Top ten weather stories for 2006: story six

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6. Nation-wide January Heat Wave

Whether you were on Granville Avenue in Vancouver, Portage and Main in Winnipeg, or Water Street in St. John's, Canadians were asking the same thing: Where is winter? With the jet stream fixed in a west- to-east track, mild Pacific air flooded the country throughout January that resembled a month-long national chinook. It became the most protracted, intense January thaw ever. The cold pole that usually hovers over Yukon or around Hudson Bay was far away over Greenland or Siberia, leaving parts of Europe encased in ice.

Because of January's lengthy thaw, December to February was the warmest winter season in almost 60 years of national weather record-keeping with an average temperature of 3.9 degrees. From the Beaufort Sea into Northern Saskatchewan, average temperatures exceeded an incredible seven degrees above normal. Several Canadian cities experienced their warmest January on record. Even Winnipeg, arguably the coldest major city in the world, averaged a whopping 10.3 degrees above normal in what traditionally has been the coldest month. Every Manitoba weather station except Gillam and Churchill set new highs for January. Winnipeg had only 3 days below -20°C (normally it's 20 raw days). Kelowna also registered its warmest January on record with every day from December 21 to February 15 featuring melting days.

The unprecedented mildness led to the cancellation of winter carnivals, dogsled races, ice fishing derbies, pond hockey tournaments, and created snow too soggy for sculpting. For those people keen on building an outdoor skating rink, it became a non-starter. On the other hand, the unseasonably mild weather was welcomed for its huge energy savings. Natural gas usage was down nearly 20 per cent. Consequently, most energy utilities reported much lower revenues from lower customer consumption.

The protracted January thaw meant substantial savings to road and highway departments clearing snow. Housing starts were up and generally construction workers favoured the unusually mild and comfortable winter. Further, fewer collisions and equipment breakdowns were reported due to the absence of snow, ice and cold. On the other hand, construction and drilling projects in soft surfaces faced long delays. Loggers in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia complained it was the worst winter in recent memory with mild weather making it difficult to access the forest and weight restrictions on roads making it nearly impossible for wood to be trucked. Everywhere, road crews worked flat out patching hundreds of potholes a day. It is one of the earliest and one of the most expensive pothole seasons ever. With thaw-freeze cycles repeated almost every 24 hours, city streets began crumbling a month earlier than usual. Maximum ice concentration in the Great Lakes occurs around mid-February when nearly half the lake surface is ice-covered. In 2006, less than 15 per cent of the lake surface had ice. Thinned lake and river ice meant water courses on snowmobile trails could not support heavy grooming machinery. Consequently, snowmobile sojourns, and sales and services were flat.

The January thaw was a crisis for those depending on winter- and ice-roads. Winter roads are a lifeline for remote northern communities receiving the bulk of their non-perishable foods, fuel and building materials by truck. Having to fly in goods and products, shippers face higher freight tariffs. At Yellowknife, ideal temperatures (-30°C or lower) for building ice roads numbered only 13 for the entire winter compared to a normal number of 55 days. Overall winter temperatures in the Mackenzie region averaged a phenomenal 7.4 degrees above normal. Many aboriginal leaders declared states of emergency. One native chief couldn't recall a milder winter. Twenty years ago winter roads could be counted on to stay open for nearly two months, but in some recent years they've been open only half that time. Winter roads that did become usable opened later and closed earlier. Ice roads serving the diamond mines in the NWT had an ice thickness one third less than usual. Roads never attained maximum weight limits. One company got less than half of its planned deliveries made.

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