[VIDEO] The Future of Snow and Skiing in a Warming World

On February 5, 2014 more than 250 people gathered to hear an expert panel assembled by Ecology Ottawa discuss the threat that climate change poses to skiing in Ottawa and beyond, plus what we can do about it.

Transcript below, with timestamps.

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The panelists:

Sara Renner - Four-time Olympian and 2006 silver medalist who co-led the Canadian alpine and cross country ski team members in going carbon neutral (by video link)

Patrick Biggs - Olympian, 2004/05 Canadian Slalom Champion, President of Camp Fortune Ski Club

Dirk Van Wijk - Chief of Grooming at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and locally at Nakkertok Ski Club

Renée Bellehumeur - NCC Senior Manager, Visitors Services and Operations for Gatineau Park

Bob Sudermann - owner of Mont Ste Marie

Dr. Stephan Gruber - scientific expert in mountain environments and permafrost at Carleton University, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Contributing Author

The panel was moderated by Charles Hodgson, an Ecology Ottawa volunteer.


Charles Hodgson: Thank-you all for coming my name is Charles Hodgson.

I am a volunteer with Ecology Ottawa and the films we are watching on the screen were made by my grandfather and evidently he was one of the first people in Canada to have an 8 mm camera.

Since these films were made, the records of the Central Experimental Farm recorded by Environment Canada show that Ottawa is getting around two feet less snow per year on average than it did almost 100 years ago.

The records also show that our winter temperature is about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at that time.

The thing that got me interested in the issue of climate change and skiing is a report that came out a few years ago that the National Capital Commission had done by the University of Waterloo. They were really asking what does climate change mean to the operations of the NCC: are we going to have to move the Tulip Festival earlier in the season; what’s it going to mean to the canal?

But the thing that jumped out at me was that there was a likelihood that there would be an end to skiing in Gatineau Park. I’m a skier and that meant a lot to me. And so it really got me more interested in being involved in climate change issues.

Part of that report the worst case scenario they were predicting was that by the 2050’s they were expecting as much as an 8.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature in the winter. And so you can imagine that that is going to be a challenge for skiing.

Time = 1:49

So tonight we are here to talk about the challenges we are facing now in the ski world in Ottawa and around the world, what’s going to come in the future, and if there is anything we can do about that.

For me this is a recreation and lifestyle issue, and I think that is probably true for most of you. But for some people including people on the panel and probably some people in the audience it is a livelihood issue. If there is no skiing they won’t be able to make their living. And of course in other places in the world it may even be a life and death issue.

But we’re here to talk about skiing tonight so let me introduce the panel.

We’ve had a few changes in the panel. Patrick Biggs is an alpine skier; he was the slalom champion in 2004-2005. He is the president of the Camp Fortune Ski Club and he was on the panel but for some lame reason; like his wife had a baby this morning, he decided not to come. I did interview him before though, and I do have a video of him, so I will show that in a few minutes.

Time = 3:09

Sara Renner is a silver medalist in cross-country skiing, you probably remember her from [an incident when] she had a pole broken during a race, and a coach from another team gave her a replacement pole and she ended up winning [silver in] the race with Becky Scott. Again, we have her on Skype, but we don’t seem to be able to make our Skype connection work. But I did talk to her on Skype before so we have a recorded interview with her. So I’m sorry that we don’t have her live, but these are technical problems.

Time = 3:43

But we do have very good people right here and they don’t have technical problems. I’ll introduce them.

Dirk Van Wijk is immediately to my left, he is, with Claudia, the owner of Owl Rafting and the Madawaska Kanu Centre, but he is also is heavily involved in Nakkertok, which many of you will know is the largest cross-country ski club in Canada. They purchased a property on which the club operates and they are deeply involved in the operation of that club and the grooming which qualified him for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, to be the Chief of Grooming for cross country events. (applause)

Time = 4:36

Next to him we have Dr. Stephan Gruber from CarletonUniversity. I feel very lucky to have found Stephan, because I asked a climate scientist “who in the city of Ottawa should I be talking to?” and he gave me a couple of names. Stephan jumped out at me because he is an expert in mountain environments. It was only later, when we started talking that I realized he is also a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports; and it turns out he has been teaching alpine professionals and skiers in the Alps for almost a decade about climate change.  So he is the perfect person to have on the panel. (applause)

Time = 5:18

To his left we have Renée Bellehumeur who is the senior manager of GatineauPark, and obviously GatineauPark is one of the prime locations for cross country skiing in the area. They have had challenges keeping the trails in skiable condition as times have changed and conditions have changed. So thank-you Renée for coming as well. (applause)

Time = 5:48

And finally to your far right is Bob Sudermann who is the co-owner of CampFortune and the owner of Mont Ste-Marie. So obviously since Patrick has given up on us he [Bob] is the prime spokesman for alpine skiers. (applause) I was going to make a joke about the alpine skiers going downhill.

Time = 6:24

So thank-you for giving him a warm welcome, I spent some time -some of them I knew already and some of them I got to know in preparation for this evening and I really feel they are a wonderful group of warm generous people who have taken the time to be here tonight and not only that but they have spent some time with me in advance preparing for this.

So the way we were going to manage tonight has changed, I was planning to do this a different way when Patrick was involved but I will run one of the videos, Patrick with his interview we let him say his piece and then we will have a conversation on the panel. We will take a break from that and run Sara Renner’s interview. (aside to technical helpers in the booth It is true we still don’t have Skype with her…I’m not seeing it…) Once we’ve had a little more conversation, then we’ll go to a question and answer period from our audience and then our panel will answer as many questions as we can fit in. I think we are supposed to be finished by nine o’clock. If it gets boring we will stop earlier, but I suspect we will keep going right through. (aside So Steve can we start the video, probably Patrick’s)

Time = 7:50

View Video

Patrick Biggs:I guess my Mum was an environmental scientist, so I guess from home these kinds of terms: climate change and global warming came up early in the discussion when I was growing up, and I guess personally I got affected through my travels more than anything.

I kind of noticed through trips back and forth across from North America and Europe for years we do a lot of training on glaciers, and it kind of shocked me how quickly snow could melt.

Time = 8:26

That’s kind of what spurred it, we’d go to these same glaciers and ski these surface lifts. Every year we’d come back and there was significantly less snow, the rock outcroppings would be larger and taking more of the lane space for the courses and it would be sorta like “okay what’s going on here is this normal.” I was on the team at the time with Thomas Grandi who was quite a big activist and got us thinking more about it and what more we could do from the sports side to make a change and that’s when I got involved with “Play it Cool”.

Time = 9:06

CH: I guess growing up, with your Mother there wasn’t any specific thing that suddenly said, “Yeah, I have to do something.” Or was there?

PB: I guess they were supportive of various other climate change causes, and we had those discussions at the family table for years, what we could do. The kind of frugal nature of our family growing up was that would fund their kids in ski races that they were used to making cut backs and sacrifices, so they could do it for two causes; we can save money and we can help the environment. For them it was almost a challenge, it became sort of a family challenge. How we can do better, what we can change that kind of got me on that wavelength thinking what I could do personally, as part of a great global endeavour to make some serious changes.

Time = 10:06

CH: What was your first public act?

PB: First public act? (Geez!)

I started doing things like every year I would add a few things to my list. A kind of defiance against carrying around those plastic water bottles. Having my own personal water bottle. Never forgetting my grocery bags when I go to the store. When I could I would ride my bike.

I used to train in a gym that was about 10 km away. It was kind of inconvenient for me to ride there. I would train and I was totally exhausted, and I shouldn’t be driving home because I was passing out. To bike home, it was 10 km so it was kind of crazy. My Mum bought an electric kit for her bike, so I bought an electric kit for my bike. So I could make it home from my workouts, without driving my car, and without exerting myself to the point where I was totally overloaded.

Time = 11:15

That’s another example of some small changes. That’s why I’m living here. Living with less space is something that some people see as a sacrifice, but the gains are you know a quick jog to the grocery store…

Time = 11:34

CH: So tell me about these glaciers, and how you actually trained on them.

PB: Yeah, so it’s quite the process you’re staying down in the valleys usually and the infrastructure is there. They’ve got a gondola system, so you usually take one, two or three gondolas up to where this glacier is at the top of the ski hill. They usually have to have a surface T bar that pulls you up for the actual runs themselves. It is quite the ordeal to run a ski operation.

You kind of notice the conditions as well. You can monitor from year to year how much snowfall there’s been by how white the snow is before that new snow arrives in October. We would show up at the glaciers there would be a grey tinge, from the dirt falling on the ice. It is actually ice you are skiing on. And then year after year it gets a little bit blacker and darker and darker. Then if they do have a good year with snow it is lighter the next year. So you can kind of track it on a micro scale, from year to year what was happening.

Time = 12:57

CH: So in that environment there is no snow making?

PB: Yeah, well typically they’ve never had snow making. It’s a glacier, you don’t need snow making. Now, they do have snow making. It’s keeping some of these (hills) alive, if they didn’t install it they’d just shut down.

Time = 13:17

They are getting close to shutting down, you know the periods they are open are getting shorter, so there’s definitely been a change on that side.

CH: Where do you see this going?

PB: I don’t know it’s tough to say. Skiing is such a cultural thing, and you look at where the culture is so deep, you know central Europe, Austria, Switzerland, southern parts of Germany, all through there. They all love skiing. It’s in their blood, and a lot of these valleys, the skiing is done right in town and the fluctuations in temperature that one or two degrees really affects not only skiing and snowfall, but the races as well. You are going to want to have the races where the people are. If you want 50,000 people at the finish you want the finish in town. Nowadays because of the conditions, you know in Europe the temperatures always fluctuate and previously they were just below zero. So you add that degree or two you get into conditions that are kind of melting, softer conditions. It’s really changing the dynamics of racing; you are racing on softer conditions than you previously had. I’m speaking over a 15 year period…some pretty big changes. You don’t see the conditions as icy and hard as they used to be. You get a lot of melts. A lot of races that we’re having you are at or above zero. It definitely changes the dynamic of the sport.

Time = 14:52

Keeping it positive, we’ve defeated some pretty serious environmental issues in the past. It just takes a motivated group of people to bring it to the awareness of human kind. Human kind, when they are given the facts and know what everything is, they usually respond correctly. It’s just a matter of information of correct information, not that I see that there is a debate going on anymore which is good. I still ride up in the chair with people who are fully arguing sun spots and that it’s all a conspiracy. Obviously we haven’t totally won the battle yet. I shouldn’t say we. People haven’t been totally convinced.

Time = 15:34

CH: So if you had one message you wanted to stick in those people’s minds, what would it be?

PB: Be aware. Be alert. When you do some research yourself, when you have the facts you can make a change. We can create a better world for our future generations.

Time = 15:59

Back to live audience

CH: Which is appropriate, since he just had a baby.

So I’ll start asking some questions of our panel and see where that takes us. I think I’d like to start with you Stephan.

You and I have talked about this before and I think I understand, but for the benefit of people here who might be a little less familiar, can you tell us why we should be really certain that climate change is happening and it is a problem.

Time = 16:36

Stephan Gruber: Well, there are several reasons, and if we start with what brings us all together, enthusiasm for winter cold regions and mountains and glaciers that’s the one thing where every one of us can, if you go to the mountains or if you take a look at the earth. See that there is a global change in climate, caused by a global retreat of mountain glaciers of the past decades.

I grew up in the lowlands of Germany; about 100 m about sea level and the first time I went to the mountains was for an undergrad project, drilling a hole through a small glacier in the area of Zermat. It was in about 1995 or so, and it was 20 year ago but that glacier almost doesn’t exist anymore.

There are many of those examples. I am sure that many of you that regularly go to the mountains know of glaciers that are receding quickly. What you see there is a delayed response, which means that even if you would not change anything anymore, if the climate would stay the way it is now, glaciers would recede even further.

It is not even in equilibrium with what we have today.

So there are observations that we can make, that we can touch and feel.

Then there are observations that are made by the international scientific community co-ordinated by various international governmental and intergovernmental bodies that show very clearly that we have an increase in temperatures, near the land surface and sea surface temperatures. We can also recreate this in model simulations. So there is a fairly broad consensus that yes we do have a changing climate. We can observe this; we know the reasons for it. We also know that the reason for this is the emission of greenhouse gases by humans.

Time = 18:41

CH: You are a contributor to these IPCC reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The statements in those reports are that climate change is unequivocal.  That is their wording. And the more recent one talked about how confident we can be that it is humans acting that may be making the difference and they say that there is between 95 and 99 % probability. So can you tell us, without going into the intimate details of what goes on at the IPCC, who are these guys and what makes them authorities, how does that work.

Time = 19:23

SG: The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that has been established at the end of the 1980’s by the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) and the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) and I think has later on been endorsed by the UN General Assembly. So I think it is a true international organization which has the mandate to review and distil and report on research and evidence about climate. What is our climate? How is it changing? Why does that happen and what are likely developments for the future. It does this through a series of regular reports, with a very rigorous review system.

Time = 20:09

There have been truly thousands of scientists involved in this. My own role in this is very small, and in one specialized chapter. There have been about 9 or 10 thousand peer review publications sited in the last report. It has been reviewed by a number of scientists. Many governments have been part of the review process. Over 50,000 or 55,000 individual comments have been made during those reviews.

And what I should also add here: because I seem to be piling up big numbers in front of you to impress you, we should keep in mind that those are humans. All of this is a human endeavour where we try to seek to find out what is happening with our planet. As in everything that humans do it has its weaknesses here and there.

Time = 21:00

As time goes by more and more of these weaknesses are uncovered, the loopholes are closed. There are things that make it to the media like the Karakoram anomaly, things like this. But usually that doesn’t change the main message. The main message in these reports has remained the same, over a very long time, to the degree that I am almost bored now reading it.

And so we should keep this in mind, it is humans reading this, humans making mistakes but it is a very well organized, large international endeavour that comes to a very clear conclusion

Time = 21:41

CH: I’ll ask you one question before we move to the other panellists. You have had more experience in the Alps than in the Gatineau Hills, so I just learned recently about this Pitztal glacier where I understand they’ve moved the ski tow three times in 25 years as the glacier retreated. They’ve gotten so desperate to try to protect the glacier they’ve put a blanket on it in the summer to keep it from melting. Do you have any similar war stories from the Alps about extreme measures being taken?

Time = 22:16

SG: Only anecdotal ones. On any occasion when you have contact with non-scientists, and you say, “well I work with cold things and places in the mountains,” people will say “is it true that they are covering up the glaciers to protect them from melting?” Of course, I don’t know the example that you’ve been quoting, but usually what happens is no one is going to pay to have blankets put on glaciers to protect them. It is usually that it is the least costly alternative to construction.

For example if you say this here is the exit of the ski station where people come up on the gondola and they exit on the glacier. The glacier actually loses mass and drops by a few metres every year. You will have to add some sort of construction to get the people safe to the glacier and if you make it from steel or wood or whatever it costs a lot of money. One of the viable things is to put insulation on top of it to protect the ice below it. What I’ve seen is; and I have a beautifully ugly picture of this, is at the summit station of the

Corvatsch cable car there is a very small cold glacier, very similar to something where the ice man was found. These are very small glaciers that are very cold. In 2002 they spent half a million to make an ice cave, so a tunnel excavated in there so tourists could walk around in this and marvel at the ice. In 2003 we had an extremely hot summer that basically took off the top 8 metres of the glacier and exposed the cave, but then people put blankets over it. So it looks (awful). Anyway these are local construction measures.

CH: Renée can I turn to you? There was a report that the NCC put out that got my attention a few years ago. I wanted to ask you two questions; first from the inside of the NCC what did that look like, and what was the thinking and the mood of the NCC when the report was put together, and the reaction to it?

Time = 24:50

Renée Bellehumeur: The NCC wanted to know, wanted to look ahead of time and see what it could do to start to plan for different recreational activity. So the report looked at the Skate Way, Gatineau Park the Tulip Festival as you mentioned. Basically I work in the park, so we looked a little more at how we could adapt. We had already started to adapt to face some less snow. We had already adapted the grooming equipment to be able to offer ski season with less snow. So from an operational point of view we’ve been trying to be creative. I know some of my colleagues in the other station have done the same thing. We’ve been trying to keep the skiing going and snowshoeing and all the other activities, adapting to climate change and the season that has been going up and down. This is not totally new, when you work in an outdoor environment you are always adapting. You always have to have plan B and plan C and plan D. So that’s not new, but we wanted to look forward to see if we have to do more.

Time = 26:15

CH: From my point of view anyway it’s not always predictable how these things are going to evolve. If you are planning for a lower snow level and I know you’ve moved between metal and rubber tracks on the groomers and that kind of thing, but last season we had a big storm at the middle-end of December. A lot of trees damaged and that was closed for a week or so. Tell me about that.

Time = 26:43

RB: Last year…there’s always a point in the season where it rains. It usually rains once a month.  We are accustomed to that. We have techniques where we decide if we are going to let the water go through the snow and wait just the right time before we get the groomers out again. Last year was more difficult, well much more difficult, we had a snow storm just the Friday before Christmas. The snow was heavy and it stuck to the trees and then it got really cold. So the trees were really down. Basically the whole network was closed because it was too dangerous to go in. There were a lot of trees falling down. We also had challenges with our infrastructure. We have an electrical line at Lac Phillipe that was down. We have MacKenzie King Estate where the electricity was down. So we had a plan that you know you pull from the pile and say well we need to reopen, so where do we start? You have a strategy where you say, so this is the first parking lot, this is the first trail you try, because this is going to offer more services to the public. The first thing you think of is of course public safety. So we had to look at the overnight stay, because we had people in Yurts and in different cabins. So we had to actually cancel some of those activities because we weren’t sure that all the trees around those infrastructures were safe. So it was quite a lot of work to put the park in service again. But, within a few days we had over 40% of the trails open. We could offer overnight stay again, so it was not the first time it happened. In operations, these are the kind of things that happen when you have a sudden climate event.

Time = 28:50

CH: Bob, in an alpine skiing environment things are different you are able to make snow if the temperatures are cold enough and there is natural snow, but if we get more rainy days people don’t necessarily want to be there in the rain. Can you talk about the challenges that you are seeing? You are trying to run a business and there are many complicated things about running any business, but this one is a new one.

Bob Sudermann: I’d first like to say hi to all the camp fortune and Mt Ste Marie customers that I am seeing all around. I just want to assure you that skiing is alive and well this year. For anyone who is a non-skier, get out and ski it before it does disappear this year. (Applause)

There is my shameless plug for my two businesses.

We face challenges, and as the NCC faces challenges, you have to adapt and be innovative. For us we are always adapting and going to plans that are all the way down the alphabet. We’ve been to plan Z before. We are constantly dealing with weather when we are trying to make snow, trying to open earlier in the season, so we can maximise the number of days we are open for our customers. Of course that’s how we make our money so we want to be open as much as we possibly can.

We’ve invested significantly in snow making at both ski resorts. The reason we’ve invested is because of innovation that’s been made with snow making.  A lot of this innovation has occurred by owners of ski resorts, down in Pennsylvania as an example, where a gentleman by the name of Herman K Dupree who owns Seventh Spring Ski Resort in Pennsylvania invented the tower gun and a particular type of nozzle that allowed the water to be sprayed out of the top of the tower in a finer mist so that when it fell from the tower it drifted slowly and had greater hang time in the air so it could freeze and form a drier better quality of snow. It was really very simple, it’s a tower that goes up about 20 or 30 feet in some cases and that allows the atomized water or mist if you will more hang time and it freezes. That innovation has allowed us to make snow at more marginal conditions efficiently. We get better output for the amount of electricity that we use.

These are things that have been developed by people who are really faced with the problem of warm temperatures and perhaps global climate change and so on down in the south where they really really need to be innovative. Up here we haven’t had to be as innovative, simply because we do have colder temperatures. Our day, perhaps, will come soon, where it just gets warmer and warmer. There will be new innovations and new inventions for making snow at higher temperatures.

I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday at it was at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and people were in t-shirts there. Just an hour from there are the Pocono Mountains and that is a big band of ski resorts through the Poconos. I’ve been to a few of them and they have massive, massive snow making systems. They can make a lot of snow in a short window of cold temperatures. They do have a short ski season. They have about a two month ski season down there effectively, which I’ve experienced once in my ski career.

I’ve been in the business since 1989 and two years ago we basically had a two month winter if you recall. We had a green Christmas, and then January and February were fantastic. On March 1st every temperature after that was above zero.

Time = 33:27

After the Ontario school break every temperature was above 30 degrees. I was wearing a t-shirt and running in shorts. The market was full of outdoor cafes and it was March. It was an absolutely bizarre time period for me. I was going, it’s March, but it’s summer and I’m now out of business until next winter. Then of course last winter we had that big storm just before Christmas which set the tone for an amazing winter so that was fantastic.

I was asked back stage if I have any worry about climate change, and I said, it doesn’t keep me up at night, but I am aware of it. I hope that in my life time that it’s really something that I don’t have to deal with, because I know what it’s like to deal with the ebbs and flows of extreme temperatures, and it’s not exactly all that much fun for me and certainly not for my customers either who have to deal with it themselves as part of their planning of their recreational activities.  The month of January, we all went through it and it was cold, followed by rain, followed by cold, followed by rain. Then it eased off and so far it’s been pretty good. One thing I’d like to say is that I did not do a lot of research coming in to this event, cause I really didn’t know what to expect.

I’d like to draw on something that really isn’t about climate change, it’s more about the ability for man to be innovative and adapt to their conditions. In the southern US, places like Atlanta, down in Florida, they are the economic driver of the United States. The only reason that’s possible is due to the invention of air conditioning. People couldn’t live down there in the summer. Certainly people could be in tall office buildings if there was not air conditioning. The South would be vacated, people would only move to the North like they used to. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that air conditioning was invented that you could have high rise buildings and offices and people working in 100 degree temperatures. So on the flip side of that when you are dealing with the ski industry I believe that innovation will be good for our sport, will help us survive and it will all be good for everybody. That’s my hope and I hope that the cost of investment that will achieve that isn’t so high that the lift ticket prices will mean none of you will want to ski anymore. That’s my view on the whole thing.  We will survive by innovation and invention, and let’s hope.

Time = 36:19


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