Believe it or not. . . winters are milder

Here’s a warm thought for Canadians complaining about the cold: the winters here are not nearly as frigid as they once were.

A man watches the ice fog rise from the St. Lawrence River as temperatures hover in the -25C range Monday

A man watches the ice fog rise from the St. Lawrence River as temperatures hover in the -25C range Monday

MONTREAL — Here’s a warm thought for Canadians complaining about the cold: the winters here are not nearly as frigid as they once were.

Vast swaths of this country are experiencing a winter freeze that has become the subject of numerous media reports and even made international news Monday with the online headline from Britain’s BBC: “Wind chill warnings across Canada.”

But figures compiled by Environment Canada, and released to The Canadian Press, provide a little perspective.

Those statistics from the national weather office reveal a drastic drop in the number of cold days — defined as anything -15 C or colder — in recent decades.

The trend is noted in every city measured across the country — in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. Even Vancouver’s mild winters have gotten milder.

The most striking change was in Toronto. Environment Canada’s figures note a 52 per cent drop there in cold days from the 1970s to the decade just completed.

“It’s not just one area, it’s not just the Arctic — it’s from coast to coast to coast,” David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said Monday in an interview.

The numbers reveal an overarching pattern:

• During the 1970s, there were 276 total cold days in Toronto, for an average of 27.6 days per year. Between 2000 and 2009 there were only 130 such days, or just 13 per year.

• In Halifax, there were 226 such bone-chilling days during the 1970s — or 22.6 days per year — which declined to 143, or 14.3 days per year, during the first decade of the millennium.

• Winnipeg had a whopping 930 such days in the 1970s — or 93 days per year — compared with just 775 days in the last decade.

• Calgary had 562 cold days in the 1970s — or 56 per year — compared with 412 in the decade that just ended.

• Vancouver, with its warmer winters, had 101 days that dipped below -5 C in the 1970s, compared with just 47 in the decade that just ended.

In almost every case, for every city, the decline was steady from one decade to the next.

There were minor exceptions to the general trend: Winnipeg actually had more cold days in the last decade (775) than it did in the 1990s (745). But the long-term trend there is the same, with 915 cold days in the 1960s, 930 in the 1970s, and 761 in the ’80s, before the slight jump this decade.

In another exception, the 1960s appeared to have been a relatively mild decade with a smaller number of cold days than some other eras. But the winters back then were still significantly colder than they were in every city sampled by Environment Canada between 2000-09.

A climate historian from McGill University warns against drawing knee-jerk conclusions about global warming based on one set of numbers — but he calls it an “impressive set of data” and says it supports other climate research.

“I think it can be used as part of a package to support global warming,” Don Baker said in an interview.

Baker recalled his days as a student in the 1970s when there was plenty of debate about future temperature trends.

“At that time it wasn’t clear whether the Earth was getting warmer or getting colder,” he said. “Since that time all of the evidence points to the Earth getting warmer and I think this is just a bit of that evidence.”

Baker, who’s with McGill’s department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, also notes that there was a warm period in the late 1940s and then temperatures started to drop off until the ’70s.

“And then I think you start to see that from the ’70s on, there is a clear trend of warming,” he said.

Environment Canada has some advice for anyone who ever rolled their eyes in doubt at their parents’ and grandparents’ stories about all those cold winters way back when: apologize to them.

“There’s numbers to back them up,” Phillips said. “Don’t give them that far-away look or those rolled eyes.

“Yes, those oldtimers, when they tell those yarns about how cold it was, they were speaking the truth.”

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