El Nino could mean milder winter for Canada

Canadians can look forward to a milder, less precipitous winter this year, thanks to a strong El Nino weather system ramping up in the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists say strong El Nino weather system ramping up in Pacific

An El Nino year could mean a "softer, more open" winter is coming for Canadians, says climatologist David Phillips. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Canadians can look forward to a milder, less precipitous winter this year, thanks to a strong El Nino weather system ramping up in the Pacific Ocean.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology announced Tuesday that El Nino thresholds have been reached in the tropical Pacific for the first time in five years, and that this is expected to affect weather patterns around the world over the next few months.

Meteorologists for much of last year had been predicting an El Nino — which develops in the equatorial Pacific when unusually warm waters combine with a shift in atmospheric circulation — but it never emerged.

The news means that Australia could be bracing for terrible droughts this summer, while Peru and Ecuador could face floods and parts of Asia may expect a poor monsoon season.

Most Canadians, though, will have to wait until fall and winter to feel any of El Nino's effects, which seems likely: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests there is a greater than 60 per cent chance it will last through autumn in the northern hemisphere.

"From a weather point-of-view — the stuff out your window, out your door — we have to wait until the cold season to see that," says David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. 

He adds that, for Canada, El Nino events generally means a "softer, more open" winter is coming.

The last El Nino, in 2010, resulted in a warmer-than-usual, snow-starved Vancouver during that year's Winter Olympics.

"If [this El Nino] is strong, then those warm breezes will make it even to Atlantic Canada, making it a warmer winter well across Canada," Phillips says.

Atlantic Canada

The Atlantic provinces are the ones that could reap some early summertime benefits from the event as El Nino years generally have fewer and less intense hurricanes.

"It tends to make the North Atlantic hurricane season less of a season than it would normally be," says Phillips.

"What you find is the westerly winds from the Pacific will come across the Atlantic and tend to cut off the tops of these storms near Africa which often develop into hurricanes."

So where the region may see 11 or 12 hurricanes in a season, for example, El Nino may bring that number down to eight or nine, Phillips suggests.

Phillips says Atlantic Canada tends to be rainier than usual during El Nino winters, which may be a relief for those who who are sick of the white stuff after last season's record snowfalls.

"Next year, they may not be drier than normal, but it may be more the liquid stuff than the drier stuff," Phillips says. "So they may not be shovelling as much, but it may be a different type of precipitation."

Central Canada

Depending on the intensity and duration of El Nino this year, its warm winds may reach across to central Canada.

If El Nino is moderate to strong, Ontario and Quebec could feel the warming of air of the Pacific," says Phillips.

He says winter won't necessary be cancelled, but we probably won't "have bouts of subfreezing temperatures that we did last year."

As in Atlantic Canada, El Nino won't necessarily affect the amount of precipitation so much as the type of precipitation.

"In Toronto, we almost get as much rain as we do snow in the wintertime," says Phillips. With El Nino, Ontarians and Quebecers may have to  break out the rain boots more often than not.


Phillips says that the Prairie provinces tend to be a little drier during an El Nino, but because they see so little precipitation anyway, it tends not to be a factor.

"They're not going to lose their crop in an El Nino," he says. "Winter is a dry season anyway."

One potential outcome is that there might be less flooding come the springtime, welcome news to those still reeling from the 2013 floods.

Pacific coast

A mild winter in 2010 left the Vancouver Olympics short of snow. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Because it's closest to the oceans where El Nino develops, British Columbia would feel the effects the most.

Phillips adds that warm winds blowing from the west could also effectively push cold air back up north — meaning less snow and higher temperatures for the region. "There's a number of things that roll together here," he says.

Less snow and rain could be a problem for the province's economy, however, especially for tourism that relies on skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports. "Having less precipitation might be more of an issue," he says.

The North

Canada's North will also see some of the warming effects from North-Pacific air streams, but they likely won't have as dramatic an impact as in the rest of Canada

"Instead of being –20, it might be –15," Phillips says. "What's the big difference? It's still frozen permafrost and you'd still have to use snowmobiles."

Phillips says that as El Nino unfolds over the next few months, forecasters will have a better idea of how exactly it will affect Canadian weather, but says people should be patient before jumping to conclusions.

He also says that there are other factors besides an El Nino — such as the effects of melting Arctic ice — that will also have an impact on what's to come. 

"If you like your winters mild, there's good news on the horizon, but this is just more for talking, not for action, " Phillips says. "Would I cancel my winter holiday? No, I wouldn't."


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