How lack of snow in the GTA could impact snow-dependent attractions and our environment

With snow mostly melted in the Toronto area, Nick Westoll takes a look at how that is impacting seasonal businesses and what it could mean for the environment.

If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area and other parts of southern Ontario, you’ve probably noticed the lack of snow in recent weeks.

Current conditions are a stark contrast compared to Vancouver and parts of British Columbia that have been slammed with snow and ice in the past several weeks.

“It’s a lot more than [British Columbia] should be seeing this time of year,” Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, told CityNews when asked about the surge in snow over Vancouver has seen.

“We are seeing near-normal snowfall amounts, generally speaking, but unfortunately, we don’t have anything to show for it on the ground.”

When it comes to local snowfall, there was 27 centimetres recorded at Toronto Pearson International Airport in November and December. During the same period in 2020, there was 58 centimetres, and in 2021 there was 43 centimetres. The average since 1938, when record-keeping began at the airport, is 35 centimetres.

Flisfeder said the same areas have also seen above-average temperatures thanks to a localized system that’s containing frigid air from northern Russia.

“It’s been a long period of very warm, very high temperatures for this time of year — anywhere from 5 to 15 C above where they should be for this time,” he said.

For late December and early January in Toronto, the overall average daytime temperature is -1 C and the overnight low is -8 C.

Flisfeder added the warmer trend could stay in place until the end of January.

“If you are a lover of (winter) outdoor sports, unfortunately, it’s not your year,” he said.

Ski hills are among the hardest hit when there are warmer temperatures.

CityNews recently visited Earl Bales Ski and Snowboard Centre, near Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue West, to check out the conditions. During the stop, it was mostly bare. It’s tentatively set to open in mid-January, but it’s weather-dependent and it’s still unclear if that will happen.

Up at The Blue Mountains, Ont., just west of Collingwood, the Blue Mountain Resort is wide open to visitors.

“So a milder start to winter is not something that a ski operator wants to see. We love seeing more snow coming down as well as the right temperatures for making snow,” Tara Lovell, the resort’s public relations manager, said on Monday.

She said crews and the resort’s automated snow-generating machine have been working to build a strong base for skiers. She said the machine can generate snow when it’s -2 C and below outside, adding lower humidity and cooperating winds are also needed.

Lovell said the resort had a busy holiday season, and during a visit on Monday, CityNews saw a lineup forming at the base of the Silver Bullet. However, the runs are partially open to visitors.

“We have 18 out of 43 trails open today, and the temperatures look like it will be cold enough in the next few days that we can quickly get end-to-end open with all those runs hopefully in the next week,” she said.

RELATED: How climate change is causing more frequent warm winter temperatures in Canada

But the current winter season is one many have been banking on and some are being impacted.

“Mild weather is a huge blow for an industry after three years of the pandemic where for many of those key seasons, peak seasons, we weren’t able to get skiers onto the hills,” Christopher Bloore, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, told CityNews on Monday.

“We were really hopeful that 2023 was going to start well and give us the opportunity to get back to those pre-pandemic levels that we haven’t quite reached yet as we’ve started to reopen.”

He said tourism operators across Ontario have incurred massive debts during the course of COVID-19. Bloore said his association recently released a report that found destinations in Ontario open during warmer months only saw two-thirds of pre-pandemic revenues in 2022.

“These are still perilous times for the Ontario tourism industry,” he said.

Bloore pleaded for patience from those who have and want to visit ski resorts and other winter-based attractions.

“Maybe they’re going have to queue a little longer, maybe not all of the routes that they hope for or are used to will be on offer, but please do continue to support these ski hill operators because for three years many of them have not been able to bring in anywhere close to the revenues that they’ve been used to,” he said.

“Some of them are only just getting up to the full staff for the first time since the pandemic began.”

When possible, Bloore encouraged people to show their support and visit destinations.

“The rising cost of inflation, the rising cost to do business, households are making different decisions on how much free money they have to go and spend doing leisure activities; this couldn’t come at a worse time for the tourism industry, particularly our ski hills.”

Meanwhile, the current lack of a snowpack could impact our environment over time too.

“Seeing this is probably not going to be a problem just one time, but if we start to see this over and over again, it can become a problem,” Laura Del Guidice, the associate director of watershed planning and ecosystem science at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, recently said.

CityNews met with Del Guidice beside the Humber River in Toronto, where recent rain caused the river to swell. She said gradual snow melts into the spring are important ecologically.

Del Guidice said rain in the winter doesn’t carry the same benefits as snow with its slow melt.

“If it comes hard and fast, then we tend to get more overland runoff as opposed to that slow seeping into the ground and contributing and replenishing groundwater systems,” she said.

Snowpacks melting, Del Guidice said, can also help carry nutrients and materials to rivers as well as help maintain cool water temperatures during that slow and steady input into the system.

She said the process is also vital for spaces like wetlands.

“What can happen is the water levels aren’t sustained for the time it takes for the eggs and larval stages of amphibians to mature into adults, and if that happens, they may not survive, and that can be a problem,” Del Guidice said.

She emphasized there is still plenty of time to see snowfall this year, but also said climate change and development by humans means everyone has a part to play in reducing carbon emissions in the months and years to come.

Meanwhile, back at Blue Mountain Resort, Lovell said Ontario’s ski hill operators will work for as long as they can to ensure those who want to hit the slopes will have the opportunity to do so while also hoping for better weather.

“From here on out, if we can be making snow that’s going to help us get into spring as far as possible, we’re all committed to doing so,” she said.

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