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Early snow doesn’t equal snowy winter

It seemed to catch pretty much everyone by surprise, including yours truly. What looked to be an innocent area of low pressure, expected to stay well to the southeast of Manitoba late last week, ended up bringing the first taste of winter to much of eastern and south-central Manitoba.

Most of southeastern Manitoba saw a significant dump of wet snow late last week and while it caused a major headache for many, the moisture was more than welcome. Snow fell in most areas east of the Red River over a two-day period and by the time all was said and done, some pretty impressive totals were recorded. Table 1 is a list of some of the amounts recorded by Environment Canada.

Farther west, most of the precipitation came down as rain or a mix of rain and snow, with little snowfall accumulating. Looking at satellite images on the Saturday following this storm system, you could easily see all the snow that fell over eastern regions. Another swath of snow fell in south-central Manitoba, running from near Portage south-southeastward, toward the U.S. border. This band of snow was likely the result of the influence of Lake Manitoba. The heavy snow that fell just to the east of Lake Winnipeg was also probably the result of moisture coming off Lake Winnipeg. You could see in the same satellite image that the moisture and heat coming off Lake Winnipeg resulted in rain falling to the immediate south and east of the lake, as no snow was on the ground in these regions, while there was snow on the ground along the west side of the lake.

Whenever we get an early dump of snow the talk seems to quickly shift to how this is a sign of the winter to come. I’m not sure why this is, but I thought I’d check into this mindset, to see if early snowfalls are harbingers of snowy winters.

When I started to look back at the weather records for early snowfall, I noticed there were no large-scale October snowfall events. That is, either western Manitoba received snow, or eastern Manitoba did. I could not find one occurrence where both regions received snow at the same time in October.

Looking at western regions, using Brandon’s weather data, I found that greater than 10 centimetres of snow have fallen on at least 15 occasions going back 100 years. The last couple of times were as recent as 2009 and 2005. During both of those winters Brandon recorded average amounts of snow (Brandon’s average snowfall from October to March is 103 cm). Further back in Brandon’s weather history, one year in particular had what can only be described as the worst October on record — that is, unless you love snow. In 1959, western regions of Manitoba saw not just one day with greater than 10 cm of snow during October, but a remarkable four days! In total, in October 1959, Brandon recorded an astounding 90 cm of snow, or nearly a whole winter’s total. Interestingly, during the rest of that winter, Brandon only recorded a further 76 cm, bringing the winter total to 166 cm, well short of the record-setting year of 1903-04 when 241.3 cm of snow fell.

Farther east, using Winnipeg’s weather data, we find this area has also seen at least 15 significant October snowfalls over the last 100 or so years. The last one occurred in 2003, when 15 cm of snow fell on Oct. 27. The winter following saw near-average amounts of snow (“average” is about 113 cm for Winnipeg). What was interesting about Winnipeg’s data, compared to Brandon’s, was that nearly all of Winnipeg’s significant October snowfalls occurred during the last few days of the month, while in Brandon, there were several significant snowfalls earlier in the month. That said, there was one year that had a significant early-October snowfall: 1950, when 12.7 cm of snow fell on Oct. 2. I checked the following winter and found only 102 cm of snow fell, which is below average and way below the record winter snow for Winnipeg, 250.9 cm in 1955-56.

Overall, significant October snowfalls in southern Manitoba, while not a regular occurrence, are not that unusual either. Also, there does not appear to be any correlation between early snowfalls and snowy winters. So, for those of you who saw some of this early snow, it will melt away, if it hasn’t already — and it’s not yet time to hit the panic button about the winter to come.

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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