Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What's cooler than being cool? Ice cold!

Fresh snow on the local mountains

As you've probably gathered from the last few posts, we've been having a bit of a cold spell in Vancouver. While it's true that we get a few slushy snowfalls every winter, what we aren't used to are these extreme cold spells. By extreme, I mean days of icy -4 Celsius with a potential to plunge further. That's right. For those of you who use Fahrenheit, -4 C is the high 20's F.

Welcome to Vancouver.

This is as cold as it ever gets.

This is our extreme coldspell.

While it may not be a brutal -23 Celsius cold (which is what they're currently experiencing in Winnipeg), it's pretty darn cold for Vancouver! The cold has been the focus story in the news for the past few days now. What can I say? We're not used to this thing called "Canadian winter".

Despite Vancouver's relatively northern latitude ("relatively" since Vancouver shares a similar latitude with Paris, France), its winters typically remain above the freezing point. That's because Vancouver's on the west coast and experiences a maritime climate. The climate is influenced by the Pacific Ocean's warm Japan current. As the westerly winds blow across the warm ocean currents, the air itself becomes warm, and all that warm air eventually arrives to the coast and then warms up the land. This is what makes our winters mild, but it's also what cools off our summers. It's also what brings Vancouver's rain. But it's this particular phenomenon which prevents us from experiencing the intense cold that you'd expect further east in the rest of Canada or even in the USA's northern states.

So latitude isn't everything when it comes to climate. While Vancouver is further north than Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, or even New York, spending a winter in any of those cities would likely shock a Vancouverite. Typically a Vancouver winter means endless grey skies and perpetual drizzle. A winter in Vancouver is more like a winter in Seattle, Dublin, or London.

But the fact that they're quoting temperatures down to -16 C is what's particularly startling, seeing as that would be a record breaking low. We're just not used to days on end of temperatures below freezing! So far the city has been averaging around -2 to -3 Celsius, ever since Saturday.

Pete McMartin's article in today's Vancouver Sun is pretty funny and accurately describes this past Saturday's introduction to winter:

According to Jones' record, the forecast at 5 a.m. Saturday was cloudy with sunny periods, and cloudy that night.

At 4 p.m., the forecast was amended to cloudy with "a 30 per cent chance of flurries tonight" and "no significant accumulations."

But then, at 9:24 p.m., after people in Vancouver were already reporting snow falling, the forecast was local flurries with amounts to two centimetres.

(Jones said that YVR recorded the first snow at 9:40 p.m. In Tsawwassen, where I was, it was snowing heavily by 7 p.m.)

Finally, at 11:14 p.m., Jones said, Environment Canada issued a snowfall warning, with amounts between five and 10 centimetres.

By that time, of course, it was the usual circus on ice. Vancouver police reported 44 traffic accidents, well above the daily average of three. Many buses stopped running, even along major routes. (My own son was stranded in the storm, and finally got home at 2 a.m. after a long hike.)

In an e-mail, colleague Chris Parry described his own white hell. After waiting at Waterfront Station "for 40 minutes without spotting a single bus, despite TransLink's website and phone service telling me that the situation was normal," he finally found a cab by waving a $20 bill, "then paid a premium to get home."

On the way home, he saw: a multi-car pileup on Granville, downed trolley wires stopping traffic along Marine, a series of accidents that gridlocked bridge traffic, a bus in a ditch, more accidents on Cambie and a car overturned at Bridgeport.

"If this happens during the Winter Olympics," Parry wrote, "can you imagine the embarrassment? We invite the world to come ski with us, and as soon as it snows, the entire city goes to a standstill."

The City, however, was not unprepared for this, and had been salting major routes since Wednesday. It had 10 trucks out on Saturday before the snow started falling, and 14 trucks out at 7 p.m. By 1 a.m. Sunday, city crews had started plowing.

Even so, warning or not, salt or not, the snow discombobulated us. And if you were discombobulated this last Saturday, you better get ready for the one coming.

It appears that this arctic front has taken over the majority of North America and we are certainly not the only ones experiencing this colder-than-normal cold spell. But what this means is that for the next few days, Vancouver gets to take advantage of some crisp, sunny days. The air may be cold and dry, but the scenery is spectacular.

Cypress Mountain as seen from downtown

Sunday afternoon

The sun setting on Monday evening

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