Top ten weather stories for 2005: story seven

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7. Winter Snow Goes Missing in British Columbia

The winter forecast for the West Coast was warmer and drier than normal. No one, however, foresaw the scanty snowfall and thin snowpack that accumulated over British Columbia's winter resorts. Never in recent years had snow conditions been so pathetic, leading to huge economic write-offs and major disappointment among snow enthusiasts. For such fans, worse weather could not have occurred: record January rainfall, record February sunshine and record warm March temperatures. And adding to the frustration, near-record snow fell in April just when most resorts had given up and closed for the season.

A strong and persistent ridge of high pressure over British Columbia effectively blocked winter storms from entering the southern two-thirds of the province. When moist air did roll in, it often occurred with bouts of warmth or torrential and unrelenting rains. Whistler-Blackcomb had its lowest snowfall accumulation since the resort opened in 1966, between a third and a half of its average seasonal accumulation. Worse, soaking rains, abundant sunshine and balmy temperatures eroded what snow did fall. At Mount Washington, on Vancouver Island, the mountain resort typically receives an annual average of 9 m of snow. This winter, the slopes were uncommonly grassy and bare. At the peak of the ski season, the snowpack measured a paltry 12% of normal. Ironically, in April, the resort received a whopping 360 cm of snow - the biggest April snow dump in 25 years, making for the best end-of-season skiing in memory. In the BC Interior, conditions were also snow poor. In February, Kelowna was drier than Los Angeles and warm too, with every day above freezing and no snow - weather conditions never seen before. In Kamloops, cross-country skiers said snow conditions were the worst in 44 years. The major resort corporation, Intrawest, said this snow season had the most challenging weather for skiing in 40 years. At its main property at Whistler, visits were off by 14%, costing the company millions in lost revenue. With more mud than powder, skiers and snowboarders abandoned BC slopes for the higher altitudes of Alberta.

Despite the absence of winter across British Columbia, conditions were ripe for avalanches. In late March, the BC Avalanche Centre warned backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobiliers to use particular caution after a fresh dump of snow (40 cm) and mild spring temperatures. Further, several rapid freeze/thaw cycles and high winds combined to create an unstable snow pack. On average, 15 people die as a result of being caught in an avalanche every year in Canada. In 2004-5, there were six deaths.

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