It could be Supersnow vs. El Niño - Vancouver 2010

Here in Vancouver, it's often remarked, the snow usually has the good sense to stay on the mountains where it belongs.

We had better hope that stays the case in 2010 during the Winter Olympics. But we may have a tiny little problem brewing thousands of kilometres away in the Pacific Ocean.

Our national meteorological service, Environment Canada, is warning that El Niño, the occasional warming trend of the tropical Pacific, is on its way. Here's what that means, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks the natural phenomenon: "El Niño has impacts that are felt not only near the equator, but far removed from the equator. A large area of dry and warm conditions are found in normally wet regions of the world ... Western Canada and Alaska, along with portions of the midwestern United States, tend to enjoy a much warmer than normal winter, as well."

Normally, that would be good news. More daffodils in February is always fine by me. But it's not so welcome in the year you're holding a multibillion-dollar Winter Olympics.

In simple terms, the arrival of El Niño means we could be looking at rain, not snow, falling on the North Shore Mountains and Whistler, the key venues of the Olympics. Or we might just face a shortage of precipitation altogether.

So what happens if the mountaintops do stay green and snow is in short supply from February to March? Well, Olympic officials have a few plans to deal with Mother Nature if she throws us a snow drought.

For one thing, they have the slopes and trails at Cypress Mountain and Whistler-Blackcomb ringed by a network of snow blowers, costing up to $100,000 apiece. If snow doesn't fall in time, or in the proper amounts, the plan is to make the white stuff with technology.

Then there's a new weather-watching system. Olympic officials can't control the temperature (at least not yet), but they have partnered with Environment Canada to set up a sophisticated network of temperature and humidity monitors that will be able to predict even the minutest shifts in conditions. That means the snow guns, which have their own built-in weather monitoring systems, will never miss a window to manufacture snow.

That's important. The plan is to make artificial snow by the tonne and stockpile it in mini-mountains for later use. If a warm spell hits, Olympic snow groomers will go into the stockpile and spread snow on the slopes.

And if that doesn't work, there's always what they nickname "supersnow" -- created by putting an additive known as the "Snomax snow-inducer" into water sprayed out of snow guns. Using a protein taken from the cellular wall of the pseudomonas syringae bacterium, it raises the temperature at which water crystallizes by two or three degrees celsius, creating synthetic snow.

You may not want to eat it, but "supersnow" will also resist El Niño better than the real stuff because its molecules are supposedly more tightly packed, and therefore less resistant to melting. The technique can be used only at Whistler, though, because Cypress is in a provincial park, which bans the use of such man-made additives for snow-making.

So if we do have a snow drought in 2010, you can count on some pretty serious contingency plans to keep snow on those mountains, where it belongs. But pray to the weather gods, anyway.

It's not easy to change the nature of Mother Nature, even with all this planning and technology. Last February, despite lots of effort by snow-making experts,the final two snowboard Olympic test events at Cypress were scuttled because of warm weather.

If it comes down to supersnow versus El Niño in 2010, I'm not sure which would win the day.

mcernetig@vancouversun.com

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