Top ten weather stories for 2010: story eight

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8. El Niño Cancels Winter

A map of Canada indicating the whole country as having been impacted by El Niño and a warmer winter.

Melting snow near a muddy creek.  © 2010

For many Canadians winter 2010 never really happened. While parts of Asia, Europe and the United States shivered through and shovelled out of freak winter storms, Canada was left out of the cold. From the balmy Arctic, snowless Rockies and bare pavement of Montreal to the open waters of the Labrador Sea, Canada experienced the warmest and driest winter in recorded history. Nationally, December 2009 to February 2010 averaged 4°C above normal, making it the warmest since countrywide records were first kept in 1948. Most of Canada was at least 2°C above normal, with some areas of the Arctic and northern Quebec more than 6°C above normal. A snow drought prevailed from British Columbia to Quebec. And if you define winter by the snow on the ground, it arrived a month late for most of the country and ended six weeks early.

El Niño got much of the credit for our missing winter. A shift in trade winds to a westerly direction and the arrival of warm ocean currents in the eastern Pacific Ocean is part of an El Niño episode. When El Niño’s influence arrived at the end of 2009, it stayed the course. Another consideration was the shrinking Arctic ice pack, which has thinned and retreated to record levels in recent years. Also a contributing factor was the Arctic and North Atlantic Oscillations that worked in concert to bring cold to Europe and most regions of the United States, and mild weather to traditionally cold areas such as Labrador, Quebec and the Arctic. Canadians were left to collectively muse that winters just aren’t what they used to be and the statistics certainly back that up. Winter’s positive anomaly of +2.5 degrees nationally over 60 years exceeds any other season and is evident in every region across the country.

On the plus side, the mild, snowless weather resulted in huge savings for governments and offered a reprieve to the environment from tonnes of sand and salt. Montreal, alone, spent nearly $30 million less than average on snow clearing. Public works also logged fewer complaints about bumpy roads, potholes and ploughed snow blocking the ends of driveways. With less winter, productivity was undoubtedly higher with fewer commuting problems and infrequent snow days for students, teachers and anxious parents. But prolonged balminess also left parkas and shovels gathering dust on store shelves. Skiers, snowmobilers and tobogganists accepted their fate and spent time reminiscing about near-record snowfall amounts the previous two winters. The unprecedented mildness led to the cancellation of winter carnivals, dogsled races, ice fishing derbies, pond hockey tournaments, and created snow too soggy for sculpting. On the other hand, the unseasonably mild weather was welcomed for its huge energy savings (15 per cent) but regretted by energy utilities for much lower revenues. In Ottawa, the Rideau Canal skateway didn't open until January 14, and closed 41 days later – 10 days shorter than average.   Fortunately, the weather at the city’s Winterlude celebration was near-perfect – no rain, traces of snow, only three days when the wind chill fell below -20 and average afternoon temperatures of -3°C.

For most of the country, spring flooding was a non-threat. And on the environment front, migratory birds returned weeks earlier than usual due to friendly spring weather, although at times it created a mismatch with the available food supply. Additionally, no ice in the Gulf of St Lawrence meant mortality rates were extremely high for seal pups unable to survive their first year. 

Among the weather’s more spectacular superlatives: 

  • It was the winter with the least snowfall ever recorded at Toronto city (46.2 cm) and Pearson International Airport (52.4 cm) since snowfall observations began in 1843 and 1937 respectively. No measurable snow fell in either location in November or March (both months have never been snow-free before), and the first significant snowfall downtown did not occur until February 22 when 9.8 cm fell.
  • Ottawa might be the snowiest national capital in the world but the city had less snow than Washington, D.C., and less than 60 per cent of its annual normal snowfall.
  • Calgary recorded its lowest March snowfall total in 118 years.
  • Vancouver’s 11.4 cm of snow before October 31 smashed previous records for early snowfall – a sign of great things to come that didn’t pan out when only 2.4 cm fell the rest of winter.
  • Montreal had a meagre 3.6 cm in March, almost breaking the record of 2.6 cm set last year. In January, the city had a record of 21 days with less than 1 cm of snow per day.
  • In Quebec – Canada’s coldest province – Quebec City, Roberval, Bagotville, Mont-Joli, Gaspé, La Grande and Kuujjuaq had their mildest winter ever. For Sept-Iles, one of the snowiest cities in Canada, not only was it the first green Christmas ever, but the entire winter featured less snow than ever with records going back to 1944. Absence of snow on Quebec’s Lower North Shore between Natashquan and Blanc Sablon was unprecedented, putting snowmobiles on blocks and creating long bouts of isolation. In early February, unsafe ice halted fishing on the Saguenay River. Sadly, there were more deaths of snowmobile drivers on Quebec lakes and rivers because of thinner ice.
  • In Fredericton, the average temperature from November to March was 3.4°C warmer than normal making it the warmest winter on record.  Further, snowfall totals were only half of normal. 

A major impact of the record mild winter was the extraordinarily short ice road season.  Mild weather and scanty snow across Manitoba forced more than half of the province’s ice roads to close after less than a month, cutting off the winter lifelines for countless northerners. Many isolated First Nations’ communities were unable to get all of their fuel, building supplies and other materials, forcing them to declare a state of emergency. And muddy ice roads stranded dozens of drivers in the wilderness. In Churchill,  there were only 20 days when the minimum temperature fell below -30°C compared to a normal 55 days. Unfortunately, this year was not an anomaly. During the past decade, cold days averaged 47 per year compared to 55 to 60 days during the decades from 1940 to 1999. At Yellowknife, days with ideal temperatures for building ice roads (-30°C or lower) numbered only 29 for the entire winter compared to a normal number of 55 days. Twenty years ago winter roads could be counted on to stay open for nearly two months, but in some recent years they’ve been open only half that time.

As remarkable as the absence of winter was for Canada – the second coldest and snowiest country globally – our citizens seemed to relish the unusual balminess. In fact, residents of “The Great White North” took great joy in reports of snowbirds freezing in Florida and the fact that on February 12 there was snow on the ground in all 50 states south of the border.

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