Whistler’s changing climate and energy shift

Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak gondola offers thrills winter and summer, including the hydroelectric plant on Fitzsimmons Creek 1,000 feet below. Whistler/Blackcomb photo.
Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak gondola offers thrills winter and summer, including the hydroelectric plant on Fitzsimmons Creek 1,000 feet below. Whistler/Blackcomb photo.

Why global warming helps Whistler in short term and is crisis in the long run

by Allen Best

In 2006, after Aspen adopted the Canary Initiative, the city’s climate-change manifesto, the Aspen Skiing Co. commissioned a study to project how warming temperatures could cause snow during the 21st century to retreat by mid-April.

It’s not a pretty sight as the century wears on. By the time today’s infants are octogenarians, just dabs of snow will remain by income-tax day in the average year, squeezing the bookends of the already famously short 100-day ski season.

Given this same accumulation of greenhouse gases, many small and low-elevation ski areas can kiss their season passes goodbye long before then.

Whistler would seem to have the same problem. It has a base elevation of 2,000 feet, not the 8,000 feet of Aspen and Snowmass. But snowfall at Whistler has increased even as temperatures have risen.

Arthur De Jong, the mountain planning and environmental resource manager for Whistler Blackcomb Holdings, explains that the proximity of Whistler to the Pacific Ocean explains this anomaly. The warmer temperatures bring more moisture off the ocean, resulting in more snow.

This phenomenon can go on only so long. Whistler can gain snow from the warming climate for two degrees of annual warming. After that, says De Jong, the snow turns to mush and rain. It will start lower on the mountain, where Whistler is installing more snowmaking machines.

“Climate change has not been cruel to us here,” says De Jong. “It has actually added snow, and likely will for some time, certainly in my lifetime. But, if we go up, hitting 3, 4 or 5 degrees Centigrade, our lovely resort will go the way of the global economy. Although we have more resilience here than what I first realized, the world is not so resilient. So, collectively we have to tackle this problem.”

Snowfall has actually increased

Even the larger destination resorts located at higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains can be hurt by warming temperatures in many ways. If warming temperatures put the smaller, lower-elevation ski areas out of business, that cuts off the “farm teams” that ultimately create customers for Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail.

Too, if economies are being disrupted because of extreme weather or rising sea levels, disposable income of customers core to mountain resorts will be slashed. While some people will always be wearing silver heels, the Great Recession proved that the shoe closet can be thinned.

Arthur De Jong
Arthur De Jong

“We will go as the global economy goes in the long term,” says De Jong.

It’s a calamity coming like an out-of-control freight train, and one that most people now alive, but particularly young people, will be forced to deal with, he says.

Nonetheless, when De Jong began looking into the impact to Whistler Blackcomb, he was surprised by the resort’s resiliency. Instead of decreasing snowfall, a study of snowfall accumulations from 1977 to 2010 show that snowfall has actually increased.

“We are not losing our winters here,” he says.

Glaciers high on the mountain are receding, however. While snowfall has increased, summer heat is intensifying even more.

However, like Aspen, increasingly shorter winters will be an issue at Whistler. So will rising snow levels. Ski season may begin and end without snow at the base lifts. In response, Whistler Blackcomb has been erecting lifts higher on its mountains, something done more readily there than on many ski mountains.

“We are lucky, for the most part, in that the two mountains are like ice cream cones: skinny on the bottom and fat up on top, so we have lots of capacity to build at higher elevations here,” says De Jong.

Longer summers also present opportunity. The Peak 2 Peak gondola, connecting Whistler and Blackcomb, offers a thrilling ride in a glass-bottomed compartment, with a view of the valley at its deepest about 1,000 feet below.

The soft underbelly of transportation

Transportation is Whistler’s greatest carbon vulnerability. Destination resorts, by their nature, depend on long-distance transportation, which remains reliant on fossil fuels.

Some ski towns concede less carbon than others. When doing its math, Park City only accepted responsibility for either the coming or the going of customers, but not both. Aspen’s Canary Initiative took responsibility for both ends of trips, mostly by airlines and an impressive number by private jets. But all resorts, no matter how green they consider themselves, are among the most carbon-intensive places on the planet.

De Jong offers no solutions to this Gordian knot of transportation, but says he continues to look for opportunities of partnerships.

How can a ski area show leadership?

Unlikely a privately owned ski company, De Jong sees Whistler Blackcomb, as a publicly owned company, leading by example. It can—and has—demonstrated that making more money can be done without increasing atmospheric pollution.

In this, De Jong was long ago influenced by Amory Lovins, a resident of the Aspen area who has been making the case since the 1970s for stepped up energy efficiency and renewables as a response to the threat of human-induced climate change.

In a 125-page document called “Whistler Blackcomb’s Climate Change and Resource Efficiency Strategy,” De Jong explains that Whistler Blackcomb has dramatically reduced dependency on carbon fuels during the last 15 years while also improving profitability. The company is now close to saving $1 million annually, thanks to improved energy efficiency and also a hydroelectric plant on Fitzsimmons Creek, which flows between the interconnected Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas. Fitzsimmons produces, on a net annual basis, electricity equal to that used for on-mountain demands.

“The best thing we can do is clean up our own locker room,” says De Jong.

Grassroots activism

The Aspen Skiing Co. has also demonstrated that business growth can be untethered from increased use of fossil fuels. In its 2012 sustainability report, the company announced that revenues had grow 41 percent from 2000 through 2011, but the company’s responsibility for carbon dioxide emissions had declined 4 percent.

But is cleaning up your own locker enough? The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler has repeatedly made the case that no, advocacy is the highest rung of this ladder. In other words, broad federal policies must ultimately be instituted. Ski companies, he maintains, must make that case.

In 2006, the company filed a brief in the famous Massachusetts vs. EPA case that resulted in carbon dioxide being listed as a pollutant governed by the Clean Air Act. The outcome of that action was only recently realized when President Barack Obama announced new criteria governing coal-burning power plants.

In an essay called “Making Rosa Parks,” which was published in a journal called Climate Change, Schendler argues that the business case for energy transition isn’t enough.

Auden Schendler
Auden Schendler

“If businesses or government just do what’s profitable (and that does not include a carbon tax), that means picking the low-hanging fruit, and it falls short of the massive emissions reductions needed to stabilize warming,” he writes.

What is needed, argues Schendler, is grassroots community activism such as created the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. (See more about Schendler’s argument about the need for a new Rosa Parks. For a similar argument, see “Using skiing to make case for climate change”)

Less explicitly, De Jong agrees about the need for advocacy. Carbon reduction is only good if it compels other to do the same, he says. Greenhouse gases are a global problem.

There is a growing sense of urgency. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels this year hit 400 parts per million, up from 315 when baby boomers were young and up form 280 ppm when the Industrial Revolution began. Most climate scientists say the Earth can absorb no more than 450 parts per million before climates may change dramatically.

Nine billion people

More worrisome is the global growth in energy demand.

“When I look at the global situation, with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries wanting to have the lifestyle that we have; when I look at the UN projections for 9 billion people by mid-century; and when I look at the escalating carbon emissions today—this is not about future generations. This is about our younger generations today. Seventy percent of the people alive today will be alive at mid-century when we hit 9 billion people.”

In you’re in your 20s or even 30s and starting to worry about your retirement savings? It’d be wise to worry just as much about shifting the energy systems.

“We know this isn’t a problem for future generations to live with. It’s a problem for now. We have to solve this problem now,” says De Jong.

For a copy of De Jong’s 125-page report, write to Mountain Town News at [email protected]. This story originally appeared in the October 23, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy, also write to [email protected]

Allen Best

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