Ploughing snow in Winnipeg. Photo © AJ Batac

I spent some time in Winnipeg before the holidays. While there, I had the dubious pleasure of experiencing, among other things, a goodly period of the city’s second coldest December on record.

Yay, me.

I grew up on the prairies, and I thought I knew what cold was. But apparently my time in Alberta was misspent. My time here in Victoria has made me even softer and weather-wimpier.

As many prairie-folk-come-to-Victoria can attest, –46-degree windchill is Something Else. Minus 46-degree windchill atop –35 degrees out of the wind, for day after day after day, is also exhausting and, in my case anyway, cranky-making….

Read the rest of this editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist….

Dallas Road dog park. Photo by Martin…T (flickr)I find the recent cooler days and periods of rain a relief. My garden does, as well, but more to the point, the cooler weather means things smell better. The effect is particularly noticeable along the dog-park section of Dallas Road and at Thetis Lake’s unsanctioned dog beach.

I realize dogs (and their owners) need a place to be dogs (and owners) and to socialize with their kind, but after 30-plus days of blue skies and warm temperatures, the resulting accumulations of ammonia, methane and, well, toilet can make the driest eyes water and the strongest stomach clench.

Rain and cooler temperatures help dampen the fumes of the dog days of summer.

But let’s get something straight. The phrase “dog days” does not refer to Fido or his doo-doo. Nor does it describe Rover’s snooze-all-day-in-the-shade summer behaviour.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed Sirius — the Dog Star, not the radio satellite — influenced summer weather.

When I mentioned this to Nature Boy, he looked at me blankly, then burst out: “That’s impossible. Sirius (the star) is a winter star. At this time of year, it’s barely over the horizon.”

Yup. Sirius is the largest and brightest star in Canis Major, and this, the Big Dog constellation, chases the constellation Orion the-hunter-with-the-studded-belt across the winter sky.

At this time of year, the sun’s light hides Sirius, except just before dawn. At that time of day, at this time of year, if you peer toward the east, near where the sun will first peep over the Earth’s curve, a bright, party-coloured star glimmers just above the horizon.

That’s Sirius, the Dog Star, the bright, glowing heart of the Big Dog constellation.

The observant ancients noticed the hottest days of the year coincided with the star’s appearance in the same part of the sky as the sun, just before dawn.

They concluded that the celestial canine must exert some constructive force on our star. The word “Sirius” comes from the Greek for “scorching” or “glowing.”

Because it lies so close to the horizon at this time of year, you see it through a shallower angle of atmosphere than the stars above. The water and dust and everything else in the atmosphere act like a gelatin filter on a stage light, altering Sirius’s colour and causing it to twinkle. It shimmers and glints, and can glow green, red, yellow or white.

This changeability led the ancients to believe Sirius not only made the sun go into heat, but caused people down here on Earth to go off their rockers.

Anybody working in an office without air conditioning or cooling breezes this July knows that heat can make concentration difficult and patience in shorter supply.

Many hot-climate cultures accommodate this effect of heat on productivity by institutionalizing longer lunch breaks that push the end of the work day into cooler, more productive hours of the evening.

Noel Coward captured the sentiment with “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” and acknowledged that the English, and most northern cultures, “detest-a the siesta.”

Although Sirius appears to be a single point of light to us, it’s actually two stars dancing in tight orbit around each other. We see Sirius A, the bigger, brighter star. Its companion is a much dimmer white dwarf star, nicknamed the Pup.

Preceding Canis Major in pursuit of Orion-the-hunter across the sky is another marker named for our loyal, four-legged friends: Canis Minor, or the Small Dog constellation.

The dog days of summer might refer to celestial phenomena, not our pets, but long-ago European sky-watchers commemorated the likes of Fido and Rover in the heavens.

Long before orbiting cremation satellites and space burials became possible or even affordable, as was announced this week by new high-tech memorial startup Elysium Space, the ancients affected a general glorification for all canine companions in our lives — whatever the season.

Or the temperature.

Read this editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist….

Kananaskis Country in winter. Photo by Brian Uhreen,

Although weather in Alberta’s mountains can be counted on to be unpredictable, when it’s sunny, it’s glorious. Photo by Brian Uhreen

Explore Kananaskis, Winter/Spring 1997Covering more than 5,000 square kilometres, Alberta’s Kananaskis Country encompasses everything from foothills in the east to the rock, alpine Continental Divide in the west, from the wide, windswept Bow River Valley in the north to narrow passes and valleys in the south.

With such variety in terrain, elevation and exposure, one of the few things you can count on regarding weather in the wilderness region is that is it unpredictable. The adage, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” applies.

Winter – generally

Winter in Kananaskis starts in November and lasts until March. Unless it starts in September. Or ends in May. There are years when an early drop in seasonal temperatures lowers the snow line soon after Labour Day. There are as many years when winter blasts on and on until June, at which time summer arrives, bypassing spring altogether.

Duelling weather systems

Kananaskis Country generally has two continental weather systems in play during winter. Frigid, dry Arctic systems from north or east blow without resistance over the prairie until they smack into the Rocky Mountains. These ramparts of stone funnel and deflect the air-flow southward. The arrival of these systems usually means cold temperatures and ice crystals in the air. These systems can also dump snow in the foothills while bypassing points further west.

Contrast that with the Pacific weather that blows in from the west coast. These systems tend to be warmer than Arctic systems, and are laden with moisture that falls as rain in Vancouver and turns to snow as they are forced up the staircase of mountain ranges across British Columbia. By the time the systems arrive at Alberta’s western reaches, the majority of the moisture has already condensed into clouds and precipitated out on the western side of the Continental Divide.

The amount of snow lessens the further east a wintertime Pacific system extends. Thus, West Bragg Creek, on Kananaskis Country’s east side, receives less snow from these systems than does Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, abutting the Continental Divide to the west.

Elevation effects

Cross-country skiing, in Kananaskis Country. Adam Kahtava photo -

Kananaskis Country is home to some of the best cross-country skiing in Canada. Photo by Adam Kahtava.

Elevation influences the differences in snowfall and accumulation between east and west Kananaskis Country. The higher you go, the colder it gets, the more likely that what precipitation there is will fall as snow, not rain. Snow accumulates; rain does not.

However, to every rule, there is an exception. Although higher elevations usually do mean lower temperatures, diehard winter outdoor enthusiasts have been known to leave Calgary where it is –35° C and spend a sunny day on Peter Lougheed Provincial Park trails in balmy –10° C temperatures. This winter phenomenon is called temperature inversion, and occurs frequently in this part of the world. Arctic high-pressure systems spread a thin layer of cold, murky and sometimes polluted air over the prairies and foothills valleys. One of the warmer western systems—as much as 15° C warmer—sits above it, trapping the cold air below.

To find out when to take advantage of a temperature inversion, compare Environment Canada’s Calgary forecast to its Banff forecast. If it’s warmer in Banff, temperature inversion is occurring.


Chinooks: spring in February

Chinook Arch at Sunset. Photo by Tuchodi,

Chinook Arch at Sunset. Photo by Tuchodi

East–west differences in snow accumulation can also be affected by recurring Chinook winds. Chinooks are a distinctive part of the Pacific weather system: as many as 10 times each winter, they blow in from the west, gradually chilling and dumping snow as they climb the British Columbia mountain staircase. With one final dump on the Continental Divide, a now-near-dry Chinook wind flows down the mountains to the plains, skipping over the Rocky Mountain front ranges and foothills like a rock skipping over water. As the wind descends, its temperatures rise faster than they had cooled on the ascent. Somewhere over the eastern edge of the front ranges, the Chinook encounters a very cold, Arctic high-pressure system locking the prairies in its frigid grip. What moisture remains in the Pacific systems condenses, forming a distinct arch of cloud along the line of the mountains.

The Chinook Arch announces a dramatic reprieve from winter. Temperatures can rocket from –30° C to +10° C in a matter of hours. Snow vanishes. Gutters fill. Spirits rise. Calgarians go home in the shirtsleeves, lugging parkas in their arms. Elk and deer, and antelope on the prairies further east, can feed and move about easily again.

Points west in Kananaskis Country tend to be frequently skipped over by Chinooks. Although these winds do occur in Peter Lougheed Park and the Spray River Valley, they tend to be weaker and more ephemeral there. The Bow River Valley sees the most Chinooks of all of Kananaskis, often serving to funnel them east out of the mountains and onto the plains.

Information Forestry,  December 2007

western spruce budworm, by William Ciesla, Forest Health Management International

Western spruce budworm’s prefers feeding on Douglas-fir needles.

A century-long ocean-warming trend may explain the rarity of western spruce budworm outbreaks on southern Vancouver Island since the 1930s, according to a study by Canadian Forest Service scientists Alan Thomson and Ross Benton.

Mild winter temperatures, linked to a rise in sea temperature, have de-synchronized budworm–host interactions in the region: budworm larvae now emerge earlier in the year, while timing of bud flush of Douglas-fir, the defoliator’s preferred host, remains unchanged. The trees do not respond to the early warming because their photoperiod requirements are already met by that time.

Race Rocks Lighthouse in distance. Photo by Evan Leeson

Scientists compared more than 80 years of sea-surface temperatures from Race Rocks Lighthouse (seen in distance) near the southern tip of Vancouver Island with historic air temperatures.

More than eight decades of sea-surface temperatures, collected at the Race Rocks Lighthouse near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, were compared with corresponding historic Environment Canada air temperatures. Mean sea surface temperatures and the mean maximum and minimum air temperatures from January to March correlated, with all temperatures from this region increasing over the period studied.

The good news does not extend beyond the south island, however: changing climate is believed to be contributing to a widespread, 30-year budworm infestation in the interior, far from the influence of sea-surface temperatures.

© Natural Resources Canada 2007