How the changing face of the New Brunswick winter is forcing some adjustments
New Brunswick Exhibition executive director Mike Vokey figured cold weather and snow in February in New Brunswick was a given.
Unfortunately, for the outdoor event Winterfrolic, he was mistaken.
The event featuring sled hills, snow mazes and, at one point, a skating rink was scheduled to take place on a weekend in January, but a lack of snow pushed that date back to the February Family Day weekend.
But even February brought difficulties with rain and warm weather, forcing the event to shrink to just two days and shutter the skating rink.
"It's frustrating," said Vokey.
"It's a lot of work, too, for a lot of volunteers. You can't do anything about it. There's lots of things within your control, but the weather isn't."
It's not just frustrating, it's costly. Vokey said postponing an event, even the size of Winterfrolic, can cost between $100,000 and $300,000.
Winterfrolic isn't the only casualty of a mild winter.
Ski hills like Crabbe Mountain in Upper Hainesville had to shut down several times, going so far as having to close over part of the holiday season because of warm temperatures.
Outdoor activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing have also been impacted by a lack of snow, or at least uncertainty about when snow will come.
But some activities appear a little more resilient.
Dave Garland, the president of the New Brunswick Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, said snowmobilers by and large have been able to cope with changing winters.
He said while some people may have to travel a bit to find snow.
But he said elevation and not latitude makes the difference in New Brunswick when it comes to snow. He said even southern areas aren't that far away from trails, which are groomed and keep longer.
"The field could be bare with grass and crop showing through, but you look where the groomer went and there's still an eight-inch base," said Garland.
"Once we get the groomers out and build a base, that base has a lot of longevity to it."
Climate change to blame
Charles Bourque, a professor of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick, said the ultimate culprit of the warmer winters is climate change and not traditional warming cycles like a seasonal thaw.
He said data shows increasing temperatures in the winter going back decades, but even first-hand experience shows something has changed.
"My hometown is in Shediac and at one time I remember about this time of year you'd see all these sheds on the bay … people ice fishing," said Bourque.
"Now you never see any of these sheds on the ice anymore, or I haven't seen it, and so that's an indication what we're going to."
The changing climate presents an issue for the province's tourism sector, which often promotes winter in New Brunswick as a place with lots of snow, perfect for outdoor activities.
Danielle Elliott, spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, says the changing climate has negatively impacted some planned events and activities, and has prompted more investments in mitigation measures like snow-making machines.
But she said warmer temperatures are making some activities more accessible.
"Less harsh weather conditions have also made some outdoor activities more attractive to New Brunswickers and visitors alike," said Elliott in an email.
"For instance, winter camping is becoming more palatable for many and increasing in popularity."
Stacey Russell, Fredericton's manager of tourism and events, said the changing weather has prompted the city to become more creative when it comes to hosting and promoting winter events, like the annual Frostival.
"Our strategy and approach for the last number of years is [whenever] we're introducing any new products … it would be a mix of both indoor and outdoor activities," said Russell.
"If, heaven forbid, Mother Nature drove us for a loop, we do have some other opportunities to be able to get people out and enjoy the celebrations."
There are some silver linings, but even they come with strings attached.
Bourque said it's possible that a slightly warmer winter could mean more snow, not less, in some areas of the province, but it still wouldn't help ice to form on rivers, lakes and outdoor hockey rinks.
Daniel Rainham, a professor in the faculty of health at Dalhousie University, said a warmer winter could mean fewer deaths during the season.
"Even before COVID, there were people dying all the time in the winter from influenza … to a large degree one could say that's from being in close contact with people indoors in wintertime," said Rainham.
"The other reason why is you'd be surprised at how many people die from cardiac arrest or cardiovascular-related Issues associated with shoveling and heavy exertion associated with snow clearing."
A warmer winter could mean a hotter summer with more drastic temperature swings, which would have a negative effect on health.
Bourque said depending on the model, and how much effort the world makes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, average winter temperatures would rise between 1.6 C and 4.5 C, which could change the face of winter in New Brunswick for generations.
"There can be areas where the traditional winter that people are accustomed to think about may disappear," said Bourque.
"If the temperatures keep on climbing there's no other way but to get into a state where you don't have the level of snow."
As for Winterfrolic, Vokey said he would never want to put an end to the event, but he has to be realistic.
"If you look at it, how many times can you make a commitment to something that's high risk?"