In late 2011, meteorologists predicted that Western Canada would suffer the coming winter with colder than normal temperatures and higher than seasonal snowfall.
It is now mid-January and the first report cards are out. But before this week’s cold snap set it, they had been stone-cold wrong. The winter of 2011-2012 had been mild up until this week and even a frigid February might still make for a mild winter overall.
Yet, to be fair, prediction of the weather, or the economy, is fraught with the danger inherent in any complex system. Still, the results indicate some tweaking of the prediction model is in order.
As I understand it, this annual prediction is based mostly on observations of the temperature of ocean waters in a region of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Allegedly when these currents are warm (El Nino) we have a mild winter and when these surface water temperatures are cooler (Le Nina) we suffer a colder winter. Only a few degrees of difference are supposed to make a difference.
The area of the equatorial Pacific is some distance away, but who knows what with the prevailing Westerlies that it may indeed affect our weather. Everything seems to affect everything. Chaos theory might predict that a butterfly in Hawaii can flap its wings and the ensuing vortex create a high pressure trough that strengthens offshore, moves West, widening and winding up, and the prevailing Westerlies carry it across to North America.
I don’t know the scientific basis behind the cause and effect of El Nino versus Le Nina, other than a statistical correlation. But correlation alone is not causation and the effect may be causal, or it may be casual. For all I know, the heights of skirt hemlines may also correlate, or the price of petrol. Yet, when I think of winter, the eye of my mind turns northward to the Arctic, and not southward to the equator.
Why look almost 60 degrees south for the answer, when it may lie only 30 degrees north?
I do know that the Canadian Arctic, for the past 30 or 40 years, has seen some dramatic changes in its weather and the melting of a significant area of the ice pack.
Temperatures there have increased only a few degrees, but even a few degrees of difference makes a difference, so I am told. An increasing area of open water is developing and the Northwest Passage may become a reality in the near future. And I do know that much of our winter cold comes from an Arctic air mass.
It is then a short jump, only a miniscule or quantum sized leap, for me to conclude that what is happening in the Arctic likely affects the kind of winter weather we get on the high Northern Plains of the mid latitudes.
Surely, the known changes that we have borne witness to in the High Arctic must have some influence on global weather patterns.
Yet I don’t hear the weatherman taking any note of the Arctic conditions in his long-range predictions. When they make a prediction for winter it always seems to be based on our little Spanish speaking cousins at the equator. Maybe they should investigate ‘Arcticus Horribillus’ for his temperament late in the year and study whether he has more of an effect on the seasons here on the Prairies.
An old-timer from Texas who once mentored me cautioned me about distinguishing between facts and assumptions when trying to solve a problem. He said “it ain’t what a man knows that gets him into trouble, but what he knows that just ain’t so”.
Maybe the warmer Arctic air mass makes for a weaker jet stream, or a lower pressure Arctic high that cannot slump so far south. Perhaps, the influx of warm Pacific air is encouraged by what is happening in the Arctic. The people who are trained to understand and model these phenomena should be able to figure out the influence of a changed Arctic on the Canadian climate.
In the coming years, with a higher presence of activity in the Arctic, we may get more meteorological observations, more stations reporting, and develop the kind of data set necessary to sort out the influence of Arctic conditions and how it might affect the weather and seasons of the Prairies, or indeed continental Europe. But I am not an expert, only an armchair observer, basking in the warmth of my woodstove, looking out the window, and wondering if we are as smart as we look when it comes to predicting the weather.
We have a 50-50 chance of getting our predictions right in any given year, and I guess a guy with a .500 batting average is kept employed. I will wait and watch to see if Environment Canada can sort this out and make more accurate predictions.
Paul Hemingson is a freelance writer who lives near Spruce View. His column appears every other week in LIFE. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.paulhemingson.ca