The Canadian winter that never was

In 65 years, we’ve never seen such warm winter days with so little snow

Cathy Gulli with Gabriela Perdomo
The winter that never was
Photograph by Tim Smith

Canada without winter is a foreign place. Not white, not cold, not snowy, like most of us have known it to be. Not conducive to carnivals across the country that attempt to celebrate this inhospitable but beautiful season. For 43 years, Winnipeg has hosted the Festival du Voyageur in February—when winter has traditionally been most wintry. “We have snow sculptures, the snow maze, the snow mountain, toffee [served] on snow, and the snow bar,” explains spokesperson Emili Bellefleur. One would have to be hypothermic not to see the importance of snow.

So, when the city received nearly none from above this season, there was only one thing to do: fake it. More than 200 loads of man-made snow were delivered by a local company, which usually supplies ski resorts. It wasn’t free; the bill totalled $10,000. And it wasn’t ideal. “We saw brown, rusty spots from the dump truck, and the texture wasn’t as good. You could see chunks of ice,” says Bellefleur. But “it was real snow. Not Styrofoam or plastic.” Or mud or dead grass. And in the winter, in Canada, that matters.

This is, after all, a country so defined by snow and cold that our money features outdoor ice skaters and hockey players (the $5 bill), polar bears (the toonie), snowy owls (old $50 bills) and icebreakers (new $50 bills). We boast corporate empires built around the sale of snow tires and shovels (Canadian Tire), cold medication (Shoppers Drug Mart), long johns (Stanfield’s), down-filled coats (Canada Goose), and even hot chocolate served at Christmas in paper cups decorated with snowflakes and, of course, outdoor ice skaters and hockey players (Tim Hortons). Among the most valuable paintings by two of our most famous artists (Paul Kane and Lawren Harris) are those of stunning snowy, icy settings. Our fermented frozen grapes are world-class, and no other country produces more or better maple syrup than us. Canada is, as we all have sung, “the true North,” thank you very much.

That our national identity, our culture and our economy are so tied to winter makes what’s happened over the last few months all the more disconcerting. On average, Canada experienced temperatures 3.6° C higher than normal this winter, and 18 per cent less precipitation. This season was, in fact, the third warmest and the second driest in 65 years. Which might not sound so bad except that the last two times it was warmer, in 2009-10 and 2005-06, it was much snowier and wetter. And the last time it was drier, in 1956-57, it was colder. Until now, Canada has never had such hot days with so little snow. “So in many ways,” says David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, “this has truly been the year that winter was cancelled.”

Even more unusual: this was the exact situation in every region, no matter how far north or south, east or west. “In the second-largest country in the world, it’s hard to get the same story,” explains Phillips, but “Canadians from Goobies, Nfld., to Yoho, B.C., to Kugluktuk, Nunavut,” were all asking one question: “Where is winter?”

We were, in other words, united in the absence of the one thing that has long united us. Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Ont., and Halifax all experienced 25 per cent less snow this year than normal, while Regina, Ottawa, and Montreal received more than a third less. In Vancouver, rather than the typical 45 cm of precipitation, they got just eight. In Toronto, only 38 cm of snow fell, compared to the usual 90 cm. It was never below -20° C for 24 hours in Toronto or Halifax, which usually get at least a few days that cold. Everywhere, the number of sub-zero days dropped. “It really has been a spectacular winter across the country,” says Phillips. “It’s just been unbelievable. I can’t remember a winter like it.”

For better or worse, this will remain a memorable winter in the ways that it has affected every aspect of Canadian society—and the ways it might yet. Construction starts have increased, while demand for natural gas for heating has decreased. Retailers of winter apparel and sports equipment have laid off employees to offset excess inventory, or slashed prices to below-profit levels. ATVs have supplanted snowmobiles as the recreational rental vehicle of choice. Sales of cottages have risen because buyers have been able to use seasonal roads to see properties; car sales have risen because good road conditions make for enthusiastic shoppers. Cities have spent less on snow removal and salting, but more on fixing potholes.

Flu rates have been low, partly because we haven’t been cooped up inside, exchanging germs. Robins have arrived early from the south; some never left. Hibernating animals and amphibians are rousing sooner than usual; some never went to sleep. Pests weren’t killed off by the cold, and will probably be worse than ever in the months ahead: alfalfa weevils, corn flea beetles, bean leaf beetles and pine beetles could ravage crops and trees. (Blackflies, ticks, hornets and wasps could plague us like never before.) And grass fires—yes, grass fires—have raged in the Prairies this winter. “Albertans have to be just as careful now as they would be in the middle of summer,” warned a local official.

But perhaps the biggest consequence of this “warmer and drier than normal winter” will be what it means to our sense of self. “From the very beginning, winter was embraced as something that described a distinctive Canadian identity. Something that distinguished Canada from American and British culture, and from other European nations,” says Cynthia Sugars, an English professor at the University of Ottawa. Cartoons from the time of Confederation show early settlers ridiculing newcomers struggling to cope with the unfathomable cold and snow. “Being able to adapt to winter [has been] taken as a sign of belonging, of becoming Canadian, in a way.”

Without this defining season to set us apart, to demonstrate how tough and determined we are as a people—to hang our flag on, so to speak—what does it mean to be Canadian? “I don’t think people have been talking about winter in cultural terms yet. People talk about it in terms of the destruction of the planet and global warming and in environmental terms. Canadians are worried about those things,” says Sugars. “But I’m not sure it’s really hit them, to tell you the truth, in terms of what this will do to Canadians’ sense of themselves. And I think that’s a very interesting question.”

For the last 65 years, temperatures have risen across the country, and all signs suggest this will continue. Winter is melting away from Canada. And it’s threatening to take our national identity with it. “We feel that we are heroes, that we are battling the snow. There’s a whole mythology that Canada is cold,” says Franke James, a Toronto-based author and artist whose work often includes themes relating to warming winters and what they signal about the way we live today, and what they might mean for our future. To her, “Canada without winter is a huge loss,” she says. “This is really going to shake our identity to the core.”

Before winter had begun, weather experts were warning Canadians to brace for an exceptionally cold and snowy season. “Every forecaster worth their salt was saying the same thing. Even the Americans were saying, ‘Canada, get ready, you’re going to have the worst winter in 20 years,’ ” says Phillips. “We kept waiting, and we kept saying, ‘It’s warm in December, but just you wait, in January and February [winter] is going to kick into effect!’ ” It never did, as we all now know. But those wildly inaccurate predictions haven’t been forgotten. They are, says Phillips, “the embarrassment of this year.”

They weren’t unfounded, however. Forecasters were anticipating that winter would fall mercy to the power of La Niña, a phenomenon caused by an ocean-atmosphere interaction that cools the waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and typically produces a bitter, snowy winter in Canada. Although that didn’t happen, it was a good bet: “When you look at the last 16 La Niñas, the vast majority produced winters that were colder than normal,” explains Phillips. “You’d go to the bank on that.”

Rather, another weather phenomenon was taking hold of winter. A jet stream kept cold air far north this season, in an almost summer position, “which allowed warmer than average temperatures to prevail” across Canada and the United States, says Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What we were spared swept across Europe, Russia and Siberia, which all experienced deathly winters. Record low temperatures and snowstorms in countries such as Italy and Ukraine have killed more than 150 people, and trapped thousands more inside immobilized trains, delayed airplanes, and remote communities.

Here, too, remote communities have suffered, but in another way. The warm winter hindered the construction of ice roads across the North, prompting some chiefs to declare a state of emergency in January. In the Mackenzie district temperatures have risen about 5° C over the last several decades. Every year, efforts to truck food, fuel and other essential supplies into the North are increasingly jeopardized.

That’s to say nothing of how the lack of cold and snow has damaged the way of life of First Nations communities so dependent on winter for their very survival. “There are certain cultures, like Inuit culture, that need the cold like others need water,” says Adam Gopnik, an author and journalist who has lectured on the topic of winter. “The right to be cold is as much a right as any other—which almost sounds absurd when you first hear it, but it makes perfect sense. Warmer winters are a tragedy, a catastrophe.”

The warming trend is most extreme in the North, but across Canada temperatures have been increasing for the last 65 years. “If you drew a line through all of the data you would see that winters now are warmer, on average, by over 3° C,” says Phillips. You’d also see that the three warmest winters have all occurred in the last six years. That has some experts concerned that we are experiencing an environmental crisis brought on by excessive greenhouse gasses, not just an aberration in weather pattern predictions.

“The global average temperature has gone up by just under 1° C over the past century. In Canada, we’ve experienced several times that global average increase,” says Ian Bruce, climate change specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver. As a northern country, we’ve historically been covered in snow and ice—which reflect solar rays. “As temperatures get hotter because of greenhouse gas emissions, our ice and snow start to melt. That reveals either dark land or ocean—which absorbs more sunlight. That intensifies the warming even further.” The effects are far-reaching, he says, with rising temperatures “dramatically impacting ecosystems and the natural timing of seasons.”

There are, of course, various ideas about why we are having warmer winters. One theory suggests that after a period of strong sun activity during this century, the world will undergo a “mini ice age” as part of a natural solar cycle. A more common belief is that, in the future, we will increasingly experience erratic and severe weather—say, mild winters interrupted by disastrous blizzards and tornadoes, as just occurred in Newfoundland and parts of the States. Forecasters such as Phillips expect this to be true. Both he and Crouch emphasize that many factors combine to create the weather outside our windows, and that evidence of climate change requires more than one season of insufficient snow and cold. What no one can deny is that a pattern has been set: “Given the fact that we know our winters have clearly warmed up, I suppose that is the new normal,” says Phillips.

That is to say, the winter of our youth—with snowbanks so high you could climb onto bungalow roofs, with lakes and rivers frozen so thick you could drive a truck on them for kilometres to reach the farthest ice-fishing hut, with mountaintops so snowy it appeared as though they were wearing marshmallow toupées—is fast becoming just that: a relic of the past.

Even the most iconic winter image in Canada, that of children skating and playing hockey on an ice rink outside, is in peril. Researchers at McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal published a scientific paper, the first of its kind, in early March in the journal of Environmental Research Letters, which found that between 1951 and 2005, the outdoor skating season shortened throughout most of Canada because of a lack of consecutive cold days needed to create and maintain ice rinks. They expect it to get worse as winters continue to warm.

And they’re worried: “The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of Canadian identity and culture. Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not be available to future generations of Canadian children.”

In Dunnville, Ont., when students at a local elementary school had to revise their annual winter carnival plans because of the weather, they moved it indoors. The most creative modification they made was also the eeriest. Ordinarily, the “snowball obstacle race” would occur in the playground with, well, snowballs. This year, the event was held in the hallway—with beach balls.

However jarring the substitution, it is in keeping with the notion that Canadians are exceptionally adaptable—a trait that harsh winters have fostered within us. “The climate has conditioned Canadians to the ever-present force of nature, and to the need to adapt, to be flexible,” says Max Foran, a Canadian studies professor at the University of Calgary. By extension, “the Canadian psyche is paradoxical,” he continues. Proud of how we withstand the cold, yet flocking to the tropics to escape it. Grumbling while shovelling, yet lamenting the lack of snow.

In this way, the death of winter might not be the death of Canada as we know it. “In the end, it’s not an ultimate tragedy,” says Gopnik. “Climate changes, the world changes. In the long run we’ll adjust. But in the immediate run, part of our inner life comes from the condition of being cold. And when you change the outer world, you change your inner world. We’ll have a period of mourning until we have a new kind of imagination.”

That might happen sooner than we think. Winnipeg’s festival is rather heartening. Despite the worry that no snow would mean low attendance, just the opposite happened: record numbers of Canadians came out to celebrate winter. Their motivation was nothing if not ironic. They were buoyed by the warm weather.