Like many Southern Ontario ski hills, Mount St. Louis Moonstone, one hour north of Toronto in Barrie, celebrated one of its earliest openings ever. By the first week of December, its social media accounts were already counting a record 18 days of operation. “AND IT’S NOT EVEN OFFICIALLY WINTER YET.”
Six weeks later, there’s far less enthusiasm about the conditions.
General manager Robert Huter said the second weekend of January, in which upwards of 60 millimetres of rain fell in the Greater Toronto Area, was the toughest, economically, that he can remember. The resort closed on Sunday because of freezing rain. The hill stayed open Saturday, but conditions were slushy.
“It was not an enjoyable day to be on the slopes, that’s for sure,” Mr. Huter said.
Increasingly volatile weather illustrates the vulnerability of snow-dependent industries to the effects of climate change. Extreme weather is particularly damaging when it hits on peak ski days, like weekends or the holidays. Resorts lose essential revenue and it costs money to rebuild their snow base.
In the long term, many may not be able to afford to stay open. A recent study by researchers at the University of Waterloo, the University of Innsbruck and Beijing Sport University looked at how ski areas in Ontario, Quebec and the U.S. Northeast will hold up to climate change. They measured the future economic viability – defined as maintaining a 100-day ski season and staying open during the peak holiday periods – of 171 ski areas. Together, the three markets are worth more than $2.7-billion.
The study concludes things look pretty grim, particularly for Ontario. The report’s authors say that even if snow-making capacity is taken into account, only 6 per cent of Ontario ski resorts will be economically viable in 30 years. If the world manages to meet aggressive targets for reining in temperature change, 15 per cent of Ontario ski areas have a fighting shot. Quebec and high-elevation areas of the U.S. Northeast will fare better due to colder baseline temperatures, the report says.
Winter weather is becoming more variable, but the trend is toward warmer temperatures, said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada. Southern Ontario winters have warmed by 1.3 to 1.5 degrees in the past 70 years, with most of that in the past 25. Average snowfall has decreased by 5 to 10 per cent per decade since the 1980s, he said.
“It used to be winters were cold and summers were hot. Now we’re seeing more unpredictable weather,” Mr. Phillips said. “There’s more wild swings, more uncertainty in terms of how it’s going to play out.”
He said increased rainfall will be a major challenge for ski resorts. While we can currently expect more snow than rain in December, January, February and March, rain will soon outpace snow, leaving January and February as the only majority snowy months. This would leave out the Christmas season, which is when ski resorts make a significant portion of their annual revenue.
Losing a weekend in the prime season hurts revenues significantly, especially when conditions also demand the snow be rebuilt and groomed, said Peter Hanney, assistant general manager at Snow Valley. The Barrie-area ski resort also closed during last weekend’s rain. “It’s definitely financially challenging,” he said. General manager John Ball said snow-making costs the resort about $2,000 per acre foot. With 85 skiable acres, the price can add up.
Ski resorts and other weather-dependent industries will have to grapple with the existential threats. Blue Mountain Resort, which draws an average of 750,000 visitors per year, is offering extra activities such as tubing, indoor and outdoor pools, and even a mountain roller coaster. Tara Lovell, the public relations manager at Blue Mountain, said the added attractions keep guests busy when conditions do not co-operate.
As high emitters themselves, ski resorts such as Mount St. Louis, Snow Valley and Blue Mountain are also investing in more energy-efficient machinery for snow-making and grooming. The study said snow-making requirements will increase by as much as 256 per cent over the next 30 years. But it still requires temperatures below zero, which Mr. Phillips said will be less and less frequent.
“The moral of the story is that we haven’t seen anything yet,” Mr. Phillips said. “The kinds of changes that we’ve seen in winter climate here in Southern Ontario have clearly been statistically significant, but they’ve been slow-motion kind of changes as compared to what we’re going to see in the years to come.”