Allison Hanes: Snow accumulation a normal occurrence in an abnormal year

Montrealers may have groaned at the latest snowfall warning, but it’s the overall lack of snow this winter that is the real issue.

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Like many Montrealers, I greeted Wednesday’s snowfall warning with a groan. I want nothing more than to pull the covers back over my head at the prospect of a fresh blanket of white stuff coating the city.

I mean, I quite like winter. Mon pays, c’est l’hiver and all that. But winter is over. The skis are put away for the season. The tulips are already sprouting in the garden. The Bixis are rolling back into service. The street sweepers have begun their spring cleaning blitz.

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An accumulation of snow a month ago when the kids were off for March break would have been welcome. But now? No thanks.

To be fair, there’s nothing unusual about snowflakes in April. Most years, there’s no such thing as spring in Quebec; there’s only a brief spell between the end of winter and the beginning of summer. What’s unusual this year is that we barely had winter at all.

Although 57 cm of snow fell in January, there was also 32.8 mm of rain, according to Environment Canada weather data. The total snow accumulation in Montreal in February was 16.6 cm. The most that fell at any one time was seven centimetres on Feb. 18. Meanwhile, we got 18 mm of rain in February. Temperatures were well above freezing for much of the month, hitting a high of 14.9 C on Feb. 27.

It was much the same story in March. The monthly snowfall for the city totalled a paltry 16.8 cm — but none of it stayed for long. No sooner would it coat the bare ground, brightening up the dingy greyness, than it would melt under the hopeful rays of sunshine.

And it’s not just Montreal. It was the hottest February on record globally, according to Copernicus, the European Union’s climate monitoring agency. It was also the ninth straight month in which previous heat benchmarks were shattered. The entire winter, along with sea surface temperatures, obliterated records, with oceans as warm in February as they were last August. Copernicus warned climate change is the culprit.

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In mid-March in Rio de Janeiro, the mercury soared to a blistering 62.3 C with the humidex, giving every indication the hot streak will continue as the planet warms to dangerous levels.

This is what is in the back of my mind when I encounter people who seemed delighted by this balmy winter. Sure, it was nice not to have to do as much shovelling and scraping this winter, to be walking on bare pavement instead of slip-sliding on ice, to be ditching boots and unzipping parkas in the middle of February. But what’s it going to be like in July?

How long before we’re conserving water in drought-like conditions? With so much less snowpack, there may be less spring flooding. But the pendulum could soon swing wildly the other way and we’ll be on high alert for forest fires soon.

This is not just eco-anxiety. Things are already tinder dry. A discarded cigarette started a fire over the Easter weekend in the Calvaire d’Oka park, a mountainous trail leading to a religious shrine and lookout. Normally, there would be snow on the ground still. Not this year.

Depending on how much precipitation we get in the next few weeks and months, we could be in for another summer of devastating wildfires.

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The 2023 season was the worst on record in Canada, but particularly in northern Quebec. Montrealers spent many days last year choking on smoke from the blazes hundreds of kilometres away, as plumes drifted as far south as New York City.

In a poignant reminder of these destructive infernos, it was announced Wednesday that Quebec photojournalist Charles-Frédérick Ouellet won a World Press Photo regional award for an image he snapped of a French firefighter surveying the hellscape north of St-Ludger-de-Milot last June.

Extreme weather and the catastrophic fallout from the climate crisis aren’t some distant threat. We’re living it and it will only get worse unless we get serious about curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Canadians are protesting an increase in the carbon tax. (Although gas prices are generally higher in Montreal, where we have a carbon market and a transit levy.)

With a snowfall warning in effect, there’s a chance Montreal could get more snow by the time this Colorado low passes than we did in either February or March. But there’s also rain in the mix. So it won’t last with the thermometer set to climb to 12 C by Sunday.

Complain though we will about slogging along slushy sidewalks in April, it’s a little bit of normalcy during an alarmingly abnormal year.

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