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Groundhogs out of step with milder weather

Groundhog forecasters Wiarton Willie, Shubenacadie Sam and Punxsutawney Phil have unanimously predicted six more weeks of winter, but so far the season hasn’t been all that winter-like.

“For the most part in Waterloo Region, the biggest story so far this winter has been the lack of snow,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson.

Only 21.8 centimetres of snow fell at the Region of Waterloo International Airport in January. Normal snowfall for the month is 43.5 cm. Apart from the traditional snowbelt areas along Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, which experience lake-effect snow, the pattern has been the same across the province.

Not only was there less snow, but there was less precipitation overall, setting a new record low in Waterloo. The total precipitation includes snow melted into water, rain and freezing rain. The average for January is 64.4 millimetres; last month, the total precipitation was 20.5mm, breaking a record set in 1981.

January was also milder than normal, with an average temperature of -6.2 degrees Celsius, warmer than the long-term average of -7.1.

“We were on pace to have a somewhat milder month than we ended up with, but that cold snap the last three or four days of the month dropped things back down a bit,” Coulson said.

This winter’s unusual weather is partly due to El Niño. Every two to seven years, sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal, shifting the jet stream south. El Niño tends to produce warmer and drier winters than normal in southern Ontario.

The shift in the jet stream has also meant fewer storm systems moving into this area. Normally low pressure systems from the Gulf Coast and Colorado move into southern Ontario and dump freezing rain or snow on this area. This winter, those systems are moving through the southern part of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and then through the mid-Atlantic states.

“We’re being brushed by the extreme northern edge of the system or we’re missing it altogether,” Coulson said.

The trend of less snowfall than usual seems likely to continue through February and March. The only difference we’re likely to see is slightly colder temperatures in the coming weeks.

“For folks travelling around in their vehicles, probably not bad news. For those hoping the cross country ski trails or snowmobile trails may get more of a base on them, that may be a bit more problematic.”

And even though the weather-prognosticating groundhogs are all predicting six more weeks of winter, Coulson said they’re likely jumping the gun on the arrival of spring, at least in southern Ontario. Normal daytime highs in mid-March are 3 or 4 degrees, and normal daytime lows are about -4 or -5 degrees.

“Not really what a lot of people would consider spring-like conditions. You’ve almost got to go another four weeks into mid-April.”

Coulson agreed that perhaps the Canadian prognosticators need to revise their time frames.

“With our climate, I don’t know why they pick six weeks – six weeks from [Groundhog Day] being the middle of March. Anybody who’s lived in this area knows we can still get some nasty winter weather in March and even into early April.”

Making his prediction from Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil has a better chance of being accurate, as the climate there can be much milder in mid-March than Ontario. The odds are stacked higher against Balzac Billy north of Calgary, where spring is even slower to arrive.

Those looking for signs of spring can take some comfort in the longer daylight hours, as the shortest day of the year is now well behind us.

“Going home at night, it’s not pitch black by 4:30 or 5. Even if it’s going to take somewhat longer to get those milder temperatures back, we are going to see the length of the days slowly increasing in the coming weeks. I think for a lot of people psychologically, that tends to be a bit of a help especially for those that are starting to get a little tired of the season.”

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