Spring forecast: Cool and wet to continue

Talk about a strange winter. Last month was the coldest February since 1994. Iqaluit in Nunavut was warmer than Toronto in January. Parts of the U.S. Midwest and eastern Canada have had 400 per cent more snow.

According to Roger Pannett, volunteer weather observer for Environment Canada, that bitterly cold Arctic ridge during the last week of February dropped temperatures to -10.0oC (11.5oC below normal) on February 25th , the coldest February temperature in 21 years. But with those strong outflow blasts, the wind chill in the Chilliwack area was a frigid -22oC.

With La Nina building last fall, there were dire predictions we would have the coldest, snowiest winter in 50 years. But we ended up book-ending the late fall/ winter season with only two real winter months: November (the coldest in seven years with mean temperatures 1.53oC below normal) and February. Wet and mild defined December and January with January 16th recording a record breaking 12.8oC (9.2oC above normal).

Speaking of records, this winter has been another of extremes. Some parts of the U.S. Midwest and eastern Canada are bracing for spring floods after all that snow. And the Inuit folks are still scratching their heads about their strange winter.  At New Year’s, Iqaluit’s temperature was 0oC, 22 degrees above normal. Toronto was -2oC.

“During the first week of January schools were closed up north because of too much rain,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada. “In Iqaluit, their New Year’s celebration is usually fireworks on the ice. This year it was on a barge in open water. Their snowmobile parade was cancelled because of balmy conditions. It was just so weird, so upside down and beyond being a novelty. It was serious for the people in terms of hunting and fishing and the threats to their safety (from unstable ice).”

And there are ominous warning signs in those mild Arctic conditions.

“There’s a real big scratch-your-head in the scientific circle going on in terms of this extreme, strange weather,” explained Phillips. “Scientists are wondering if it’s because of vanishing Arctic ice. All this strange weather seems to be traced back to that.”

He explained that Arctic ice is one of the major climate controls. The ice is the world’s refrigerator, keeping the whole global system in balance.

It’s a major force but with the ice melting and the prospect of the north becoming ice-free, ocean patterns will profoundly change.

“(Climate change) naysayers may ask what happened to global warming,” said Phillips. “We’re seeing more snow, ice, cold. But more wintery conditions may be because of climate change and the opening Arctic. During the Ice Age we had glaciers that covered most of Canada and it was when the Arctic was open. The climate-ocean system is very complex.”

Not only is the annual ice disappearing but the thick multi-year ice is thinning and breaking.

One statistic shows that multi-year ice represents about 19 per cent of the ice in the north. Thirty years ago it represented 90 per cent. Phillips predicts it could be gone in 20 to 30 years.

The Arctic may be remote but its effects could be anything but. Melting ice and open water could be the driver behind severe storms impacting crop production leading to food shortages and the current escalating prices.

According to Phillips, long range weather predictions for this spring are that it will be cooler and wetter than normal.

“This La Nina is very strong and it has carried on longer than normal,” said Phillips. “It’s still a force so spring will be delayed. But our indications for summer show that June, July and August will be warmer and dryer than normal.”