By Dr. Adam Fenech
On March 17th, Islanders will be celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day named after the patron saint of Ireland who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 4th century. It is an official public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador, but unofficial on Prince Edward Island. In addition to enjoying the revelry and celebration of Irish culture and heritage, often times Islanders don’t have to work that day in mid-March. Not because it’s a holiday, but because of a late winter storm!
Islanders have come to expect a storm on St. Patrick’s Day and view it as one of the rituals of the coming of spring. Sometimes, Nature’s timing is off and the winter storm comes the day before the Irish Celebration or the day afterwards. But that doesn’t stop Islanders from expecting a storm every St. Patrick’s Day. Don Jardine, the resident weather historian at UPEI’s Climate Lab, has lots of evidence to back up this weather folklore.
On St. Patrick’s Day in the year 2000, winds of up to 100 kilometres-an-hour whipped over 20 centimetres of snow into whiteouts that made driving treacherous in Queens County, leading police to warn motorists to stay off the roads.
In 1987, three days of stormy weather around St. Patrick’s Day left 31 centimetres of snow in Tignish, closing roads across West Prince. It took three days to open roads as the drifting was so severe that operators could not see where they were going and the roads were filling in behind them.
In 1961, a series of storms two weeks prior to St. Patrick’s Day isolated many rural communities, making mail deliveries erratic, school attendance irregular and travelling difficult. Most main roads were passable, but many sideroads remained blocked for days at a time. Buses leaving Miminegash got stuck en-route to Alberton and eventually had to turn back. At Glengarry, a plow took 10 hours to open 6 kilometres of road only to have it filled in the next day.
St. Patrick’s Day in 1895 was a day without an ice boat crossing from Cape Traverse to New Brunswick, due to blowing and drifting snow from the northwest. No mail, freight or even passengers made it across the Northumberland Straight that day.
The diary of Henry Cundall, a New London philanthropist, tells us that the celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day in 1856 and 1857 were recognized for their snow and rainstorms and his need to purchase an umbrella.
All this is anecdotal evidence of large winter storms on March 17th, but what do P.E.I.’s climate records say? The answer is that a snowstorm occurs around St. Patrick’s Day 50% of the time or, on average, every other year. So Islanders are right! Look out for the storms on St. Patrick’s Day. And if there is a storm, hopefully it means we’ll not be working so that we can enjoy our celebration to its fullest. Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!
Note: The Climate Lab will be hosting a training session for the public on the evening of March 30 on how to identify P.E.I.’s plants and birds for recording in the Climate Diary. For more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 620-5221. P.E.I.’s Climate Diary is 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.