People and Places

Don’t cancel Ottawa’s winter: It’s on its way

Ottawa residents can stow their woolly hats and big snow boots and resign themselves to an unusually warm and snow-free Christmas.

David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, says it will definitely be a green Christmas in the capital city.

“Ottawa, the snowiest national capital in the world, is almost going to lose its reputation,” he says.

His department did the math on over six decades of records, and figured out the likelihood of a white Christmas in major cities across Canada.

Although Ottawa usually has a 75-per-cent chance of a snowy Christmas, it’s had a total of just 0.6 cm of snow so far.

The current forecast for Christmas Eve is 13, 18 degrees higher than it should be this time of year and the warmest on record, according to Phillips. Christmas Day is also projected to be much warmer than average, with a high of two degrees.

“Certainly kids getting toboggans or sleighs or saucers at Christmas will have to just bide their time and wait for the snows to arrive,” says Phillips.

While most are cheering the lack of ice and snow, Ottawa residents are different, explains Phillips.

Whether it’s skating on the Rideau Canal, skiing, or walking around the Parliament buildings, there’s always lots to do in Ottawa.

“I think the majority of Ottawa residents would be disappointed,” he says. “You don’t just hibernate and migrate, you engage winter.”

Warm rains and “tropical” weather will put a damper on winter activities, but Phillips says a light snow could come around Dec. 27 or 28.

While he couldn’t predict when Ottawa will get a big dump of snow, his sense is it will happen in the New Year, as temperatures start to normalize to below zero. The second half of winter will be colder, he cautions.

That leaves plenty of time for the Rideau Canal to freeze over and for powder-buffs to get their fix.

“We’re not cancelling winter,” says Phillips. “Just postponing it.”

Got your firewood stacked? Winter is on the way!
Got your firewood stacked? Winter is on the way!

Doug Gilham, a meteorologist with the Weather Network, says this winter will be shorter and less intense.

“It won’t be as extreme or as harsh as we saw last year during February, but we’re not completely off the hook for winter.”

The network released their “Ho! Ho! Snow Report” on Tuesday, revealing their forecast on the possibility of snow across the country.

“Geographically, about 90 per cent of Canada is covered in snow, but fewer than 50 per cent of Canadians will see a white Christmas,” says Gilham.

This year’s unseasonal weather is thanks to a “super El Niño” effect. El Niño “ is a regular phenomenon that occurs when warm waters accumulate along the equator from the International Date Line to the coasts of Peru and Ecuador, staying for at least three months and increasing the water temperature by half a degree.

It gets the moniker “super” when it covers a larger area, stays for longer, and heats up the water to a higher temperature. This year’s scenario raised the temperature by 3.1 degrees, explains Phillips.

The warmer waters affect air currents and storm systems, and create a warmer westerly current from the Pacific Ocean, rather than the cold north, crossing over North America.

Ottawa residents will remember the last super El Niño in 1998, which resulted in an ice storm that knocked out power, caused widespread damage, and required the deployment of the Canadian military.

Phillips says there is no need to worry this time. To recreate an ice storm of that magnitude would require a lot of factors coming together, and the effect of super El Niño is only one of many elements.

“I’d be a charlatan if I said buy your generator because you’re going to get a return performance of the terrible ice storm of ’98,” says Phillips.

Gilham says the Weather Network has not done spring forecasting yet, but explains that El Niño will weaken quickly. He expects a cold February that may linger into March.

“Spring should arrive pretty much on schedule this year,” he says.

Phillips says that although this is an unusual winter, Canadians shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it is climate change in action. That’s a trend that takes place over years.

“All seasons are warmer, particularly in the winter, so that is clearly climate change. But to describe one winter as the result of climate change, I think, is a mistake.”

He pointed to last year’s winter, one of the coldest and longest on record.

While many Ottawa residents will be disappointed not to see a fluffy cover of white this Christmas, Phillips says it isn’t all bad. Travel, for example, will be much safer and easier.

“All those in-laws that you want to leave on time and not stay over, they’ll be able to leave. You’re not going to have any unwanted house guests.”

And for children, Gilham says they won’t have to worry, either. While Santa won’t have the usual amount of powder to guide his sleigh, he will still find his way on Christmas Eve.