Why So Much Snow?

 

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Don jardine.

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Don Jardine.

By Dr. Adam Fenech

Wow! Another winter storm hit PEI this February long weekend bringing back memories of White Juan. White Juan refers to the brutal blizzard of February 19, 2004 nicknamed after Hurricane Juan, a storm that hit PEI on September 29, 2003 with wind gusts up to 140 km/h causing flooding, uprooting of trees and infrastructure damage in the Charlottetown Harbour. White Juan brought 120 km/h winds and 76.6 cm of snow to Charlottetown over a 48-hour period. This weekend’s storm was no Juan-a-bee, however, but the real deal. Environment Canada is reporting that 86.8 centimetres (cm) of snowfall was measured at Charlottetown airport over Sunday and Monday with winds gusting to 128 km/h on Monday making it a more severe storm than White Juan – perhaps we can name the storm White Juan’s Big Brother. Good preparations and planning helped PEI emerge relatively well this past weekend, and community leaders should be commended for their work in getting the message out to take this storm seriously. This storm, together with the heavy storms of two weeks ago (110 cm of snow from February 1-7) has me asking “So why so much snow these past few weeks?”

Yes, we can all blame the polar vortex, but it is a symptom not the cause. The northern polar vortex is a large region of air that circles the North Pole (counter-clockwise) in the high atmosphere dripping high colder air to the surface of the Earth. The northern polar vortex is kept in place by the northern jet stream, a west-to-east warmer wind that flows around the Earth between the upper and lower atmospheres driven by the differences between the cold north and the warmer south. Sometimes the northern jet stream meanders like a stream causing a piece of the polar vortex to break off and plunge to the surface over Canada bringing cold air and snow.

These past few weeks, a combination of high pressure zones on the west and east coasts of North America is driving the cold, wintery weather on PEI. A strong high pressure system off the west coast of Canada (known as the Eastern Pacific Oscillation or EPO) has moved high into Alaska (where temperatures are +7°C today) pushing the northern jet stream high on the west coast allowing the polar vortex to move further south into central Canada (where temperatures were -16°C yesterday). Many times, this southern movement of the polar vortex is blocked from moving into the Atlantic provinces by a strong high pressure system off of the east coast of Canada (known as the North Atlantic Oscillation or NAO). These past few weeks, however, the NAO is not blocking the polar vortex but helping steer the storm activity up the east coast.

The bad news is that both the NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Climate Forecast System and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predict a continuing pattern of wintery weather through to the beginning of March with two more weeks of below normal temperatures, and a risk of significant snowfall events. Mind you, the models are showing not such amplified effects, meaning not as severe cold or as much snow, but certainly no reprieve from winter as of yet.

All of this snow cover moving into March raises concerns about flooding events. There is no exact correlation between snow cover and flooding – some of the worst floods come from storms when there is no snow cover, and sometimes a large snowpack melts slowly over time creating no floods. But the risk is there, and should be watched into March.

Speaking of watching, the UPEI Climate Lab has worked with many natural history experts from across the province to produce a Climate Diary that helps identify and record observations of naturally-occurring plant and animal life cycle events over time on Prince Edward Island. As the years roll on, the Climate Diary will provide a written record of changes in the environment as they occur year-to-year over the next 25 years. These records will help scientists understand changes in the climate system and how these events are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate. And eventually, these records will be a written testament to the effects of global climate change as temperatures warm through the decades, and precipitation patterns change. The Climate Lab will be hosting two training sessions for the public on how to identify P.E.I.’s plants and birds that are mentioned in the Climate Diary – the first is the morning of March 3 and the second is the evening of March 30. For more details, email climate@upei.ca or call us at 620-5221.

PEI Climate Diary

PEI Climate Diary

Living Shorelines Training – Wednesday February 18 – Charlottetown, PEI

Summer Home at Pt Deroche May 10 2011 (1 of 1)“Living shorelines are the result of applying erosion control measures that include a suite of techniques which can be used to minimize coastal erosion and maintain coastal process. Techniques may include the use of fiber coir logs, sills, groins, breakwaters or other natural components used in combination with sand, other natural materials and/or marsh plantings. These techniques are used to protect, restore, enhance or create natural shoreline habitat.” Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Join Living Shorelines experts, Kevin M. Smith, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and Rosmarie Lohnes, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia who will lead discussion of topics including:

I.          Shoreline Erosion (Causes and Outcomes; Natural Processes)

II.          Shoreline Erosion Control Practices – Overview (Traditional Practices)

III.          Origins of Living Shorelines (History, Definitions, How the Practice Developed)

IV.          Philosophy of Living Shoreline Practices (Dynamism, Physical Processes, Shoreline Habitat)

V.          Living Shoreline Practices (Sand Fill, Sills, Breakwaters, Innovative Approaches)

VI.          Benefits (Fish and Macroinvertebrates, Erosion Protection)

VII.          Costs

VIII.          Monitoring

To Register: Send your name, organization, mailing address, telephone and email to climate@upei.caThe cost of the training is $10 which includes lunch and coffee breaks.

UPEI Climate Lab Director Provides One of Keynote Addresses to Vibrant Gujarat Conference in India

photoDr. Adam Fenech, Director of UPEI’s Climate Research Lab, was in Ahmedabad, India in January 2015 to address the Vibrant Gujarat conference, a biennial event that attracts over 15,000 delegates. Introducing CLIVE (the UPEI Climate Lab’s CoastaL Impacts Visualization Environment tool) at the conference’s Innovation: The Torchbearer of 21st Century symposium, Dr. Fenech profiled the world-class research being conducted at UPEI. Dr. Fenech was honoured to meet the Chief Minister (equivalent to Canada’s Premiers) of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, to discuss the common challenges of coastal erosion and climate change. Dr. Fenech also spoke about the changing climate of India at the World Innovation Symposium in Gandhinagar, India.

Prince Edward Island’s Top 3 Weather Stories of 2014

By Dr. Adam Fenech, Director, Climate Lab, University of Prince Edward Island

Another year has gone by and it’s time to talk about Prince Edward Island’s top three weather stories of 2014. This past year continues to remind us of the important part weather plays in our everyday lives. Every year brings stories of weather no matter where you are, and Prince Edward Island is no different. Here are my top three weather stories for 2014, and how they affected Prince Edward Island.

Number 3 – Hurricane Arthur in July

Post-tropical storm Arthur was the big weather story of the summer of 2014 with strong winds sinking three boats in the Charlottetown harbour, and cutting power to roughly 5,000 Maritime Electric customers on July 5. Arthur brought winds with gusts of almost 100 kilometers per hour, but not much rain (12 millimeters) as the Island was spared the flooding damage that occurred in other Atlantic Provinces. The wind storm caused the cancelling of all of the Saturday night performances of the Cavendish Beach Music Festival when travel woes grounded country-music stars Blake Shelton and Darius Rucker. And the PEI 2014 Celebration Zone at Confederation Landing in Charlottetown was closed the day following the storm while staff assessed the site for damage. Trees were blown down across Charlottetown changing the streetscape, and Belvedere golf course received damage to its clubhouse as well as downed trees and branches. Arthur also caused some crop damage to the Island’s ripe strawberries by the wind pushing the stems into the fruit. And while one of P.E.I.’s piping plover nests was lost in the storm due to flooding, these endangered species fared better than feared with all of the chicks surviving in the other nests.

Number 2 – Damaging Rainstorm in December

A strong Nor-easter pounded the Island on December 10 with high winds and rain. The University of Prince Edward Island climate station in Foxley River recorded over 156 mm of rain on this day, close to the most rain ever recorded on P.E.I. in 24 hours. This rainstorm caused millions of dollars in damage to roads and bridges across the province. A car fell into the water after flooding caused a bridge to collapse in Milburn with the driver escaping with only minor scrapes. A vehicle got stuck in a sink hole that had developed on Route 175 in Tyne Valley, but the two occupants were not injured. A family of three including a young baby were rescued by Department of Transportation workers from a home in St. Lawrence in western P.E.I. because of flooding “coming up over our doorstep, coming up the stairs,” as they left. The Confederation Bridge was closed to motorcycles and high-sided vehicles such as trucks, tractor trailers, recreational vehicles and buses. Northumberland Ferries cancelled crossings to and from the Island for the day. A Bonshaw family took advantage of the flooding in their front yard by breaking out the kayaks and paddling across the lawn.

Number 1 – Most Severe Winter in 42 years

Those two storms were quite formidable, but not enough to challenge for the number one spot for the P.E.I. weather story of the year – the winner being our particularly cold and stormy winter of 2014. Over the past thirty years, there has been a definite downward trend in the amount of snow that PEI has received, but not this past winter. We have to go back 42 years to find a year with more snow. If we consider the snowfall months to be November, December, January, February and March, then this past year’s snowfall was about 417 centimetres (cm) of the white stuff, the most since 1972 when 425 cm fell. On average, the snowfall this past winter season was almost 60% more than normal or what is expected. This past year’s snowfall was particularly jarring as the two previous winters had been very dry indeed. The winter of 1972 was a much different winter than this past year’s one. By the end of March, 1972 had 80 days of snowfall, while the winter of 2014 had only 47 days with snowfall. By the end of March, the winter of 1972 had many days of small snowstorms with none above 25 cm, while the winter of 2014 had four major snowstorms on December 22 (27 cm), January 22 (37.4 cm), February 19 (27.8 cm) and March 26 (48.5 cm). The winter of 1972 went on to have 531 cm of snow once the months of April and May were added to the total, while the winter of 2014 ended with a grand total of 456 cm. And yes, the winter of 2014 was colder than normal by almost 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Islanders love their weather. Islanders are defined by the weather – we live by it. We are at the whims of Nature and the weather it brings. It keeps us at home, keeps us from work, keeps our kids from school yet it brings communities together. While tragic at times, our weather brings out our great spirit of humanity, sense of community and commitment to always look out for each other. From North Cape to East Point, West Point to Murray Head – and all points in-between – weather shapes who we are. Happy Christmas to all.

UPEI Climate Lab co-sponsors International Global Change and Island Conference with the University of Malta

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UPEI Climate Lab together with the University of Malta co-sponsored an international symposium titled Global Environmental Change and Small Island States and Territories: Economic & Labour Market Implications. The symposium brought together leading-edge environmental science experts to examine the implications of climate change to the economic and labour market predicament of small island states and territories. Pictured left to right are Dr. Tony Shaw, Brock University; Dr. Robert Gilmour, VP Research, UPEI; Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino, University of Malta (formerly a UPEI Canada Research Chair on Island Studies); Dr. Dan Scott, University of Waterloo; and Dr. Adam Fenech, UPEI. For more information, visit https://www.um.edu.mt/events/globalenvchange2014  

UPEI Climate Lab Director Dr. Adam Fenech named 2014 Community Builder

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The PEI Association of Planners have named UPEI’s Dr. Adam Fenech the winner of the Murray Pinchuk Community Builder Award. The award recognizes the highest standard of community building in the public and private realms. “The association has selected Dr. Fenech as the 2014 winner based on his efforts to develop a coastal erosion visualization tool and his work to share ideas on how best to adapt to coastal erosion and sea level rise,” said Vahid Ghomashchi, president of the PEI Association of Planner in a news release. “This award is a testament to all who seek to make the built and natural environment better for the community as a whole. Dr. Fenech’s work demonstrates the value of sharing information with the public in the interest in generating discussion on solutions for sustainability. The CLIVE tool also reminds us all of the need to be innovative and creative in how we consult with the public we serve.” Dr. Fenech is director of UPEI’s Climate Research Lab.

Al Jazeera Profiles UPEI Climate Lab

unnamedA team of journalists from Al Jazeera visited the UPEI Climate Lab in October 2014 to shoot a news feature on CLIVE: the 3D visualization tool co-created by UPEI’s Climate Research Lab which simulates sea-level rise and coastal erosion on Prince Edward Island. The story will profile the features of CLIVE and will show how coastal erosion is an already real and present challenge for Island homes and infrastructure. 

UPEI Climate Lab Wins MIT Prize for Communicating Coastal Change

IMG_3145UPEI’s members of the team that created CLIVE, the coastal erosion visualization tool, were in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November 2014 to pick up their Communicating Coastal Risk and Resilience award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. CLIVE took top honours in the popular vote. Learn more about CLIVE in this short video, presented at the conference. Pictured are students Alex Chen and Andrew Doiron; Dr. Robert Gilmour, Vice-President of Research and Graduate Studies; and Dr. Adam Fenech, Director of UPEI’s Climate Research Lab.

Weather Predictions for PEI Winter 2015

So the past Friday brought the rude arrival of winter with over 11 centimetres of snow catching many of us off guard without our winter tires on our automobiles. It was three weeks earlier (December 4) than the first winter storm of 2014. It has started discussions about how severe the winter of 2014-15 will be – will PEI receive more snow than last year, the worst in 42 years? Well, here is what the experts say.

Normally, a PEI winter (the months of December, January and February) averages -6 degrees Celsius and receives about 41 centimetres of rain and snow. Environment Canada uses climate models to forecast seasonal weather. Climate models are mathematical equations strung together that describe the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere. These equations are calculated using the largest computers in the country, known as supercomputers. Environment Canada forecasts the winter of 2015 to be above normal or “warmer and wetter”. I must mention, however, that Environment Canada’s seasonal forecast models are accurate for Prince Edward Island only 40-50% of the time (which is not significantly better than chance, meaning flip a coin and you’ll have the same odds of getting the forecast correct). Environment Canada’s seasonal forecasts are accurate in Northern Quebec, the southern Yukon and Baffin Island, but here on PEI, not so well.

We all know people who swear by almanacs when forecasting the seasonal weather, so I took a look at four of them. The 2015 Canadian Farmers Almanac forecasts the winter of 2015 as “wintry temperatures, very wet and white”; the 2015 Harrowsmith’s Canadian Almanac says the winter of 2015 will be “drier and milder than normal”; and the 2015 Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac’s seasonal forecast for the winter of 2015 is slightly warmer and slightly drier than normal. The 2015 Old Farmer’s Almanac, the one we are most familiar with as it has been forecasting seasonal weather since its first issue in 1792 (the time of George Washington’s presidency), uses a “secret formula” kept tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire. The Old Farmer’s Almanac makes claims of 80% accuracy of their results, but studies of their forecasts show no better over the long-term than about 50%. The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts the PEI winter climate of 2015 to be “mild and dry”.

My own research at the University of Prince Edward Island that examined 140 years of weather observations here in Charlottetown has shown that the climate has definitely gotten warmer and drier, especially over the past 10-15 years or so. And that’s where I put my forecast for the winter of 2015 – to continue the trend and be “warmer and drier”.

Climate is variable, though – it goes up and down – as last year reminded us all too well. Climate is nature’s merry-go-round so it is often difficult to predict the coming season even with supercomputers, secret formulas or historical trends. To emphasize this point, I flipped coins to see what Lady Fortune’s forecast for the winter of 2015 will be – the result being “warmer and drier”. So there are many forecasts made but only one will be correct. Most predictions are for a warmer and drier than normal winter for PEI. I can sure support those predictions, but we’ll have to wait over three months to see who is right.

Predictions of PEI Winter 2015
Source Temperature 

Warmer (+) Colder(-)

Precipitation

Wetter (+) Drier (-)

Environment Canada + +
Canadian Farmer’s Almanac - +
Harrowsmith - -
Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac + -
Old Farmer’s Almanac + -
Fenech + -
Chance (Flip a Coin) + -

. October 2014 turned out to be warmer and drier than normal – the ‘climate normal’ being the average of 30 years of daily observations from 1981 to 2010. During the month of October 2014, the average temperature in Charlottetown was 2.4°C warmer than the climate normal of 8.3°C; and 11 millimetres (mm) or 10% drier than the normal precipitation of 112 mm. The Climate Research Lab observing stations at Winsloe South, Flat River, Orwell Cove, Foxley River, Dingwell’s Mills, Argyle Shore and Cardigan Head all recorded measurements that were warmer and drier than normal during the month of October.

 

Questions? Contact Adam Fenech at afenech@upei.ca or (902) 620-5220