February 20, 2015 / 4:33 AM / 3 years ago

Lack of snow closes Western Canada ski hills as East digs out

Snow geese and a float plane pass Cypress Mountain prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games in a February 9, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/files

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - As eastern Canada and the United States endure record snowfalls and frigid temperatures, Western Canada is struggling with the opposite problem: an unseasonable lack of snow that is forcing some ski hills to shut much earlier than normal.

Castle Mountain Resort in southern Alberta closed winter operations on Monday, two months ahead of schedule, having had only 264 cm (104 inches) of snowfall this season. The full season winter average is 910 cm (358 inches).

In British Columbia, Hemlock Resort canceled its 2014/15 season at the start of February due to “negligible snow” while Mount Cain also closed. Other resorts in the province are on standby, awaiting more snow.

The warm weather is bad news for Western Canada’s C$800 million-a-year ($640 million) ski industry, although a weaker Canadian dollar is providing some relief by attracting more overseas visitors.

Even if March and April, traditionally the snowiest months in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, deliver plenty of powder it may be too late for some resorts.

“We are down to mud in some areas, we would need a considerable amount of snow to be able to reopen,” said Donna Murray-Clark, marketing manager at Castle Mountain. “We have also had to let a lot of our staff go.”

A ridge of high pressure over Alberta and British Columbia is blamed for three months of above average temperatures, said Environment Canada meteorologist Bill McMurtry.

That has dragged warm air from the Pacific over Western Canada, pushing cold temperatures from the high Arctic into central Canada, and is partly responsible for the East Coast winter storms.

At British Columbia’s Fernie Alpine Resort, operated by oil investor Murray Edwards’ Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), webcams show patches of grass under some ski lifts.

“It’s been a whacky winter for weather, where the storms have not been as broad or as widespread as usual,” said Matt Mosteller, RCR senior vice president of marketing. “It’s been 10 years since it was last like this.”

Resorts in higher elevations in Alberta and British Columbia have escaped the worst of the rain and warm temperatures.

Canada West Ski Areas Association Chief Executive David Lynn said the warm winter was challenging for a number of ski hills, but he did not expect many to go out of business.

“The impact varies widely by ski area, depending on various factors, including operating and financial leverage. However, the majority of ski areas have the ability to survive one bad season,” he said.

Editing by Chris Reese

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