Prince Albert on ‘last leg’ of cold winter: Climatologist

Matt Gardner
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Spring may be a while away, but Canada’s top climatologist says Prince Albert should soon see a respite from one of the most bone-chilling winters in memory.

A fresh snowfall coats the John Diefenbaker statue in front of City Hall on Thursday afternoon. Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips says Prince Albert has passed the halfway point in a winter characterized by exceptionally cold temperatures, but slightly less snow than normal.

Noting the brutally cold temperatures that have characterized February, Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said that residents can shortly expect a return to single-digit temperatures for the first time in weeks.

While the next few days will continue to be colder than normal, he said, highs in the -4 to -2 C range next week will feel like a “tropical heatwave” by comparison.

“People are going to unzip their parkas, they’re going to take off their balaclavas and it’s going to feel like spring has sprung,” Phillips said.

“Especially with that heat from the sun being a little higher in the sky and (out) a little longer, I think people are going to feel in a pretty good mood.”

Typically at this time of the year, Prince Albert still has yet to receive 37 per cent of its annual snowfall.

Regarding both snowfall and temperatures, Phillips believed that the city had passed the halfway point in its latest long, cold winter.

“We clearly are on the upswing,” he said. “Every day is marginally warmer than the previous day. But it doesn’t rule out a return to some nasty Siberian air with a wallop of snow. I mean, I’d be the most surprised person in Canada if winter was over. It’s not over.

“We can see spring in the distance, but clearly we’re on the last leg of this winter … All the things astronomically are working for you. February is warmer than January, March is warmer than February. So we are moving. But I wouldn’t put away the snow shovel … yet.”

Phillips characterized the current winter as exceptionally cold. Despite a January thaw featuring single-digit temperatures, that mid-winter break was sandwiched by two frigid months in December and February.

Of the first 13 days in February, 11 had temperatures below -20 C, while five days saw temperatures fall below -30 C.

“I think quite indicative of what you’ve got in Prince Albert this winter is the days below -30,” Phillips said.

“Now, -20 is a raw day in Canada. Well, -30 is something that we’ve really maybe had twice in our history in Toronto … Many Canadians have never experienced -30. You’ve had 32 days this year where the temperature got below -30 … Normal would be -15 by this time.

“So you’ve had some very brutally cold temperatures,” he added. “It hasn’t been as long a winter as last year, but certainly the intensity of the cold has been there.”

On the other hand, Phillips noted that this year’s snowfall -- with 65 centimetres of snow thus far -- has been slightly lower than the average amount of 72 cm.

Less snow can mean a quicker transition from winter to spring due to the shorter melting period. Last winter, however, saw a lightning-quick transition to warmer weather despite the heavier snow.

Phillips explained this apparent contradiction through the sheer duration of last winter.

“It was really winter going on so long that it got rid of the snow gradually … What happened was that you did get spring, but it was rather on the cool side, one of the coldest springs on record,” he said.

We clearly are on the upswing. Every day is marginally warmer than the previous day. But it doesn’t rule out a return to some nasty Siberian air with a wallop of snow. David Phillips

“But what it did in its own almost perverse way is it got rid of the snow and got rid of the ice and allowed the flow to occur more naturally.”

As a result, flooding problems in Saskatchewan last spring were less severe than anticipated.

With less snow this season and the forecast from mid-February to mid-March predicting a return to normal temperatures, with more Pacific air and less Arctic air, Phillips said Prince Albert looks to have a more prolonged spring this year compared to last.

While the city might still receive snowfalls after the supposed onset of spring, such “April surprises” tend to dissipate quickly, usually melting after a day or two.

“You don’t even shovel it,” Phillips said. “Nature, what it giveth, it taketh away … and often those (snowfalls) can be, if they’re not huge … actually of great benefit to ranchers and to farmers, because they often bring a nice moisture shot to the upper levels of the soil.”

Looking ahead, early indications at Environment Canada suggest summer 2014 will be warmer than normal.

Despite the cold winters and hot summers of late, Phillips cautioned against drawing any conclusions regarding the impact of climate change, since weather refers to short-term conditions and climate concerns long-term developments.

“The fact that you’ve had two cold winters on the Prairies doesn’t mean that the ice age has cometh (and) global warming is no longer a threat,” he said.

“We look at the seasons over the last 60 years, there’s no question about it that your winters aren’t what they used to be. You could have a return to a real cold winter where people think ‘Oh my God … as an adult, I’ve not seen this in my whole life,’ and it may be true. We're seeing (in) Toronto this year probably the coldest (winter) in 20 years.

“But it doesn’t mean that we stop that threat. It just means that in the climate system, there is what we call variability -- these wild cards, these surprises, and one year does not a trend make. Even two years doesn’t.”

“People will make some case of that, however they feel, but it’s just not good science,” he added. “One is weather and one is climate.”

As Prince Albert continue to endure its brutal occupation by General Winter, Phillips acknowledged that the prolonged cold can wear people down after a while.

“At this time of the year, you almost have to really force yourself to look at positive things,” he said. “People are fed up with winter. I mean, it’s gone on since Halloween and people are getting a little nasty and weather rage is ready to break out.”

Warmer weather over the next weeks, he suggested, might tide residents over until spring begins in earnest.

“Be patient,” Phillips said. “It’s coming.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, Environment Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Toronto, Saskatchewan Pacific Arctic

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