The fact that it's summer doesn't make any difference to the zealous skiers and snowboarders on Blackcomb Mountain: They jump off the lift and head for the steep slopes, pausing only at the Horstman Hut, perched on the edge of the glacier, for a cup of hot chocolate.
The Horstman Glacier has guaranteed snowpack in all four seasons, making it one of Whistler Blackcomb's most valuable pieces of real estate. But average temperatures in the region are rising, and gradually, the Horstman Glacier is shrinking.
But officials at Whistler Blackcomb, not content to watch their summer profits melt away, are fighting back with an ambitious plan to preserve the glacier. If the plan gets the green light, Blackcomb Mountain will be the site of the one of the most aggressive glacier-preservation attempts in the world, and it could become a model for other resorts trying to preserve glacier skiing in a warmer climate.
Horstman Glacier has been shrinking for the past 150 years, but global warming fuelled by greenhouse-gas emissions is accelerating the process.
Consultants for Whistler Blackcomb have used radio waves to measure the depth of the ice, and they estimate the 7,000-year-old glacier has lost between 8 and 9 per cent of its mass in the past decade.
"Horstman Glacier has lost well over half its volume in the last 150 years, as have most of the glaciers in coast mountains and in middle latitudes around the world," said Jeffrey Schmok of the international environmental consultants Golder Associates, who prepared the plan to stabilize Horstman. "All indications show that glaciers will continue this trend toward shrinking over the next few decades. Whistler Blackcomb needs to make a decision if they are going to do something about it."
Over the 25 years that environmental planning manager Arthur DeJong has worked at Whistler Blackcomb, he's noticed the glacier shrinking and the tree line moving higher up the mountains.
"Climate change became apparent to me in the early nineties when I was working on Blackcomb Glacier and Horstman Glacier," Mr. DeJong said. "I learned a lot about it through eyes of the glaciologists. They taught me that glaciers are the most sensitive indicator of climate change. The fact that Horstman Glacier was receding was proof, right in front of us."
The first line of defence in the battle to save the glacier is a wooden blue fence on top of the ridge overlooking the glacier that resembles something in a farmer's field.
The resort is appropriating a technique long used by agriculturalists to control snowdrifts: The fence slows the passing snow so it will drop onto the glacier below. This means the snow doesn't speed past, but instead falls on the surface, causing the glacier to grow.
At the end of this summer, Whistler Blackcomb will decide whether to proceed with the Golder Associates plan, which calls for bigger snow fences on the ridge above the glacier and the installation of a large snowmaking arsenal. The idea is to make up for the summer melt by adding manufactured snow to the glacier during winter.
"In Europe, there's been a limited use of snowmaking on some glaciers," Mr. DeJong said, "but we're not aware of anywhere else in world where a large snowmaking system is being contemplated that will essentially control the life of the glacier."
If successful, the system will preserve the resort's summer glacier operations, which generate around $1-million each year from lift tickets and skiing and snowboarding camps. A nearby reservoir could be used to make snow, but installing the snowmaking systems will still be expensive.
"It's got a fairly hefty price tag, but the value of the glacier is significant as well," Mr. DeJong said. "It fulfills a winter need as well as a summer need. It allows us to have a very early season opening and guaranteed snow pack all year round. There's a huge marketing value to that."
Switzerland's Andermatt resort made headlines around the world in the spring when it wrapped a glacier in white foil to protect it from melting during the summer. Environmentalists from WWF International and Greenpeace protested as the glacier was covered, saying it was a short-term solution, and that only reducing greenhouse-gas emissions could stop global warming. Greenpeace Canada isn't protesting against Whistler Blackcomb's proposal, but its energy and climate campaigner Shawn-Patrick Stensil says measures such as these are not the solution to climate change.
"It's a Band-Aid solution," Mr. Stensil said. "Whether snowmaking and tarps will be able to maintain the industry as it is now is a big question.
"Climate change is going to be a growing threat to the winter sports and tourism industry in the decades to come. There's going to be less snow and less glaciers. Industries will try to adapt by bringing in costly measures to try to deal with climate change."
Officials at Whistler Blackcomb are attempting to reduce the resort's greenhouse-gas emissions by using fuel-efficient vehicles to groom the slopes and installing energy-saving light bulbs in its buildings. They are also considering a micro hydro or wind energy project on the property. However, they plan to mitigate the effects of global warming by relying increasingly on snowmaking, which will increase energy and water consumption.
Mr. DeJong says the resort will do what it can to reduce its environmental impact, but with global temperatures on the rise, it may become one of the first ski resorts to take an active role in preserving a glacier. "No doubt," he said, "this will be an interesting science project."