It’s “almost” a guarantee that Manitobans will be having a white Christmas. But it’s also wise to use caution when predicting the weather as one never knows what’s coming around the corner. After all, Environment Canada admits to having recently blown it when it forecast just two centimetres of snowfall for Montréal when 25 centimetres of the white stuff actually fell.
Winnipeggers and most Manitobans have experienced one of the worst Novembers for snowfall on record with a total of 55.6 centimetres of snow falling to bury streets and walkways and nearly bankrupting the city’s snow removal budget for 2010. The average for November is just 21.4 centimetres and last year only 1.4 centimetres was recorded. In fact, this year’s November snowfall is 70 per cent of last year’s total of 80 centimetres. The only time more snow fell during the month was in November 1955 when 80.3 centimetres of the white stuff came down.
One also has to remember that the “Flood of the Century” in 1996 occurred when just 73 centimetres of snow had fallen during the entire winter. With this November’s heavy snowfall, experts are becoming worried that we’ll have a repeat of 1996.
The worst flood in recorded history occurred in 1826 when an unparalleled amount of snow fell.
Alexander Ross, a fur trader who retired to the Red River Settlement in 1825 and was an eyewitness to the flood, wrote in his book about the settlement of the “disastrous year 1826, one of the most fatal, both as life and property, that ever befell Red River.”
It was reported that a December 1825 snowstorm was “such as had not been witnessed for years.” The storm lasted for several days, and “drove the buffalo herds beyond the hunters’ reach, and killed most of their horses.” The blizzard scattered hunters about the plains with the result that some were never found.
“Families here, and families there, despairing of life, huddled themselves together for warmth, and, in many cases, their shelter proved their grave,” wrote Ross.
He reported that a mother with a child on her back was found just a half kilometre from the safety of Pembina. “This poor creature must have travelled, at least, 125 miles, in three days and nights, till she sunk at last in too unequal struggle for life.”
A family was buried for several days in the snow before being dug out. The father died, but the mother and two children survived their ordeal.
According to Ross, a total of 33 lives were lost that winter.
“By the end of April 1826, all the preconditions for a large flood had been fulfilled,” wrote Scott St. George and Bill Rainie in a 2002 paper on the causes of the flood published in the Canadian Water Resources Journal. “Following a large flood in the spring of 1825, the available storage in the basin had been filled to capacity by an unusually wet summer and fall ... general thawing at the settlement was delayed until April 12 and several heavy snowfalls between April 17 and April 26 added to the moisture storage in the basin. The arrival of the thawing temperatures did not occur until the end of the month and break-up of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was the latest on record.”
Ross said snow depth averaged three feet on the plains and four to five feet in the woods.
Farmers in Manitoba are now also looking at the recent snowfall with alarm, as the ground has been saturated by heavy summer and fall rains, which limit the “moisture storage” of the basin as was the case in 1826 and 1996.
But the vagaries of weather forecasting in Manitoba are typified by events over 130 years ago. It remains difficult to predict what amount of snow will fall to add to the anxiety being now felt by many.
One of the most unusual ways of celebrating Christmas in Manitoba occurred on the David Adams farm along the then Scratching River (now Morris River). Seven competitors came to the farm on Christmas Day 1877 to take part in a plowing contest. According to the January 12, 1878, Manitoba Free Press, the plowing was hampered by unfavourable weather, “there being a misty rain all day.”
The winter of 1877-78 remains the warmest winter on record in the history of the province with an average temperature of -7.2°C. James Stewart, who recorded the official weather in Winnipeg during the period using the Fahrenheit scale, reported the highest temperature reached in the city in December was 47.4°F (8.5°C) on th 28th, while the lowest was -3.2°F (-10.4°C) on the 6th. According to Stewart, the average mean temperature for December was 25.59°F (-3.59°C), which was 23.41°F (4.77°C) warmer than the average for December for the previous five years. (The winter of 1874-75 is noted as being the coldest on record with an average temperature of only -23°C.)
“This month has been unusually mild,” said Stewart, “so that the like has not been seen within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. During the greater part of the month the farmers have been busy ploughing and sowing. A hawk was seen on the 11th, and frogs are said to have been seen on the 23rd — in fact, the whole month had more the appearance of spring than winter.”
Thomas Longbottom plowed an acre at his Winnipeg market garden to a depth of seven inches (17.8 centimetres). Longbottom was reported to have claimed he had never plowed with such ease. Stewart McDonald also gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom as fresh as if this were June instead of December.” The weather was so warm that Rev. W. Beck held “a capital game” of croquet on the lawn of St. John’s Cathedral.
With the number of unusual happenings, the Free Press wondered whether Manitobans were living in California or Texas.
This warmth had been preceded a year earlier by a cold snap in February 1876. The record low for February 4 in Winnipeg stands at 42.2°C which was reported in 1876. In mid-March 1876, the lows in the city were between -26°C to -29.4°C. By the end of the month, the thermometer finally began to rise and the recorded temperature was 1.1°C.
With the memory of this cold snap still lingering, who could have predicted in 1877 that there would have been a Christmas without snow. Its just as likely as not that this winter’s November snowfall is not a harbinger of things to come. Similar to past years, the weather can change quickly, defying the best quesses of the so-called weather experts.