Can Snowmaking Save Whistler’s Horstman Glacier?

Whistler to add snowmaking to glacier to slow snowmelt and save summer skiing

On June 20, just five days before the lifts began turning for the 2015 summer season, Whistler Blackcomb announced plans to launch a pilot snowmaking program in an effort to protect and preserve the Horstman Glacier. The resort hopes that man-made snow might be the solution to a shrinking glacier and the endangered summer ski season, which attracts hundreds of skiers looking to make turns during the heat of June and July.

Whistler Blackcomb announced a new pilot program to start snowmaking on Horstman Glacier, in an effort to curb the glacier's recession. PHOTO: Paul Morrison/Whistler Blackcomb
Whistler Blackcomb announced a new pilot program to start snowmaking on Horstman Glacier, in an effort to curb the glacier’s recession. PHOTO: Paul Morrison/Whistler Blackcomb

In addition to the Palmer Glacier on Mount Hood, Oregon, Horstman Glacier is one of two glaciers in North America to offer skiing during the summer to the public. Ski teams from all over the world come to Whistler to train in the summer months, as do campers, who ski at one of eight summer camps that currently operate on the glacier.

However, due to warmer temperatures, the glacier has been losing mass at an alarming rate of half a million cubic meters annually, according to Arthur DeJong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager at Whistler Blackcomb. The Horstman Glacier is no anomaly; surrounding glaciers are melting at a similar rate, confirms Dr. Johannes Koch, who has studied glacier fluctuations for 15 years at the Department of Geography at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“Every summer I’m blown away by how much less snow there is,” says Ken Achenbach, who founded Camp of Champions on Horstman Glacier in 1988. “We lose feet per day, even in a normal snow year.”

This summer, Achenbach decided to cancel the last two sessions of camp due to rapidly deteriorating conditions. “Up until a month ago we had the same amount of snow as last year,” he said, but a warm May and June, where temperatures reached as high as 86 degrees Fahrenheit has taken its toll. In past years, temperatures stayed cool enough to create a melt-freeze cycle every night until mid-July, but in recent summers, the temperatures have tended to stay warmer at night. This season the melt-freeze cycle has already ceased, according to Achenbach.

“At this point we have to intervene,” says DeJong “We’re initiating a test phase to determine whether we can potentially stabilize the glacier.”

Installing a snowmaking program on the glacier is something that has been discussed at the resort for many years. The resort has been monitoring data from the glacier since the 1970s and they’ve found that the glacier continues to lose mass even after winters where they receive an above-average snowfall. The initial pilot program on Horstman Glacier will include the installation of four snow guns at the top of the glacier, which will begin to operate in early October. The man-made snow will be carefully farmed to provide early season skiing and to insulate the glacier from warmer temperatures come summer.

Ken Achenbach, owner of Camp of Champs, says the melt-freeze cycle has already stopped for the summer. PHOTO: Whistler Blackcomb
Ken Achenbach, owner of Camp of Champs, says the melt-freeze cycle has already stopped for the summer. PHOTO: Whistler Blackcomb

“We’re very aware of the changing climate. We’re adapting to a future with less snow,” says DeJong. In recent years, the resort has incorporated several changes in response to warmer temperatures, including relocating lifts to higher elevations, and refining snowmaking and grooming techniques to preserve snow as long as possible.

However, adapting to a changing climate doesn’t come without a hefty price tag. In the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Whistler’s current $60 million snowmaking system pumped 265 million gallons of water before January to ensure the resort could operate in time for the Christmas holidays. That’s more water than the resort has used during an entire season in its history of operation. The water used for Whistler’s snowmaking is pumped from Fitzsimmons Creek, which flows through the heart of the resort, and is stored in three on-mountain reservoirs.

Aware of its large operating footprint, the resort is often testing new methods to curb its impact. In 2010, Whistler Blackcomb installed a small hydroelectric dam on Fitzsimmons creek. The 7.5-megawatt plant produces enough power to operate the entire resort, including snowmaking. The resort was the first in Canada to test diesel-electric snowcats and efforts to reduce packaging of retail and dining products along with the addition of a large-scale composting project has reduced the amount of waste produced by the resort by over 60 percent since 2000. In keeping with the resort’s goals to have a zero-operating footprint, snowmaking on the glacier would cease during winter months (although snowmaking would continue at lower elevations). If the experiment proves to be successful in maintaining the current size of the glacier, the resort plans to expand the operation to include a total of 27 guns. “The system needs to meet production and cost metrics and if it does, it’s a go,” says De Jong.

“I’m beyond stoked,” says Achenbach. “This is something I’ve been asking for, for 25 years.”

Whistler isn’t the first resort to test snowmaking on its glaciers. Since 2009, Pitztal Glacier Resort in Austria has relied on snowmaking technology that is capable of blowing snow in warmer temperatures in order to maintain early season operations, and in 2010, Zermatt, Switzerland, followed suit, installing the same all-weather snowmaking system. (Whistler is using a different snowmaking system than at Pitztal and Zermatt, using machines that are still dependent on cooler temperatures.)

Whether this pilot program will save the Horstman Glacier and Whistler’s summer ski season, while keeping in line with their goals to continue lowering their overall energy usage, is yet to be determined.

“It is completely feasible but I can’t even guess how expensive that would be to generate enough snow to slow down recession or even lead to an advance of the glacier,” says Koch.