It was springtime on the Prairies last month. Or so it seemed, with everything from raging grass fires, dust storms and rivers of rain, to golfers and joggers in short pants on the last day of the year. For many people in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, who last year suffered through one of the coldest and most snow-filled winters on record, this winter season has been one to relish. But for others, especially entrepreneurs like Bryan Ardelan, it has been one they would rather forget. The general manager of Mission Ridge Ski Developments Ltd., located on the slopes of the Qu’Appelle Valley about 70 km northwest of Regina, can only hope for a visit from old man winter, and soon. Springlike conditions have left the resort without the one ingredient it needs the most: snow. Normally in December, the modest 10-run ski area would have more than 4,000 visitors.
But Ardelan says only about 200 customers ventured onto Mission Ridge slopes in December—and almost all were young snowboarders using a single run that had been only partially open for two weeks. “I used to watch the sports channel a lot, but now it seems that all I ever do is look at the weather network. After a while, it gets kind of depressing,” says Ardelan.
Blame it on El Niño, the massive pool of warm water off the coast of Chile and Peru that disrupts the planet’s climate every two to seven years. The world has come to expect meteorological havoc when El Niño (Spanish for Christ Child) wakes up, but climatologists say this year’s disruptions may be the worst of the century. While the Prairies and Central Canada enjoy a milderthan-usual winter, much of Russia has been gripped by unusually bitter cold, snow has fallen in Mexico, floods have ravaged parts of South America and droughts grip Indonesia. John McIntyre, an Environment Canada meteorologist, says warm water off the South American coast has forced the westto-east winds of the jet stream into a more northerly pattern, preventing colder arctic air from drifting south across the Prairies. At the same time, El Niño has reduced the force of southerly trade winds, resulting in unusually wet weather in the southern United States and drier winter conditions in most of Mexico. “We’ve been seeing the full impact of El Niño and there is no reason to believe things are going to change dramatically in the immediate future,” says McIntyre.
Of course, nothing is certain. The new year came in with a sudden blast of snow and cold in Alberta, only a day after temperatures reached 14° C in Calgary. But for the most part, meteorologists expect the pattern set in December on the Prairies to continue. In the Regina area, where normal December precipitation is 15.9 mm, only three millimetres—what meteorologists call a “trace of precipitation”—dusted the landscape last month. And with the average 24hour temperature a relatively balmy -5.3° C, far off the normal of -13.6° C, most of the snow vanished in a matter of hours. The story was the same in Winnipeg. Only four millimetres of precipitation was recorded for all of December, a fraction of the 1996 level of 40.2 mm. And in Edmonton, where people played golf over the holiday season in sunny 8° C conditions, precipitation was barely measurable at 0.6 mm, compared with the December average of 22.2 mm. "You can’t help loving it,” says avid golfer Gary Owen, 53, a Calgary advertising salesman.
Golfers may have been rejoicing, but many others were not. Emery Jardine, owner of a Calgary shop that relies on the sale and repair of snowblowers for much of the winter, saw the bottom virtually fall out of his business in December. “It’s just been dead,” says Jardine, 53. “I feel conflicted. I like the warm weather too. But it’s the worst thing possible for business,” says Jardine, who has been forced to lay off two of his seven employees and cut back hours for others. At Winnipeg Yamaha Sports and Leisure, snowmobile sales have slowed dramatically with avid snowmobilers forced to drive into the far southeast corner of the province to find enough snow to make it seem like winter. “The temperature is great for snowmobiling, all we need is about a foot of snow,” says salesman Lawrence Osiowy. Even Alberta ski resorts, which can usually count on an abundance of snow by early December, have been off to their latest and slowest start in decades. At Lake Louise, the fourthlargest ski area in North America, 25 of its 105 runs were still not open on Dec. 28. All runs finally opened after 35 cm of snow arrived on New Year’s Day.
For others, the winter that wasn’t is welcome. Summerlike driving conditions have been good for the taxi business in Calgary, where drivers can make better time and more money than in the slow going of icy, snow-clogged streets. “We’ve been able to service far more customers,” says Allan Enders, president of a company with 400 cabs. “When it’s icy, five or six of our cars a day will be involved in accidents. We likely haven’t had that many accidents in a month. It’s wonderful.” Wonderful for many. But with golf in December, also decidedly weird.
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