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Jury still out on what winter holds in store for us

After a blissfully warm November, winter has arrived in Waterloo Region, with two centimetres of snow falling Tuesday and Wednesday. However, it’s cold, not snow, that is likely to be the dominant theme this winter, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips.

“In southern Ontario, we’re calling for normal to belo- normal temperatures,” he said this week.

“The last place for winter to arrive has actually been southern Ontario,” Phillips noted. “We’ve seen snow in the Atlantic, we’ve seen brutal cold out west, we’ve seen snow in the northern part of Ontario, but now we’re getting our introduction to winter.”

Environment Canada divides the year into quarters, with the winter count starting Dec. 1. While October was wet and cool, September and November were both warmer than normal. November, usually the gloomiest month of the year, was both drier and sunnier than normal, with temperatures 2.5 to 3 degrees higher on average.

Forecasters are predicting that winter in Canada will lack some of its usual bite because of the recurrence of El Niño. Every two to seven years, sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal.  Warmer Pacific Ocean waters tend to shift the jet stream south, meaning a warmer winter with less snow in Canada.

Whether southern Ontario will see a milder winter depends on how strong El Niño conditions are, Phillips explained. If El Niño is weak, those warm Pacific breezes will fade out over Winnipeg and the cold air will sweep in and leave southern Ontario colder than normal.

“It all depends on how close to the Pacific coast you are,” he said. “If El Niño is strong, then we will certainly benefit from some of those warm breezes. But if it tends to be moderate or weaker, then we will see our share of cold, cold weather.”

We could see a return to double-digit temperatures – southern Ontario almost always has a January thaw – but any warm spells will be short-lived.

“We will certainly learn to appreciate even more the kind of fall we had as we get into winter.”

Phillips cautioned that despite all the data and modeling involved, long-range weather forecasting is an inexact science at best.

“It’s all conjecture, it’s all speculation,” he said.

One thing meteorologists do know is that winter has arrived later than normal. We likely won’t see a repeat of last year’s record snowfalls, simply because winter has been slow off the starting blocks.

The University of Waterloo weather station recorded only one day of trace snow in November, making it one of the least snowiest Novembers in the region since weather records started in 1914.

“Last year this time, we probably were dealing with anywhere between 40 and 50 cm of snow and probably 20-some days of snow, and now you can count the number of days with snow on one hand,” Phillips said. “Even if it made up with a really snowy rest of the winter, it still is short a bit by 10 per cent because nothing has fallen at the front end of winter.”

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