A few months ago, the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s forecast for February 13 to 28 was for snowy periods and frigid weather.
Actually, it has been unseasonably warm for much of the winter in so-called “Winterpeg.” Recently, in fact, there has been rain instead of the usual snow, melting snow sculptures, water-filled streets, an early return of pothole season and some cancelations of events that need more frigid weather conditions.
Environment Canada reported a temperature of 5.6°C in Winnipeg on Friday, February 17, which broke the previous record of 5.4°C established in 1981. For the rest of the week, temperatures were also above zero, such as 2°C on the 21st. It is only by the weekend that daily highs will drop to minus figures, according to Environment Canada.
Lest anyone has forgotten, high temperature records were also established across the province in January. And November — the month when winter is normally launched — was also especially warm.
The warmer than normal temperatures in February led to a number of cancellations such as Rendez-vous on the Ice during the Festival du Voyageur and the second annual Wild Winter Canoe Race for charity. Melting ice also resulted in the removal of the warming huts at The Forks from the Assiniboine and Red rivers.
Still, this winter has been the exception and not the rule. Winters are usually cold in Winnipeg and Manitoba, although there have been unusually warm winters in the past.
For example, on Christmas 1877, seven competitors came to David Adams’ farm for 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.
Weather in Manitoba was officially recorded for the first time in 1873, although Hudson’s Bay Company and private recordings had been taken in prior years.
According to Environment Canada, the normal average temperature in Winnipeg during December, January and February is -15.3°C and the normal amount of snowfall is 111 centimetres.
James Stewart, who recorded the official weather in Winnipeg during the winter of 1877-78 using the Fahrenheit and Imperial measurement scales, reported the highest temperature reached in the city in December was 47.4°F (8.5°C) on the 28th and the lowest was a relatively balmy -3.2°F (-10.4°C) on the 6th.
“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 of winter.”
While the contest was being held near Scratching River, Thomas Longbottom plowed an acre in his Winnipeg market garden to a depth of seven inches (17.8 centimetres). Longbottom was reported to have said he had never plowed with such ease.
In Lorette, Manitoba (approximately 10 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg), Camille Henry plowed to a depth of six inches (15.2 centimetres).
Besides someone claiming to have seen a frog, an odd sighting was a mosquito at Point Douglas, according to the Free Press. Another unusual sighting was a large grey goose 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 newspaper.
“From the appearance of the bird it is judged that it had come from far south, as the feathers were remarkably clean.”
S.L. Bedson, an employee at the penitentiary in Stony Mountain, shot a mallard duck in the swamp to the northeast of the prison.
Stewart McDonald also gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom and 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 around the province, the Free Press wondered whether Manitobans were living in California or Texas.
At Selkirk, residents took advantage of the warm weather to hold a tea party on the ice. A large tent was erected under which the ice was covered with straw and buffalo robes. A stove was placed in the tent to “take off the chilliness” of the evening.
In Winnipeg, residents encountered “muddy roads, slippery sidewalks, over-flowing rain barrels, and buffalo coats, discarded for oilskins.”
Across Manitoba, roads were reported to be in deplorable condition due to the warm weather.
“If it is a matter of doubt in his mind whether to believe the almanac or ‘appearances’ as to what period of the year it really is ...,” commented the Free Press on December 29.
As 1877 came to an end, Winnipeggers proudly acknowledged the progress made in their community since “those who knew the little frontier settlement, the Fort Garry of a few years ago, (and) would hardly recognize it today ...
“The rapid strides in the march of improvement have in no other place on this mundane sphere been more apparent or noticeable than in the metropolis of the North-West (December 22, Free Press). The newspaper reported that, aided by the unseasonable weather, building was ongoing. The buildings were claimed to “be creditable to cities in any of the older and more wealthy countries ...”
At the time, Winnipeg had a population estimated at only 6,000 people.
While Christmas Day 1877 witnessed some unusual events and a multitude of celebrations, New Year’s Day was apparently more sedate due to the toll the weather took on roads.
“The custom of making complimentary calls was not so generally observed Tuesday as usual on New Year’s Day,” reported the Free Press on January 5, 1878. “The rough state of the roads prevented the use of any kind of vehicle by those who had any consideration for their comfort or for the safety of their horses.”
While the unseasonably warm winter was baffling to Manitobans in 1877-78, we know today that the exceptionally warm weather was the result of an El Niño event. Climatologists researching past El Niños have ranked the 1877-78 event as one of the strongest in the last 500 years.
On the other hand, the warm days of this winter has been attributed to the
occasional low pressure system drawing up a lot of moisture and warmer weather from the south, according to Environment Canada.