Top ten weather stories for 2010: story one

Table of Contents

1. Spring Weather for the Olympic Winter Games

A map of Canada indicating where warm weather impacted the Olympic venues in southern British Columbia including Vancouver.

A warm and wet January set the stage for work crews to bring in snow and hay in preparation for competitions at Cypress Mountain.  © Aaron McCay Environment Canada 2010.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) promised the XXI Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games would be the “greenest on record”. Oh, were they right! But never could they have anticipated that the Olympic city would experience its mildest winter ever and one that was practically snow-free – far worse than the 1-in-100-year winter organizers feared. One of the biggest worries for officials was the possibility of El Niño, an episodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that occurs every two to five years. There have been 17 El Niño events over the last 60 years and, of those, Vancouver experienced 14 warmer than normal (3 colder) and 14 with less snow than normal (3 with more snow). Unfortunately, El Niño emerged in the summer of 2009, grew in strength and followed the majority of its predecessors in regard to its impact. While organizers and volunteers prepared for every eventuality at the Winter Games, including the weather, the reality is that no one can control Mother Nature. Climatologically, Vancouver was the warmest bid city in history. The risk was high; the pressure at home and abroad was enormous.

Weather conditions leading up to the Olympic year couldn’t have been better. At Whistler-Blackcomb, home to the downhill ski events, November set a record of over five metres of snow in the alpine area of the mountain – almost four times the average monthly total. Cold temperatures also made the snow dense and perfect for sliding. The resort opened November 14, nearly two weeks before the official opening date and the second earliest opening ever. Snow covered the slopes at Grouse and at Cypress Mountain near Vancouver – site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events. On January 1, 108 cm of “white gold” lay on the ground at the Cypress Bowl – quieting fears that an emerging El Niño might create havoc for the Games.

But with the New Year, conditions abruptly changed as a strengthening El Niño combined with soaking Pineapple Express storms. At times in Vancouver, January was looking and feeling more like April. A warming and drenching January-February set the stage for frantic preparations at what was now snow-starved Cypress Mountain, where the slopes looked better suited for mud wrestling than snowboarding. Up to 300 workers toiled around the clock, moving 9,000 cubic metres of snow by hand-shovelling, trucking, bulldozing and choppering it in from stockpiles up to 250 km away. They brought in straw bales and wood to shape the course, used dry ice embedded in the moguls and aerials’ ramp to impede the melting, and spread urea on the snow surface to preserve and bind it, only to have a continuous onslaught of heavy rain and warm winds eat away at the fruits of their efforts.

The following are examples of some of the weather impediments leading up to the Games:

  • Vancouver’s temperatures in January soared above 10°C for 13 days, far more than the 3-day average. The mercury rose as high as 14.1°C and did not fall below -2.7°C. There were only two freeze days (five hours in total) – far below the twelve days below freezing normally seen in Vancouver for that month.
  • Vancouverhas never seen a warmer stretch of winter weather than the 31-day period ending on February 9, with records dating back 114 years. For 40 consecutive days between January 8 and February16, the average temperature at Vancouver stayed above 5.2°C; the previous string of days above 5.2°C was 18 in 1998.
  • The city did not get any snow after December 14, while it normally averages 35 cm. In the 50 days prior to the opening ceremonies, Vancouver experienced only 7 dry days, no snow and a total of 247.2 mm of rain.

Organizers at Whistler had their own weather challenges: heavy wet snow on the top part of the downhill course, thick fog in and out of the middle sections, and rain and warm temperatures at the bottom.  At times, too much snow was a problem and it had to be scraped off and runs watered to keep them icy, hard and fast.

The day before the opening ceremonies, weather further decimated Cypress Mountain. Wind and relentless rains pounded the course before the afternoon qualifying session, leaving doubt as to whether the event would take place. Weather conditions on Day 1 were hugely disappointing. It was 10°C in Vancouver with a soaking rainstorm heading toward the Lower Mainland. On the barren slopes of Cypress Mountain, spectators huddled in driving rain to watch skiers compete on mushy snow in and out of the fog. Major news outlets and prominent websites around the world featured Vancouver’s spring-like weather conditions and its new moniker, the “Rain Games”, as doubt turned to ridicule.

By the beginning of the first full week of the Winter Olympics, the stubborn Pacific low moved south and was replaced by a blocking high pressure system with its bright, clear skies and mild, dry weather for seven straight days. Finally, the Olympic spirit started catching on. Spectators from around the world partied it up. Stadiums filled and competitions got exciting. British Columbia became beautiful again with the sun shining, cherry trees blossoming, and daffodils blooming. The international media, which had largely savaged the Vancouver Games, focused on the competitions and not the weather. In the final days, however, the blocking pattern broke and cloudy, showery weather took hold once again. 

Less than two weeks after the end of the Olympic Games and just prior to the start of the Paralympic Games at Whistler, winter returned producing some of the best snow conditions all winter. Of course, there were some weather moments. On the opening day of the Paralympic Games, persistent thick fog and heavy snow created poor visibility, forcing postponement of the alpine ski events. Ironically, on April 1, five weeks following the Olympic Games, Cypress Mountain was waist deep in fluffy snow. Cold air and lots of white stuff transformed the once-bare slopes of Cypress into a winter playground.

In spite of the horrendous weather leading up to the Opening Ceremonies and continuing through the first three days of the Winter Games, the event was a renowned success. When the weather changed, so did the mood, culminating in an emotional uniting of the entire nation.

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