BOW VALLEY, Alta – The snowpack in the mountains is well above average for this time of year.
John Pomeroy, Canada research chair in water resource and climate change and director of the Canmore-based Coldwater Lab run by the University of Saskatchewan, said there are still deep snowpacks of typically 1.5 metres to 2.5 metres at higher elevations.
“Many of our stations are partially buried by it,” he said. "It's well above normal."
Pomeroy monitors about 35 stations from Kananaskis Country through Banff National Park to the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park.
He said there is currently about 250 millimetres to 150 mm water equivalent – which means the depth of water if the snow were converted to rainfall – above what is expected at the end of May.
He said this is due to the higher than average peak snowpacks, with the peak occurring earlier in May, and slower than average snowmelt.
“For instance, the melt has barely begun for high elevation snowpacks,” said Pomeroy.
“As a result, mountain streamflow is still at very low levels that we more typically associate with late winter.”
As of May 31, the Skoki snow monitoring station in Banff National Park was measuring 250 mm compared to zero at the same time last year. A station at Sunshine Village was measuring 768 mm on May 31.
Parks Canada officials say winter conditions remain in much of Banff National Park due to the above-average snowpack and a cool, snowy spring, leading to lingering avalanche danger.
Lisa Paulson, a public safety specialist in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, said remote weather stations show there is up to 1.6 metres to two metres of snow at treeline in areas around Lake Louise.
“It seems like we’re about a month behind what we would normally see for snow amounts,” she said.
A lingering avalanche hazard means that the June 1 opening of the Moraine Lake Road has been delayed.
Paulson said the hazard also means hikers should avoid all trails with avalanche hazards including the teahouse trails to Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers, Mount Fairview Trail, Saddleback Pass, C-Level Cirque near the town of Banff, and Stanley Glacier in Kootenay National Park among others.
She said there are signs set up on some of the more popular trails to alert hikers of the avalanche hazards, adding hikers are advised to take low elevation trails.
“On many of the trails, you don’t have to walk very far and you are into avalanche terrain where we have lots of snow,” said Paulson.
“For people who are coming into the valley or are new to the area, it’s so critical to check the trail reports and go to the information centres.”
Paulson said it is easy to get lured up a trail earlier in the day when the snow conditions are firm or perhaps frozen from the night before.
“They don’t think about what’s happening in two, three hours time, where they start to sink and wallow in the snow, because it melts as the temperatures warm… the snowpack is like walking in a slurpy.”
Paulson said rescuers have already picked up people who have walked up trails “and literally can’t get back."
“One woman explained she had walked 40 metres in an hour, each step was up to her thigh,” she said, noting that was on Paradise Valley trail.
“It gives you a sense of how much snow there is.”
On Tuesday (May 31), Parks Canada spokesperson James Eastham said the earliest opening date for Moraine Lake Road is estimated to be June 6 “with moderate confidence.”
“The road will open as soon as weather conditions permit, however no exact date can be pinpointed at this time,” he said. “Road access to Moraine Lake will not be possible until avalanche hazards subside and plowing can be safely completed.”
Approximately the first eight kilometres of the Moraine Lake road can be biked.
Eastham said cyclists should be on alert for passing snowplows, as well as frost heaves and icy patches throughout.
“Visitors are asked not to proceed beyond the plowed section of road due to lingering avalanche hazard and to permit plows to operate safely,” he said in a May 27 press release.