This fall, the hiss of snow guns will be heard in the alpine for the first time as Whistler Blackcomb looks to preserve the Horstman Glacier, the site of its summer glacier skiing operations.
“It’s always been in discussion that at some point if we didn’t have enough (glacial mass) to provide for summer skiing, we would intervene,” said Arthur DeJong, WB’s mountain planning and environmental resource manager. “We’ve been measuring the glacier for a long time. We’ve had metrics now for several decades, so the average of those measurements gives us a benchmark for how much snow we need to produce. But there still are questions in terms of how well these guns will work in very exposed locations.”
Over the last two winters, snowmaking has helped WB keep as much terrain open as possible, spraying the white stuff on high-traffic runs and ski out routes. The Horstman Glacier sits at an elevation of 1980m to 2330m; well above the tree line where wind is significantly stronger, making efficient snowmaking yield more challenging. This is one of the reasons WB is testing the effectiveness of the four low-energy consumption snow guns on the glacier as a pilot project before making a more significant investment with more snowmaking infrastructure. DeJong noted that man-made snow has a higher density than natural snow, making it an excellent insulator against heat and solar radiation. The four snow guns would likely run when snowmaking isn’t required on other parts of the mountain in the months of October and November this year and later in the spring, from March until May.
“This is a first in the industry where a mountain resort is looking at building a large enough snowmaking system that can reverse a retreat of a glacier,” said DeJong, noting that the second phase of the project is subject to favourable results from the pilot program. “The end game (will be) a new experience in the industry.”
The amount of salt applied to Horstman Glacier to keep snow firm during the summer months has raised questions in the past (a total of 90,020 kg of salt was applied in the 2008 summer glacier season), but studies by glaciologists have affirmed that temperature change is the primary reason for recession of the Horstman, which has been steadily shrinking since long before Blackcomb Mountain even had a lift system. Photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Teichrob studied the impacts of salt application to the Horstman and surrounding glacial melt streams as part of his Master of Science thesis at UBC in 2010.
“It sounds like an ambitious undertaking,” said Teichrob of the project. “That glacier has been operating in some sort of equilibrium, even if it’s been receding, for a long time. To think we can stop the glacier from doing that... To add manmade snow will delay the amount of time the (glacial) ice is exposed to solar radiation, it may slow down the melt, but I don’t know about stopping it. If we have high temperatures in the summer and precipitation above zero, it will be melting our snowpacks.”
Teichrob suggested that WB should incorporate ongoing monitoring of downstream water levels as part of the project to measure its effectiveness, rather than intermittently checking on the Horstman’s ablation zone.
“You can monitor water flow and a bunch of other parameters all year long, it’s not that hard to do,” said Teichrob.