What climate change will mean for Revelstoke winters

Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium's study of climate change in the Columbia Basin explores future trends.

Glacier expeditions will be a thing of the past after local glaciers melt away.

This article first appeared in print in the January 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. It was part of our January Green Issue supplement, which featured stories with an environmental focus.

Imagine looking up at Mount Begbie, the glacier bisecting its twin peaks, gripping the rocky summit by the tips of its icy fingers.

Fifty years from now, Mount Begbie’s iconic glacier will be a shadow of its former self. Brown Christmases will be greeted with a shrug rather than shock. Most winters are long, wet, and grey, and snow only sticks around for a month or so. It rains a lot and snows a little. Only the coldest winters match the stories you’ve heard.

This is the future of winter in Revelstoke at the rate the climate is warming. “In the future, the new average temperature at the end of the century, if you can think of the warmest winter on record historically, that’s the new average,” explains Trevor Murdock, a climate scientist with the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria.

Warmer and wetter – that’s what the models show.

“The big thing compared to today is increased precipitation, but much more of that as rain than snow,” adds Murdock.

PCIC released their latest projections for the period of 2041–70 for the Columbia Basin last year. They show the annual mean temperature will increase between 1.8 C and 2.7 C. There will be more warm days in summer, fewer cool days in winter, and cold spells will be about half as long as they have been in the past. The number of days when the daily maximum temperature is below freezing across the Columbia Basin is expected to decrease by 10–30 per cent.

It doesn’t mean winter as we know it is over. Because increased precipitation is expected, cold years could be really snowy.

“Because Revelstoke is cold enough in winter, it can mean more snowpack in some years and more big snow events in many years,” Murdock says.

What does this mean for our daily lives? Some of the impacts will make winters more manageable. The valley bottom snowpack is expected to shrink by at least 20 per cent, says Mel Reasoner, a climate change impact consultant based in Nelson, B.C.

You won’t have to shovel as much, if at all some winters. Rain on snow events will be more common, so the snow that falls might melt just as quickly (just think of this past December). I doubt many people will miss shoveling the roof, but brown Christmases will take some getting used to. And, let’s face it, a blanket of snow is definitely cheerier than grey pavement and brown lawns.

You might save money in winter by having to heat less. The city will save a bundle on snow removal, and there might be fewer potholes, which are often caused by frequent melt-freeze cycles.

“There may be a lot of years where you don’t have to shovel off your roof,” says Murdock. “There may even be some years with no snow to speak of, which is hard to imagine, but it is the case.”

A lot of these positives sound pretty great. The negatives will be noticeable higher up in the mountains and will impact Revelstoke’s winter tourism industry. It’s still going to snow, even more than today, but that snow will be heavier. According to Reasoner, the average alpine snowpack is expected to increase by more than seven per cent by 2070. Unfortunately, the snowline will be higher and the snow quality will be worse. Think Whistler. Think mashed potatoes.

“Winter recreation will be biggest impact,” says Reasoner. “The main impact is it will be squeezed up into higher elevations to get the good conditions.”

The gondola at Revelstoke Mountain Resort will be an access lift and there’s a good chance that many winters we’ll be riding it up over snow-free runs before reaching the snowline. We might be riding our mountain bikes or The Pipe down from mid-mountain all winter in 2070. We’ll be trading cold smoke for brown pow.

The snow conditions will be a bigger issue for heli-skiing and CAT-skiing, says Reasoner, as they’re forced to look higher and higher for good snow.

There’s potential for winter floods if a big rainstorm falls on frozen ground. The money saved on snow removal might have to be spent on better storm drains.

What about our glaciers. The shrinking of our glaciers is one of the most obvious signs of climate change. Will Mount Begbie even still have a glacier in 2070?

Glaciers respond to how much snow they get in winter and how much ice melts in summer. Begbie’s glacier is shrinking, but whether or not the extra snow it receives in the future is enough for it to hold on remains to be seen.

“Glaciers are in bad shape now,” says Reasoner. “It’s hard to say what will be left 50 years from now.”