Can snowmaking stabilize shrinking glacier?

Whistler Blackcomb will begin making snow on Horstman Glacier after commercial operations end next week. Photo/Michael Overbeck.

Whistler Blackcomb will begin making snow on Horstman Glacier after commercial operations end next week. Photo/Michael Overbeck.

Whistler to make snow for glacier

More snow in recent decades, but hot summers

by Allen Best 

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area next week will 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 DeJong, 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. (That’s 1 degree Fahrenheit in winter and 4 degrees in summer).

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

DeJong says that after commercial operations end on July 26, 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 says.

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, DeJong adds.

The glacier is located above treeline, 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).

DeJong  snowmaking guns will initially be used to cover 26 hectares (64 acres) to a depth of one meter (39 inches). The glaciers covers about 2,600 hectares (6,424 acres).

If the pilot proves successful, he says, 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.

 Arthur DeJong

Arthur DeJong

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 DeJong. But they are problematic.

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

Whistler Blackcomb is already heavily invested in snowmaking technology with 270 snow guns and three reservoirs. Too, the technology continues to improve and become less energy intensive.

Snowmaking in the Alps

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 two 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.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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