Can B.C.'s ski industry survive the Godzilla El Nino?

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cypress mountain march 3 2015 1

Last February, Cypress, Grouse and Seymour were put on stand-by mode pending much-needed snowfall. Usually snowy and smooth ski hills were reduced to wet, icy puddles of sludge with a thin strip of man-made snow running down the middle.

This year, with a record-shattering El Nino currently building historical storms in the pacific, the 2015/2016 ski season doesn’t look too promising. In fact a recent AccuWeather report stated that B.C. could be in for one of the warmest winters on record, although experts still suggest that coastal mountains may see more snow than they did last year.

That’s good news for the three local mountains which experienced one of their worst seasons to date. Grouse Mountain‘s snow base only reached a high of 76cm between November and April last year, less than a quarter of the largest base recorded in the 2013/2014 season; and that includes snow produced by the mountain’s snow-making capabilities. Cypress was similarly affected, with a low of only 69cm last year.

Whistler Blackcomb was also in a sad state with a total snowfall accumulation of 672cm, well below the 14-year average of 1,122cm.

Conditions at a Blackcomb chairlift in February 2015 / Image: Imgur

Conditions at a Blackcomb chairlift in February 2015 / Image: Imgur

The El Nino blasting through the Pacific Ocean, combined with a ‘blob’ of warm water off of Alaska, has scientists calling the weather pattern the ‘Godzilla El Nino.’ Add to this the fact that the northern hemisphere just came out of the other side of the warmest summer on record, reaching almost 1°C warmer than normal – a big difference when you’re talking climate data – and it doesn’t bode well for B.C. in 2015/16.

All of this poses a questionable future for our local mountain resorts. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Grouse and Cypress have massively increased their snow-making abilities in hopes of combating mother nature.

“We’ve invested another half million in snow-making this summer so we’re ready for whatever the winter brings us,” Joffrey Koeman, Director of Sales and Marketing at Cypress Mountain told Vancity Buzz. “We’ve bought five new snow guns so this should allow us open both sides of the mountain just purely from snowmaking, when we are usually only able to open one side.”

Grouse, who declined to comment on how another warm winter will affect their business, said they too have invested $500,000 in snowmaking this year to increase their output by 40%

Despite their troubles last winter, Koeman says that another El Nino doesn’t have him worried too much.

“The years that were strong for El Ninos really only show about a 10 per cent decrease in snow levels, so it’s not something that worries us too much. Something like last year was like a one in 100-year anomaly. We normally have a much longer season with more terrain open, so we definitely felt an impact. In our history we’ve never seen anything like last year.”

As a generous offer to season passholders who missed almost half of their season last year, Cypress offered their annual ski pass for returning customers at an 80% discount, meaning some of their ski passes were being sold for as little as $120, or the price of two lift tickets.

The mountain also has a 100-day guarantee, meaning that if they don’t get 100 days of operation, they give passholders a discount on the next season. Koeman says they’ll be doing the same off next year if the weather conditions go south.

The local mountains aren’t the only business that feel the pressure during low-snow seasons. A significant portion of Vancouver’s economy is structured around skiing and boarding, including retail shops, bus transportation and tourism.

Vince Allen, owner of popular North Shore Ski & Board in North Vancouver is pretty relaxed about the weather forecast.

“We’ve been in business for over 35 years, and if I could accurately predict the weather, I’d be lying on a beach in Mexico drinking margaritas with a whole bunch of money in the bank.”

While he says he’ll believe it when he sees it, he does admit that if the weather isn’t what he hopes, there will still be plenty of business.

“If it is truly warmer than usual, then our more experienced customers will simply travel a bit farther to find snow. The tops of Whistler Blackcomb or the slopes in the Okanagan will definitely get their share of snowfall. It might not be quite as convenient as driving up to Cypress, but we are pretty spoiled with our three locals being so close.”

And speaking of being spoiled, Allen points out how lucky Vancouverites are to have distinct seasons that offer a wide range of activities, something his business is incredibly grateful for.

“We just had the single best summer season in our long history. If Vancouver has truly given up on winter snow – which I don’t believe – then we will have to settle for selling paddleboards, bikinis and kiteboarding gear year round,” he adds. “I personally love the seasons here and can’t wait for the snow season, skiing and shredding the mountains. Then after a full season of that, I can’t wait to get out the kiteboarding equipment and head to Squamish for a kite or Deep Cove for a warm paddle.”

Despite Allen’s optimism, the ski industry isn’t one B.C. can afford to lose anytime soon. Research from Destination B.C. this year found that 46 ski resorts in the province bring in almost $600 million in revenue each year and employ over 7,000 people, not including thousands employed in supporting industries. Their out-of-town guests spent $878 million while visiting during the 2012/2013 season.

In total, the report found that B.C.’s ski industry, including connected industries, employs annually 18,823 people, reaches $1.3 billion in revenue and is responsible for $972 million of the province’s $2.3 billion Gross Domestic Product.

There were 6.5 million people who visited B.C. resorts in the 2012/2013 season. Comparable data for more recent years is currently unavailable.

What do you think? Will a low snow season deter you from skiing locally or will you travel farther afield to hit the slopes?

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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