Prognasicators earlier predicted Manitoba would experience normal to very cold weather conditions across the province during the winter of 2012-13. So far, they have been right on the mark. It’s been cold and there has been a lot of snow. But that’s so far. Personally, I would prefer that they get it wrong for the remainder of the winter, as they did during the winter of 2011-12. Last winter began in warmth and ended with temperatures that are usually associated with June.
On December 7, 2011, Mike Pigott of Accuweather, told the Globe and Mail that temperatures would plummet 10°C below normal in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Oops! That didn’t happen. Instead, it was the other way around.
The Farmer’s Almanac, the tome of folk information that many regard as the true predictor of weather to come, was completely off kilter when it forecast a below-normal winter on the prairies.
“We admit that last winter’s forecasts weren’t as dead-on as we would have liked, but as the old saying goes, ‘The Almanac maker predicts the weather, but another Maker makes the weather,’ ” reflected Geiger, the almanac’s prognosticator, adding “Weather, no matter what tools or computer systems you use to predict it, is not an exact science. Many sources were thrown off last year, but we are confident in our formula and are happy to provide our readers with a long-range outlook that is very accurate.”
On the other hand, the same almanac is predicting that the winter this season from Alberta to Manitoba will be cold to very cold.
Environment Canada warned prairie residents in 2011 to expect a deep-freeze that failed to arrive. David Phillips, a climatologist with Environment Canada, said last December that winter hadn’t been cancelled by the government agency. The government agency’s prognostication was for the worst winter in 20 years.
It turned out to be a rather embarrassing prediction based upon an la Niña (Spanish for “girl”) event that usually forewarns of a bitterly cold and snowy winter. But last winter, the cooler-ocean event off the coast of Peru defied its normal influence on climate and didn’t emerge as a weather factor in Canada.
“We kept waiting, and we kept saying, ‘It’s warm in December, but you wait, in January and February (winter) is going to kick into effect!’” Phillips told Maclean’s magazine article by Cathy Gulli.
A humbled Phillips eventually told the media that winter was actually cancelled.
What happened is that the jet stream kept cold Arctic air far to the north, keeping temperatures higher than usual.
“Unusual,” “extraordinary,” “unbelievable” and “spectacular” are all superlatives used to describe the 2011-12 winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and across much of Canada.
Climatologists say temperatures across Canada have been increasing over the last 65 years, making winters 3°C warmer on average. The three warmest winters on record have all occurred over the last six years.
There may be an average warming trend, but winters are here to stay in the most northern country on the North American continent. What is predictable is that some winters will be cold, some will be warm; some will have less snow than normal, while others will have an abundance of snow.
The winter of 1875-76 was particularly cold in Manitoba, especially the month of February. The record low for February 4 in Winnipeg is -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 ... 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. Stewart McDonald gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom and as fresh as if it were June instead of December.” 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.
Manitobans can be reassurred they’ll have a white — and quite cold — Christmas. But after that, why can’t we be blessed by a repeat of the mild winter of 1877-78?