Canada's mild climate leaves Winter Olympics short of snow

• Organisers in Vancouver having to shovel snow to the slopes
• January temperatures in host city were warmest on record

Providing snow in the midst of a Canadian winter ought to be relatively uncomplicated. But the efforts of the Vancouver games organising committee to ensure sufficient snow cover for the opening day on Friday could just about qualify as an Olympic event in its own right.

They have tried airlifting snow by helicopter at five-minute intervals; hauling snow by the lorryload from three hours away; shooting ice and water out of a snow cannon; spreading layers of snow with a Zamboni ice-smoothing truck; and studding the slopes with tubes packed full of dry ice, to keep the snow from melting, and replenishing them every 12 hours.

"The amount of work that has been done against these conditions is really hard to believe," Jack Furlong, the head of the committee, said this week.

After an unusually mild winter, organisers first grew alarmed at a lack of snow cover last month, closing the Cypress Mountain resort – where the freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions are to be held – to preserve the scant covering of white stuff.

But as the opening ceremony approaches with no sign of more snow, organisers have been forced to launch 24/7 operations to provide adequate cover to the stubbornly bare slopes of Cypress, which lies just outside Vancouver.

So far they have brought in more than 1,000 bales of straw to bulk up the nearly bare slopes, applying a thick coat of transplanted and artificial snow on top. They have also hauled in nearly 200 lorry-loads of snow from higher and colder elevations a three-hour drive away.

Firefighting helicopters have been pressed into service, airlifting pallets of snow attached by a long rope. Snow cannon have also been called in, the official website for the games said.

"So far we are winning," Dick Vollet, who is in charge of mountain operations for the games, told a press conference.

"We are quite happy with where we are given that we are fighting mother nature, and sometimes she can be very unforgiving."

Vancouver has always had a reputation for balmy winters, at least by Canadian standards. But after some chilly days before Christmas, this winter has been especially mild.

January temperatures were the warmest on record at 4.6C above normal, and temperatures so far this month have been 3.4C above normal.

"The problem isn't the lack of precipitation," said Jim Andrews, a meteorologist at "The weather has just been too warm to sustain snow in the lower elevations."

Whistler, where the alpine skiing events are taking place, lies at a higher altitude, two hours' drive from Vancouver, and has plenty of snow for Friday's ski jump qualifying. But at Cypress Mountain there has been hardly a flake since well before Christmas – at least not naturally.

And despite Vollet's hopes, nature shows no sign of co-operating. The ­current forecast predicts rain along with temperatures rising as high as 10C in the Vancouver area.

By the time the first event at Cypress Mountain, women's moguls, gets going on Saturday, all the elaborate preparations could be reduced to a slushy mess. "It's umbrella weather," said Andrews. "100% humidity and soaking rain that is real hard on whatever they are trying to keep solid for the day itself."

Among residents of Vancouver, the lack of snow on Cypress Mountain is Topic A – followed closely by traffic congestion and long commutes.

A few local people have even begun to joke about Vancouver being the site of the 2010 summer games.

"I am looking across the street at tennis courts, and there are people playing tennis in shorts. There are cherry blossoms on the trees, which tells you something about the spring-like feel here," said Marsha Lederman, a correspondent for the Globe and Mail newspaper.

She said the slopes of the ski mountain adjacent to Cypress, visible from her window, were green. "I've got crocuses on my front lawn," she added.

All the more galling for the organisers is the fact that it is an entirely different experience on the east coast of America, which is experiencing its snowiest winter on record.

Cities from Washington to New York were hit today by the second serious whiteout in days, with 40mph winds and snow falling at a rate of 5cm (2in) an hour. The United Nations in New York and the federal government in Washington were dark, schools were closed, and flights grounded.

They are not seeing any of that in Vancouver.


Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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