Technology & Science

Climate change, El Nino bring balmy December in parts of Canada, scientists say

Warm autumn, lack of snow in Eastern Canada can't be entirely blamed on El Nino

Canadians are 'losing our reputation as the winter people,' says Environment Canada climatologist

A hockey player skates on Lake Louise in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Alta. in December 2010. Winters as Canada knew them may soon be a thing of the past as climate change progresses. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

If climate change is weighing on your mind this holiday season, especially after the signing of the Paris agreement, you're not alone.

There's an image that's been slowly circulating on the internet. It's of an older, bearded man, his smile tentative, his eyebrows furrowed. The caption reads, "When ur enjoying the warm weather in December, but deep down u know it's because of global warming."

It's been shared thousands of times, incorrect spelling notwithstanding. And it taps into a lot of talk about the weather getting warmer.

Toronto and Ottawa, for example, have just seen their warmest fall on record. Montreal has had record low snowfall. Fredericton and St. John's are likely to see temperatures pushing into the double digits for Christmas.

"There's no question — the Great White North, the land of ice and snow, the second coldest country in the world, the snowiest country in the world — we're losing our reputation as the winter people," said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

We'll still be the Great White North, it just will be that winters will not be our dominant season.- David Phillips, Environment Canada

So far, this year's balmy November and December in many parts of the country is because of a super El Nino bringing warm air from the Pacific. It's a naturally-occurring event that takes place every few years. The pattern of ocean temperatures disrupts the typical flow of air in the atmosphere and relieves chilly Canadians with mild winters.

But El Nino alone doesn't explain the big spike in temperature, according to University of British Columbia climate scientist Simon Donner.

'A sea change'

"The reason that it's breaking temperature records is because you have the El Nino event on top of the fact that the planet is slowly warming," said Donner. "El Nino would mean a mild winter in a lot of Canada. El Nino plus global warming means a record-breaking warm winter."

And that is just a taste of things to come, he said.
A person walks across the Humber Bay Bridge, over looking Lake Ontario on Monday's cool and rainy start to winter in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"We're on a trajectory right now for 4 C or more of warming — certainly in the winters in this century," Donner said.

Environment Canada, which has been examining winters over the past 68 years, has noticed a similar progression. On average, it has found that winters are 3 C warmer — "a sea change," said Phillips.

Interview with Environment Canada's senior climatologist Dave Phillips 4:07

Canadians can expect to see certain trends emerge in the future, according to Phillips:

  • First, winters will warm more than summers.
  • Second, there will be greater warming in the interior of the country and less so on the coasts, which are moderated by the oceans.
  • Third, the speed of the changes will be dramatic."We've gone through slow motion change in the last 60 years," he said. But in the future "we may see doubling that change in half the time."

White Christmases, he added, will still occur but "it might something we have to dream about a little harder and even pray for it in years to come," he said.

"We'll still be the Great White North, it just will be that winters will not be our dominant season," Phillips said. 

Donner describes things in starker terms.

"Last year was the warmest year in recorded history. 2015 is trumping that record. Global temperature records are the sort of things you set by very small amounts," he said.

"I like to think of the race for the warmest year as somewhat like a 100 metre sprint. It's usually a photo finish. But this thing is like Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics. It has just wiped out the field."

Persistently unusual weather

Despite the current warm temperatures, eastern Canadians remember very well the bitter winters of the past two years and the accompanying power outages, Arctic temperatures and towering stacks of snow in many places. 

Global warming skeptics may be disheartened to know that those winters don't explain away climate change.

"It's fair to say that we've been experiencing some rather wild swings [and] inter-annual variability in temperature," said John Gyakum, chair of McGill University's atmospheric and oceanic sciences department.

"We may be experiencing more in the way of persistent anomalies or persistently unusual weather," warm or cold, Gyakum said.

It's part of the paradox of global warming, he said.  Despite overall trends that demonstrate a warming of the planet, last winter places like Montreal experienced the coldest temperatures on record.
A woman walks past a downed hydro pylon near St-Constant, Que. in January 1998 where hydro crews worked to re-establish power following the ice storm. (Robert Galbraith/Canadian Press)

This pattern of unpredictability has huge implications for not only the environment and businesses, but how Canadians spend their holiday seasons. The conditions necessary for winter activities such as ice fishing, skiing and skating may soon no longer be there, or will cost a lot more to produce and take part in.  

Gyakum said it's likely North America could also see more El Ninos as a result, which can lead to more frequent ice storms and freezing rain. People, he said, will need to consider adapting to that sort of change in their daily lives.

Phillips, a self-described optimist, said Canadians have had a head start noting that we've already invented things like the snowblower and icewine to deal with our frozen lot.

"I really think that it's not going to be the bogeyman that people think it is. But I think that if we ignore it, then it will come back to bite us," he said.

"The more and the sooner we embrace and accept it as a change, the better off we will be."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.