Looking back at 65 years’ worth of statistics, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist David Phillips noted that since 1948, winter temperatures in the prairie regions have increased by an average of four degrees Celsius.
“That’s a huge change,” Phillips said. “In my business, I get excited by half a degree change … If we look at some of the other seasons, we see summer, for example, has not even warmed by one degree … The temperatures changes and fluctuations are often much greater in the wintertime than the summer …
“Now, four degrees, I mean … that’s a trend. That’s over 65 years … almost three quarters of a century. That isn’t just some American air or polar air. That’s clearly a shift in our climate. So my sense is that … the winters being warmer is something that is climate change.”
Phillips quickly clarified that he was not suggesting what the cause of that climactic shift might be, since such changes can have natural or human causes. He stressed the difference between climate (long-term statistics) and weather (what we see out our window each day).
Ironically, warmer weather can mean greater snowfall.
“As we warm up, we may see more moisture, we may see more moist air masses, and therefore we could very well see more snow rather than less snow, because the air masses are going to be more moist and so therefore you’re going to be able to wring out more snow than you would be if it was dry air,” Phillips said.
“Dry Arctic air is as dry as the desert. It snows in the North Pole, but less in the North Pole than it does in Victoria, for example. It may snow every day up in the North Pole, but it’s often just a skiff snow, a few flakes here and there … You don’t get these big dumps of snow (there) because it’s too cold.”
Drawing broad conclusions on climate from yearly weather statistics is a difficult task, since there are so many variables at play.
Last year, for example, Prince Albert had four days when the temperature fell below -30 C. This year it has already had nine -- and yet Phillips said that overall, the city is experiencing a milder January than usual.
What is indisputable is that since October, Prince Albert has faced snow in levels far exceeding historical averages up to January. On average the city receives approximately 110 centimetres of snow each year, with the bulk falling between October and April.
“This year so far, Prince Albert has had around 104 cm of snow,” Environment Canada warning preparedness meteorologist for Saskatchewan John Paul Cragg said.
“It still has three months of snowfall potential … February, March (and) April are all months that have historically seen a decent amount of snow. So there’s still a lot of snow to be had for the area. Whether … it’s (a) record, that really has to wait to be seen.”
The largest yearly snowfall ever recorded in Prince Albert was 225.8 cm in 1920. The second highest was 198.2 cm in 1897, with the third being 186.4 cm in 1955.
As we warm up, we may see more moisture ... and therefore we could very well see more snow rather than less snow. - David Phillips
Conversely, the city’s lowest annual snowfall was 28.9 cm in 1929, followed by 37.1 cm in 1914 and 42.7 cm in 1892.
“For October to January totals, between now and … the year 2003-2004, we’re higher than it has been,” Cragg said.
“So essentially … we’re higher right now than it has been in the past 10 years for snowfall.”
That verdict would likely not come as a surprise to beleaguered Prince Albert residents who have been busy shoveling their sidewalks or digging their cars out of snowbanks.
The growing resources needed to keep city streets clear have become a hot topic at City Hall. Mayor Greg Dionne indicated at Monday’s city council meeting that Prince Albert would soon be on an emergency footing if it received 10 to 20 cm more snow.
Still, Phillips endeavoured to point out that the ever-increasing snowfall has its advantages.
“It’s good moisture for crops,” he said, before adding, “Of course, you don’t know whether it’s going to lead to flooding if you continue to get more and more snow. But it’s good moisture for a sort of moisture that was a little starved there as we came out of the growing season.
“I always think the weather you’re cursing right now may be the weather you’re blessing later on … It does kill grasshoppers and larvae and it kills diseases and things like this, so sometimes what appears to be not nice is actually to our benefit.”