‘The lost season’: winter comes to an end as the warmest ever recorded in Canada

The warmest winter on record could have far-reaching effects on everything from wildfire season to erosion, climatologists say, while offering a preview of what the season could look like in the not-too-distant future unless measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Winter comes to an end Tuesday night (early Wednesday morning on Canada’s east coast) with the arrival of the spring equinox. But climatologist David Phillips says it’s almost as if this winter in Canada never happened.

“I called it the lost season,” said Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Canada broke temperature records this winter, and it wasn’t close, Phillips said, referring to national data dating back to 1948.

While the end of winter is usually marked by the equinox, climatologists look at what is known as meteorological winter, the three-month period from December to February. During that period, Canada was 5.2 C warmer than average, Phillips said. That’s 1.1 degrees higher than the previous record set in 2009-2010.

There were bouts of extreme winter weather across Canada, from a deep freeze in the Prairies in January to massive snowfall in the Maritimes in February. But the unusual, warmer-than-normal weather was widely felt across the country.

This winter, Phillips said, “it was put on hold, not frozen.”

Some people may have been grateful for relief on heating bills or periodic mild days, but Phillips says the record temperatures changed Canada’s winter lifestyle. Winter festivals were cancelled, ski resorts closed, and flora and fauna emerged prematurely. Remote First Nations in Ontario and Manitoba that rely on icy roads have issued states of emergency due to the poor conditions.

Outdoor skating, often considered a postcard image of Canada’s winter life, was also affected. Ottawa’s iconic Rideau Canal skating rink was open for a few days this winter, following an unprecedented season-long closure the previous year.

Damon Matthews, a climate scientist at Concordia University who has tracked the impact of climate change on skating rinks, cited Wayne Gretzky and Joni Mitchell when noting the place of outdoor skating in Canada’s imagination of winter.

Mitchell’s longing for a “river I could skate on,” evoked in his 1971 song “River,” may be shared not only by those who fled to California, but by people across Canada this year and for years to come. , said. Gretzky’s origin story of him learning to play on outdoor rinks may be a story denied to other aspiring hockey players in southern Ontario.

“It’s a shame that this is the case,” he said.

Experts say the drivers of this winter’s record heat include El Niño and human-caused climate change. Other related factors include record global ocean temperatures and residual heat from early 2023.

El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon that typically occurs every two to seven years, was strong this year but not the strongest. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization said it missed its peak in at least two other El Niño winters in 1997 and 2015.

“El Niño has contributed to these record temperatures, but heat-trapping greenhouse gases are unequivocally the main culprit,” WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo said in an update earlier this month, referring to a series of consecutive monthly global temperature records.

Climate change is expected to increase winter temperatures more than any other season in Canada, said Phillips, a climatologist with Environment Canada. If the world continues to emit greenhouse gases on a “normal” scale until 2050, Phillips says his own community of Barrie in central Ontario could see winters as warm as this one on a regular basis around 2065.

Less snow on the ground due to spring thaw means less water available to irrigate cropland and replenish reservoirs. As snow melts, it also helps reduce the risk of wildfires.

Almost all of western Canada, northern Ontario and parts of northern Quebec were under drought conditions at the end of February, according to a recent update from Environment Canada. Parts of southern Alberta and northern British Columbia reported conditions typically seen once every 50 years.

“Drought season, wildfire season, all of this is coming, but sometimes the seeds are sown in the winter,” Phillips said.

The Great Lakes ice sheet, which helps protect the coast from erosion during winter storms, also hit record lows in February. Erosion concerns extend to coastal areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including Prince Edward Island, Phillips said.

But there is a fine line between having clarity about the consequences of climate change and despairing over a preventable outcome, said Matthews, the Concordia climate scientist.

“We need to get our act together and stop arguing, as a country, about whether this is even a problem or a priority,” he said, adding that Canada “is not moving forward the way we need to.”

“Outdoor skating is a consequence of that, but at the same time, many, many worse things will happen if we don’t move forward.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024.

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