavily invested in snowmaking technology. It has an extensive infrastructure of 270 snow guns and three reservoirs. Too, the technology continues to improve and become less energy intensive.

In Europe, several ski resorts have experimented with new technology to halt the withering of glaciers. In January 2014, Bloomberg News carried an excerpt of a book called “Windfall: the Booming Business of Global Warming,” by McKenzie Funk.

Funk tells of an Israeli company called IDE that uses a technique that has, as its unlikely seed, a Soviet gulag along the Arctic Sea. This was during or soon after World War II. A Jewish engineer imprisoned there saw a primitive but effective method for desalting water. Later, he developed that idea in Israel, to which he had emigrated.

The idea was further advanced, using a vacuum chamber, and from there further modified to create a vacuum-ice machine. The machine was installed in South Africa, in the world’s deepest gold mine, where the temperature 2 miles below ground is 130 degrees Fahrenheit. A byproduct was prodigious amount of snow.

From there, the technology has been deployed in at least two ski areas in Europe. Zermatt, in Switzerland, and also Pitztal, located near Innsbruck, have tried out the idea of creating snow in a vacuum. At Pitztal, the glacier has declined so rapidly that the lift built to serve it has had to be moved up the hill three times in three decades. With this technology, the idea is that it’s cheaper to build the glacier than to keep changing the lift.

Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, an industry magazine, says he’s not sure the Israeli technology pencils out economically so far. It’s very expensive to make snow that way, just as it’s very expensive to make drinking water out of oceans.

Fat Tires gone from coolers in coal town

CRAIG, Colo. — Fat Tire and other brews by New Belgium Brewery as well as those of Breckenridge Brewery are out of most of the liquor-store coolers in Craig, a town located 42 miles west of Steamboat Springs.

The problem? The companies donated money to WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that successfully filed a lawsuit arguing that environmental disclosure laws had been disobeyed when the federal government leased the coal at the ColoWyo mine.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson found that the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had failed to examine the indirect impacts of mining coal.

The coal is burned at a trio of coal-fired power plants in Craig to produce electricity that goes to Crested Butte, Winter Park, Durango, Telluride and a number of other mountain towns in Colorado plus other customers in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Nebraska.

The plants and mine are the largest employers in Craig — really, the main economic driver. People there are worried that if coal is no longer mined and burned, they will be without a livelihood.

This worry has motivated several large meetings. Last year, 800 people turned out to the high school auditorium to hear comments about the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. While the plan does not necessarily say coal-fired power plants must shut down, it does order states to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In response to the latest legal twist, another meeting was called, drawing another 800 people to the high school auditorium, reports the Craig Daily Press. The newspaper tells of a legal process that is likely to drag on for some time.

Meanwhile, the beer companies are sensitive to the local outrage. New Belgium tells the Daily Press that the company gave WildEarth guardians $8,000 for river restoration, not specifically money to fight coal companies.

Nonetheless, both New Belgium and Breckenridge Brewery sent several representatives to Craig, to listen to the local complains. The bars and liquor stores told the Daily Press they were quite pleased at the effort by the brewers. “We spent about 45 minutes talking to them. It went very good,” said Lori Gillam, owner of Stockmen’s Liquor.

But she’s not ready to start putting Fat Tires in the cooler.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul on the fire line

DENVER, Colo. — Federal land managers in the American West were in Denver this past week to talk about fire. With the drought on the West Coast, managers worry about major fires there and, later in the season, northern Idaho.

But their strongest message was about the cost of fighting fires. There’s a 93 percent change that the U.S. Forest Service will spend somewhere between $810 million and $1.62 billion this year in fighting these fires, said Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service is in that agency.

That pinches the Forest Service, Vilsack went on to explain, in that the money will have to be reallocated from other budgets. He predicted at least $200 million would have to be reallocated from funds designed to make forests more resilient, to reduce the “risk long term of these catastrophic and horrific fires.”

It’s a long-standing complaint, and the agencies have argued that money for fighting largest forest fires should come out of federal disaster funds, not the budget of the agencies. So far, the U.S. Congress has not gone along with that reasoning.

“Congress can’t have it both ways,” said Vilsack at a press conference. In winter, congressional representatives articulate the need for greater restoration of forests, expanded recreational opportunities “and all of the things that occur with a healthy forest.” But then, he added, Congress won’t give the agency the capacity and resources.

In Wyoming soon after, Vilsack continued the theme at a stop in Jackson Hole.

“People say we need more facilities. Absolutely,” he said. “But we’ve seen a 68 percent reduction in the facilities budget because of fire suppression.”

The budget trails has been slashed 13 percent, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, while deferred maintenance is down 95 percent and wilderness and recreation heritage programs have been cut 14 percent.

Shop local to help pay for cost of conservation

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Whitefish residents are being urged to shop local instead of traveling down the Flathead River to buy goods at Kalispell or Missoula.

By a wide margin, voters agreed to a 1 percent sales tax recently, with the money to be used to buy a conservation easement in a 3,000-acre basin. The easement, explains the Whitefish Pilot, is designed to protect the Haskill watershed, the primary source of drinking water for Whitefish.

Dylan Boyle, who directs the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, told the newspaper that the campaign is geared partly at “geo-travelers” who visit Whitefish. “We want to send the message that if you spend locally in Whitefish you are contributing to the protection of open space and water quality,” he said.

More summer use and grizzly bears

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta — Revised guidelines for the Lake Louise ski area open the door for longer hours, both earlier and later, but shifting use toward the top of the mountain.

This is designed, at least in part, to avoid disturbing the several grizzly bears that tend to loiter on the middle-level portions of the ski mountain. But the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society tells the Rocky Mountain Outlook of “serious concerns” about the impacts to the grizzlies.

“These animals have already adjusted to current summer use there, so they have a predictability,” said Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director of the group. Increasing the time for people on the mountain in summer, she added, means “less time for bears to be there and do what they need to do out in the wilderness.”

Dan Markham, director of brand and communications for the Lake Louise resort, said the changes, if approved by Parks Canada, will provide “better views” for visitors and a “much larger buffer zone for the grizzly bears.”

He said up to four grizzlies have been on the ski hill during the last month. If the top of the mountain is used by visitors, he said, they can possibly see grizzly bears below as they take the gondola.

Lake Louise is in Banff National Park, which had a 10.4 percent increase in visitors last year. That’s the busiest that Canada’s flagship national park has been in 15 years. It’s also in keeping with the marching orders of park administrators, who have been told they need to create ways to expand visitor numbers by about 2 percent a year.

But the Rocky Mountain Outlook isn’t persuaded that any of this is good. The newspaper talked about a tipping point and also described the gridlock found in Banff, the townsite located within the park of the same name.

“We’re focused on quantity, not quality,” said Colleen Campbell, president of Bow Valley Naturalists. “We’re not talking about visitor experience anymore. We’re just talking about visitor numbers. Is anyone measuring visitor happiness?” she asked.

Nurse files lawsuit against patient

ASPEN, Colo. — Who’d think that nursing could result in personal injuries? That’s the basis of a complaint of a nurse at the Aspen Valley Hospital, who was assaulted by a patient who was being treated in the emergency room.

The patient was drunk after falling and hitting her head on a street corner. Ambulance crews decided she needed to be seen at the hospital for the possibility of a head injury.

At the hospital, the drunk woman was combative, twisting the nurses’ finger and then kicking the nurse in her chest. The nurse has now sued.

Police later arrested the drunken woman. She was charged with assault and was given six months of probation.

Bring your own bud to cannabis resort

DURANGO, Colo. — The nation’s first cannabis-friendly ranch resort is how a 170-acre property near Durango describes itself.

Guests won’t be given marijuana, because that violates state law, explains the Durango Herald. Instead, customer will be allowed to take their own THC products and use them while at the resort. They can smoke on the porches of their own cabins.

In addition to getting buzzed, there’s also horseshoe and hiking, yoga sessions and workshops on marijuana cultivating.

Rates at CannaCamp start at $395 per person per night. Marijuana not included.

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