Top ten weather stories for 2007: story eight

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8. A Winter That Wasn’t - Almost!

At mid January, the ground in Eastern Canada was soft, lakes and rivers were free of ice, there was no snow, and leaves were still on trees. Nature was confused and snow fans were depressed. Generally, Canadian winters have become warmer and drier, but following the warmest winter on record in 2005-2006, there was a sense and hope by some outdoor enthusiasts that this winter would be more typical. With the emergence of a warm El Niño, the odds increased for another soft and open winter. Owing to a persistent flow from the south and west, much of Canada experienced an incredibly mild beginning to winter. Until the third week of January, winter’s temperatures were closer to those expected in fall and spring. In Alberta, warm winds heightened the avalanche threat. In normally frozen Winnipeg, it rained in January and spring-like weather encouraged hordes of golfers in Montreal. In Niagara region, ice wine producers sat idly by as birds ate their grapes. In Quebec, the maple sap ran for two weeks in January – puzzling growers as to whether it was good or bad news. In Halifax, buds were swelling and bulbs were sprouting.

The beginning of winter in December 2006 was spectacularly mild across Canada, setting a record for the warmest in the past sixty years. By the first official day of winter, most Easterners still hadn’t experienced any significant cold or snow. Less than a centimetre of snow had fallen in Toronto. Similarly, Montreal had 11 cm by December 21 compared to 75 cm by the first day of winter in 2005. And it wasn’t until January 16, before Montreal recorded its first cold day below -20°C. By that time, the city should have had eight or more on record.

It wasn’t winter’s record warmth that became the big talk, but its persistence - day-after-day, week-after-week and now month-after-month. Was this the year when winter would be cancelled? Was the Canadian reputation as the great white north in question?

It was even too warm to fake or make the white stuff. A protracted January thaw dealt a crippling blow to Ontario ski operators. Blue Mountain Resorts laid off over 1,300 seasonal and part-time employees for more than three weeks. It was the first time the resort had been forced to shut down after a season opening. With such mildness, a lot of mice, bats, rats and other pests were busy breeding not sleeping. Even frogs, flies and bees were out and about. African animals at the Toronto Zoo were spending hours outdoors. The mindset was that winter was cancelled. For beleaguered retailers, long underwear sales stalled and snow shovels and winter boots filled store shelves. The good news was that the mild weather meant lower heating bills. In the first half of winter, residents in Ontario and Quebec saved 15 to 20 per cent on their home heating bills. Municipalities saved millions in snow removal costs and re-deployed workers for pothole repair. With air temperatures more like April than January and the ground free of frost, construction workers put in long hours in unseasonably mild and dry conditions. Paramedics reported fewer cases of frostbite and hypothermia. And it wasn’t cold or snowy enough to warrant weather-induced heart attacks.

Apart from areas directly to the lee of the Great Lakes, total seasonal snow didn’t amount to much. At Toronto, it was the second least snow amount ever in winter - 60.3 cm compared to a norm of 115.4 cm. Prince Edward Island broke an all-time record for low snowfall totals. Charlottetown’s total snowfall barely got above 100 cm by the end of February (46 per cent of its normal amount). Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia and Moncton, New Brunswick also received less than half their normal snow totals to the end of February. For Montreal, arguably the snowiest major city in the world, only 56 per cent of its normal October-to-February snowfall occurred.

As an aside, snow was plentiful in Western Canada. Alberta cities were white most of the winter. In Calgary, nearly 50 per cent more snow than normal fell, and in Edmonton snowfalls amounted to 28 per cent higher than normal. At British Columbia’s ski resorts, snowfall totals approached record amounts and the number of skier visits was way up. With two months of skiing to go at some resorts, they were already about to surpass last year’s nearly six million visits. Snow bases at Grouse and Seymour near Vancouver varied between 400 and 500 cm in early spring. Whistler boasted its best year ever with a snow base of 300 cm well into June.

Eventually, winter did come to the East. During the second half of January, cold Arctic air began to inch across central and eastern Canada. It had been the longest delay of winter weather in eastern Canadian history. Winter’s first storm, albeit two months late, created the usual “first storm” chaos with traffic snarls, flight delays and cancellations, slips and falls, parked school buses, and long waits for road-service battery boosts and tows. On January 20, Montreal received its first major snowfall of 20 cm. Throughout the day, hundreds of cars slid off snow-covered highways or slammed into other vehicles in a rash of minor fender-benders as snow blanketed southern Quebec. Winter’s cold might have been late coming but it persisted for weeks. By February 18, Toronto counted 30 straight non-melting days. The cold caused thousands of residential and city pipes to freeze and break. For patient backyard ice makers, it was the best six weeks ever without a thaw.

In the final wrap-up, winter in the East lasted about six weeks - not even close to the six months it can sometimes feel like.

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