20 March 2009

Calgary Herald Article - It Really Was A Cold Winter

It was a bitterly cold winter that saw Calgarians fight severe wind chills, seethe over snow-clogged streets and bemoan the scarcity of warm chinook winds.

Spring arrived in the city at 5:44 this morning when the centre of the sun crossed the equator. Winter is over in the northern hemisphere, but scientists suggest we'll be feeling the chill in Calgary for months to come. They say the colder-than-normal temperatures and wet weather of the past season will impact everything from wildlife and crops to the proliferation of pesky nuisance animals.

For instance, pest control experts say Calgarians can expect an abundance of mice this spring. "The mouse population does really well when there's heavy snow cover," said Alberta Agriculture inspector Phil Merrill. "They can nest and eat and move around without having to worry about coyotes or foxes."

Meteorologists aren't ruling out the possibility of a cool spring in Calgary, a hangover from a weather pattern known as La Nina caused by lower-than-normal surface water temperatures in the Pacific.

That could negatively impact the population of another pesky rodent -- the ever-resilient Richardson ground squirrel, or gopher as it is commonly known. Gophers thrive in extremely dry conditions. That means if the snow sticks around longer than expected or temperatures stay cool, farmers could enjoy a bit of relief from the pint-sized, crop-eating creatures. "A cool, wet spring is hard on them," said Merrill.

Some farmers in southern Alberta will start their planting season as early as the end of March and will watch the weather closely for reasons other than gophers, said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and crop surveillance for the Canadian Wheat Board. A thaw is a good thing--provided it doesn't cause flooding.

The bitter winter saw temperatures in the Calgary area often sink below seasonal averages and a whopping 98.8 centimetres of snow hit the ground -- more than double the amount of precipitation recorded the previous year.

But if Calgarians trudged through winter with gritted teeth, a group of scientists and Alberta's beleaguered timber industry celebrated each time the mercury plunged lower. The Canadian Forest Service, with the help of a computer modelling system, believes the frigid temperatures in places like Jasper and Banff killed off some 95% of the deadly mountain pine beetle, a much-reviled insect that has already destroyed a significant swath of British Columbia's pine forests.

"We are going to get a temporary break because the beetle population is not going to grow as fast as they would have otherwise," said Barry Cooke, a research scientist with Canadian Forest Service. "It's short term, but it's still good news. The mountain parks were on a trajectory toward rapid disaster, so any reprieve is welcome."

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