What a relief. Environment Canada hasn’t cancelled winter after all. In fact, the unseasonably balmy weather that preceded the last couple of weeks was never an indication to the prognosticators at the government agency that winter’s icy breathe wouldn’t blast the prairie landscape. David Phillips, a climatologist for Environment Canada, recently told the media that winter has never been cancelled in Canada, and there was no intention of cancelling it this year.
Philips said colder-than-normal weather is actually expected to cut a swath from Vancouver to Labrador due to a natural phenomena known as La Niña (Spanish for “the girl”), the opposite of an El Niño (Spanish for the boy). La Niñas are characterized by chiller surface water in the Pacific offshore from tropical South America that usually drives cold Arctic air masses further southward into the centre of the North American continent.
The full force of winter may be a tad slow in arriving, but it will come. Among the most predictable climate events in Manitoba is at least a portion of the winter being noted for either a significant dump of snow or a prolonged cold snap with temperatures hovering around the
-30°C range and sometimes hitting a bone-chilling -40°C.
It’s a fact of life in the heart of the continent.
The Globe and Mail on December 7 carried an article quoting Mike Pigott of Accuweather, projecting temperatures plummeting 10°C below normal in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Apparently, the extremely cold weather is going to hang around well into February. It’s a forecast that was echoed by this year’s edition of The Farmers’ Almanac.
Past La Niña events have been great disappointments for Manitobans hoping to escape the worst that winter can throw at them. The 1995-96 La Niña plunged the prairies into a protracted winter with snow cover from late October to March blanketing the land and temperatures averaging from 2°C to 4°C below normal.
Environment Canada said temperatures in 1995 were nearly 11°C below normal for the November to March period in Winnipeg, which was the second lowest on record.
“As well, a daytime high reading of
-18°C on the 4th marked the first time since January 17 that a value higher than -20°C had been reached. Winnipeg also broke a record set in 1875, as the overnight low plummeted below -30°C for the 19th day in a row.”
“Winter kept its grip on the country well into April,” according to the Environment Canada website, “as below-normal temperatures were the rule for most of Canada.”
The winter of 1875-76 was particularly cold in Manitoba, especially the month of February. The record low for February 4 in Winnipeg stands at
-42.2°C which was recorded in 1876.
The Manitoba Free Press on February 12, 1876, claimed “it remained for 1876 to carry the palm for a real cold snap. We don’t know whether it is anything to brag about, though.”
In 1876, the cold snap didn’t end until well into March. In mid-March, the low temperatures in Winnipeg ranged from -26°C to -29.4°C. On March 31, the low was a mere 0°C and the high was 1.1°C. It wasn’t exactly a heat wave, but winter’s deep freeze had ended.
Surprisingly, the bitter cold occurred as a prolonged El Niño event was getting underway, and such events usually bring warmer temperatures.
The coldest winter on record in Manitoba occurred in 1874-75 with an average temperature of only -23°C. Now, that’s cold! According to Environment Canada, the normal average temperature in Winnipeg from December to February is -15.3°C.
Of course, there were exceptions to the La Niña rule of exceptionally cold weather. The two-year long La Niña (1998-2000) produced abnormally warm winter conditions across Canada. Temperatures were 4°C to 6°C above normal from the Yukon through the prairies and into Québec. According to Environment Canada, “It is believed that the warming in the western tropical Pacific Ocean with the concurrent cooling in the eastern tropical Pacific contributed to the unusually warm and dry winter in Canada.”
But the winter of 1877-78 can’t be beat for producing exceptionally balmy weather and remains the warmest on record with an average temperature of only -7.2°C. James Stewart, who recorded the official weather in Winnipeg during the winter of 1877-78 using the Fahrenheit scale, reported the highest temperature reached in the city was 47.4°F (8.5°C) on December 28 and the lowest was -3.2°F (-10.4°C) on the 6th. According to Stewart, the average mean temperature for the month was 25.59°F (-3.56°C), which was 23.41°F (4.77°C) warmer than the average for the previous five Decembers.
“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.”
With such warm weather, the period is referred to now as the “year when there wasn’t a white Christmas.” It was so balmy that a plowing competition was held on Christmas Day 1877 near Morris. According to the January 12 Free Press, the plowing was hampered by unfavourable weather, “there being a misty rain all day.”
At Point Douglas, someone reported sighting a mosquito. A large grey goose was seen by several people at St. Andrew’s “flying over the Rapids Steam Mill on Monday, December 17 at nine o-clock in the morning,” reported the Free Press. “From the appearance of the bird it is judged that it had come from the south, as the feathers were remarkably clean.”
Stewart McDonald gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom and as fresh as if it 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 such high temperatures, the Free Press wondered whether Manitobans were actually living in Texas or California. The exceptionally warm weather was due to an El Niño event, which modern climatologists have ranked as the strongest such event in the last 500 years.
While most Manitobans are now eagerly anticipating a white Christmas, others are probably cheering for a repeat of December 1877. “Bring on the skeeters!”