From a climatological point of view, winter is now over: the 12-month year is broken into four equally long seasons, with winter covering December, January and February. From a southern and central Manitoba view, we still have one month to go. For us, winter starts in November and usually ends in March. Looking back at our winter so far, I just can’t seem to come up with the right word to describe it. Did we see unusual weather? How about “strange?” Maybe the best way to describe the winter of 2016-17 is “unique.”
I’m not quite an old-timer yet, though I will turn 50 in a couple of months, but thinking back, I can’t remember a winter that behaved like this one did: three record-breaking warm spells, broken up by periods of intense cold that brought with them cold warnings. The winter started off with no snow, then we received so much snow we didn’t know what to do with it. Just when everyone was really starting to worry about all the snow, the snow machine turned off. “Unique” weather, indeed.
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The best place to start a review of winter is to go back to November. Thinking back on it now, November kind of set the tone for the winter, at least in part. November 2016 wasn’t really November. With temperatures that ran as much as 12 C above average during the month it felt more like October. Most locations across the central and eastern Prairies shattered their records for the warmest November on record. Precipitation during the month was near average, but most of it fell as rain. Combine November’s rain with the warm weather and the fairly heavy rains that fell in October and we were heading into December with no snow and wet, basically unfrozen ground.
December began warm and it was beginning to look like winter might not show up at all. When the second week rolled around, the cold air moved in, and along with it we received our first good dumping of snow. The cold weather lasted until just before Christmas. Temperatures soared back up to near the freezing mark, giving us near-perfect weather leading into the holidays. Then my near-perfect Christmas happened when a blizzard/snowstorm moved across the region late on Christmas Day and into Boxing Day. This storm really bumped up the snow totals and created a thick layer of insulating snow that prevented the ground from freezing very deep.
January 2017 started off cold with several nights during the first half of the month experiencing lows in the -30s and several days struggling to make it to -20 C. Combine this cold with some shots of measurable snow and talk turned toward us finally paying for all of the warm weather we saw earlier in the winter. Then, at the exact halfway point of the month, temperatures did a 180-degree turn and we experienced our second major warm spell of the winter (the first one was the extraordinary warmth we experienced in November and early December). Temperatures climbed above 0 C and stayed there for several days. This resulted in a fairly significant reduction in the snowpack, at least for January. Looking at snow data, I’d estimate snow depth dropped by around 25 per cent during this warm spell.
February ended up being a repeat of January. The first half of the month was cold with overnight lows flirting with the -30 C mark on a few days. Then the third record-breaking warm spell of the winter moved in during the second half of the month. Once again we saw temperatures climb well above freezing and our second significant thaw began. This warm spell resulted in a large reduction in the snowpack, with estimates of around 40 per cent of it either melting or compressing.
Overall, the warm weather has easily beaten out the cold weather. The mean temperature for winter (December to February) has been between 2 and 2.5 C above average. Precipitation has been near to above average thanks to the heavy snowfalls in December.
Looking back at the predictions for this winter I would have to the give the nod to… me! My forecast called for an up-and-down winter with several shots of cold weather interspersed with above average temperatures; got that part bang on. I called for precipitation to be above average, which is pretty close. Sometimes you just guess right!
Will the pattern hold?
Looking ahead to March and April, Environment Canada calls for a colder-than-average March followed by near-average temperatures in April. Its precipitation forecast calls for near-average amounts. The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls for near-average temperatures and precipitation in March with near-average precipitation in April, but slightly below-average temperatures. The Canadian Farmers’ Almanac appears to call for an absolutely dreadful start to spring: it mentions wet, stormy, showery, chilly, cold weather more times than I can count over the next two months.
Last but not least, my forecast. I think we will continue to see the same pattern we have had all winter. This means the first half of March will likely be colder than average, with the second half warmer. The current cold period doesn’t look like it will be too extreme, so overall, I think March will end up being slightly warmer than average. Precipitation is always tough, so I am going to wimp out and call for near-average amounts. All bets are off for April, so spinning my magic weather wheel tells me it will be cooler and wetter than average. Stupid weather wheel!