Climatologists try their luck at predicting coming winter

Science & Technology by
Gabriela Gilmour

For a few hours on the night of October 30, Montrealers got their first taste of snow this season. Though they might get a break for the next few weeks, students shouldn’t put their hats and mittens in deep storage.   

This year, waters are cooler in the Eastern Pacific, a phenomenon known as La Niña. While these waters are thousands of miles away, they exert significant influence on weather patterns in North America. In La Niña years, temperatures tend to be below average, while precipitation is above average.

“If you were an odds player, you would probably bet a few more loonies on it being colder and snowier,” said David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada.

The rules, however, are not hard and fast, and La Niña years are notoriously difficult to forecast.

In fact, in their tentative long-term forecasts, experts are going against the general La Niña trend this year. Environment Canada is predicting above average temperatures and lower precipitation.  AccuWeather agrees that temperatures will be higher, but says that there will be more storms.

“We do expect above normal snowfall this winter,” said Andy Mussoline, an AccuWeather meteorologist.  

Whatever happens, it won’t be nearly as warm and dry as the record breaking levels last year.

“The oddest thing of all, was that Ottawa had less snow than Washington [D.C.],” Phillips said.  “Come on, we’ve never seen that before. Ottawa is the snowiest national capital in the world and it was beat out by Washington.”

In an average winter, Montreal will have 19 days on which the temperature is -20 degrees Celsius or less. Last year, it only had three. The Eastern U.S., on the other hand, had its roughest winter in recent memory: Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Baltimore all shattered their seasonal snowfall records.   

“I spent the winter in Florida—it was the coldest winter I’ve ever spent,” Phillips said. “And it cost me money! It was really the pits, and I’m sure a lot of Quebecers in Florida were thinking, ‘Let’s go back home … the weather is warmer up there.'”

Meteorologists agree that winters have been generally warmer recently, though they disagree about the causes.   

“I’m not sure what you’d call it: climate change, global warming,” Phillips said. “It could be cyclical, it could be sunspots, whatever you want to call it. [But] we know that our winters are not as brutal as they used to be.”

For the foreseeable future, though, winters are still going to be winters. While the data suggests some sort of climate shift, it’s still going to be hard to get up at 8:30 a.m. in February.    

Despite Environment Canada and AccuWeather’s predicting a warmer-than-average winter, it’s still going  to feel cold compared to last year.       

The way the public perceives weather trends can be very different from what’s actually happening. For instance, it seems like there’s been more rain than ever this fall. Rainfall totals in September and October were well above average, but they’re far from record breaking. Instead of raining a lot, it’s only rained often—consistency, not quantity.

“It’s not so much that you’ve been record wet, it’s that it’s been like the water torture test,” Phillips said.     

However it pans out, it’s probably safe to settle in for a long winter.

“I feel [the winter] will affect me positively for a week, and then negatively for many weeks,” said Gareth Dicker, U0 mechanical engineering.