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Warm dry winter may lead to difficult summer, top climatologist says

Balmy temperatures and snow-free sidewalks may have brought smiles to the faces of Canadians coast to coast over the past few months, but the record-setting winter conditions are causing consternation and anxiety for one senior Environment Canada climatologist.

Balmy temperatures and snow-free sidewalks may have brought smiles to the faces of Canadians coast to coast over the past few months, but the record-setting winter conditions are causing consternation and anxiety for one senior Environment Canada climatologist.

David Phillips said this winter, the warmest and driest on record for 63 years, may be setting the stage for a summer plagued by a host of problems ranging from droughts to rampant insect populations.

Temperatures from December through February - the period Environment Canada defines as winter - were four degrees higher than what's considered normal for this time of year, he said, adding that precipitation levels were 22 per cent lower than usual across the country.

Vancouver was unseasonably balmy during the Olympics last month, even for the West Coast city, and there was often concerns about whether there was enough snow on the ski slope. That worry has subsided for now as the Paralympic Games are about to begin - temperatures have dropped and snow is expected on the slopes.

But in Manitoba, mild weather has forced more than half of the province's ice roads to close after less than a month, cutting off the winter lifelines for dozens of northern reserves.

Phillips said many winter-weary Canadians may have revelled in the relative warmth, but said people may have a change of heart when temperatures start to rise.

"The weather we're blessing right now may be the weather we're cursing three months from now when we see the full effects of it," Phillips said in a telephone interview from Saskatoon.

Low precipitation and moisture levels could have widespread repercussions that will be felt from everyone from farmers to fishermen, he added.

Crop producers are facing higher risk of droughts in the coming year thanks to the lack of moisture accumulated during the winter, while anglers hoping to take in some summer sport could find their efforts hampered by low water levels in the country's lakes and rivers, Phillips said.

Dry conditions in the wilderness increase the risk of forest fires, while warm temperatures provide an ideal breeding ground for all manner of insects, pests and viruses.

Mosquitoes, grasshoppers and dreaded pine beetles - which have already devastated swaths of forest in British Columbia - have likely survived the unseasonably mild winter and may emerge in full force in the coming months, he said.

"One of the best things about our winters in Canada, it gets cold and it kills all of those things that bother us. We can reset the clock. But those creatures, not only do they survive, they may thrive," Phillips said.

Snow birds hoping the recent winter trends will give way to sun-drenched summer days may also be in for a shock, Phillips said, adding winter weather patterns are virtually useless when compiling summer forecasts.

"Flip a coin, throw a dart. (Winter) doesn't tell you anything about what the summer ahead is going to be," he said. "That's the very nature of this season."

The most recent winter data, while particularly extreme, suggests to Phillips that the definition of the typical Canadian winter may be changing. Seasonal temperatures have increased about 2.5 degrees over a 63-year period, Phillips said, adding the rest of the world has warmed more slowly with an average of three-quarters of a degree.

Phillips said this year's balminess can be explained by El Nino, a shift in wind and ocean currents in the Pacific, but there's no doubt Canadians have begun to notice a difference in the season most closely associated with their homeland.

"Old-timers used to say to me years ago 'ya know, winters aren't what they used to be.' And I'd say 'nonsense, you've just got a bad memory.' And now, they're proven right, Canadian winters are not what they used to be."

 
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