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Wild weather in Newfoundland and Labrador the new norm

Marine Atlantic’s ferry Blue Puttee, pictured recently docked in Port aux Basques, has had several cancelled crossings on the gulf over the last three weeks due to extreme weather.
Marine Atlantic’s ferry Blue Puttee, pictured recently docked in Port aux Basques, has had several cancelled crossings on the gulf over the last three weeks due to extreme weather. - Submitted

Environment Canada climatologist says to expect the unexpected

Hurricane-force winds, severe snowstorms, exceptionally high seas, floods and jam-packed sea ice.

In the last few years, it seems this province has been hit with some of the most extreme and unusual weather systems that it ever has.

And it’s had big impacts on travellers — just ask Marine Atlantic.

“Last week, we lost four days of sailings. I’ve never seen that before,” Marine Atlantic communications director Darrell Mercer told The Telegram.

He’s also never seen the type of winds.

In the last month, ferry crossings between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, N.S., have been hugely disrupted with unusually frequent weather systems that forced Marine Atlantic to cancel runs several times during the Christmas holidays and new year.

Last Sunday, gusts of up to 100 knots (185 kms/h) blew through the gulf.

“We’ve seen high wind gusts before, but when you get that three-digit number, that’s very high and very unusual to see unless there’s a hurricane,” Mercer said. “We usually don’t see those type of systems in the wintertime, and here we are in January and we’re experiencing what we’ve been calling a weather bomb.”

Dealing with severe weather is nothing new for the province, but Mercer said these past few years have been different and particularly challenging.

“The weather systems we’re seeing are abnormal. … Every year is different, but if we look at this year, in particular, what we’re seeing is sustained systems that are sticking around for longer periods of time,” he said.

“These past three weeks, we’ve seen three significant, severe weather systems move through. That type of a system, usually we’d only expect to see one of those a year. We’ve had three in three weeks. It kind of puts in perspective what we’ve been dealing with.”

Mercer expects to see more of these unusual weather patterns in the future.

But where is this wild weather coming from and can we expect more of it?

It’s a tough question to answer, Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said.

There’s no doubt people are noticing more frequent intense weather systems than in the past, he said, but scientists have yet to prove that’s the case.

“Scientists are very cautious about making a statement. They have to be 95 per cent confident before they say something that is so obvious to the general public,” Phillips said.

“Our weather is different now. Yeah, climatologists would say that, but they need the rigour of (scientific) experiments and setups to be able to prove that.”

There’s no denying the world is warmer due to climate change, he said.

Over the last 70 years, Phillips said, temperatures in Newfoundland and Labrador have increased 1.2 degrees in summer, 1.2 degrees in the fall and 0.7 degrees in winter.

“It may not seem like a lot, but it doesn’t take a lot of global warming to create impacts and fallouts from a warmer world,” said Phillips, adding that this province’s disruptive weather usually comes from the south.

He said Newfoundland has always been “the laboratory of extreme weather patterns,” being on the tail end of many systems in North America. But what has changed, he said, is the variability — systems are attacking from different directions.

“It’s not just all from the southwest. You can be clobbered from almost any direction,” he said. “There are those wild swings, which likely is part of climate change.

“And climate change doesn’t create weather. It energizes it. It’s like steroids for storms, in a way. It makes storms stronger than it would’ve been. It’s got more potential to give you a nasty blow. That’s what scientists are focusing on.”

Last week’s “weather bomb,” experienced by the province, was a good indication of that, he said.

“In Newfoundland, it was like a litany of weather misery. There were warnings out for snow squalls, storm surges, extreme cold, winter storms, wind, rain, snow, Wreckhouse wind, blowing snow and drifting snow. I mean, you would think, I’m not going outside. I’m going to hide under the bed. Where we used to have winter warnings, now, it’s everything but the kitchen sink.”

Phillips said there are many other factors that can make it seem like the province’s weather is worsening.

First of all, there are more ways of being informed about the weather.

More media outlets are reporting it, for example, he said.

“The world is smaller. There are no far-off places anymore, whether it’s Bangladesh or Buchans,” Phillips said. “Centuries ago, people didn’t even hear about storms (around the world). Now, CNN would be there before it hits and Anderson Cooper would be standing in the water.

“Severe weather (for the media) is storm porn. We like to report it because it causes a lot of buzz.

“People begin to think we’re going to hell in a hand basket, that the world is really closing in on us. Nature is punishing us.”

There are also more weather stations across the world.

“The oceans can’t burp without us knowing about it now,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the terminology used to describe weather has also become extreme. Terms like weather bombs, bombogenesis, snowmageddon, storm of the century and clippers often spur fear in people.

“It sounds like a horror movie,” he said, laughing.

Phillips said society has become more vulnerable to extreme weather.

“We’ve changed more than the weather has — what we do, what we demand, our lifestyles. We’re always in a rush, we need to go from point A to point B,” he said. “We can put a person on the moon and can engineer our way out of a lot of situations, but we’re still vulnerable to weather. Weather still brings us to our knees, with no power, no ferry services, cancelled flights.”

While no specific data can clearly explain recent extreme weather patterns, it’s safe to say the wild weather will likely continue, Phillips said.

“Maybe what we’re seeing is the opening act or dress rehearsal for the kinds of things we may see more of in the future, so get ready. It’s not going to go away,” he said.

“Our world is changing and I think that’s the future. I don’t think it’s going back. Get used to it. This is the new reality — to expect the unexpected.”

The good news, he said, is that Canadians are resilient to extreme weather and cope well in harsh conditions.

“We’re good at adapting to weather. That’s a strength. We have one of the toughest climates in the world. We’ve always had it,” Phillips said. “Because of that, we’ll probably be in better shape than other parts of the world.”

 

rosie.mullaley@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelyRosie

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