Where's winter? Mild weather leaves some operations out in the cold

When the Rideau Canal Skateway will open this year will depend on whether Ottawa gets the necessary cold snap to freeze the ice to a safe thickness. (Christian Patry/Radio-Canada - image credit)
When the Rideau Canal Skateway will open this year will depend on whether Ottawa gets the necessary cold snap to freeze the ice to a safe thickness. (Christian Patry/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Ottawa has seen one of the warmest winters on record leaving businesses that rely on the cold scrambling to deal with a shorter season, and holding onto fears this winter could be a sign of what's to come in typically the third coldest world capital.

The normal winter weather has been "missing in action," said David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

He said thus far it's been the second warmest winter in Canada's capital since the Ottawa airport started keeping records in 1938. The mildest winter was in 2001-02.

By this time last year, Ottawa had 26 days with temperatures dropping below –20 C. This season, there have been none.

While Ottawa has received a fair amount of snow, Phillips said the unseasonably warm highs have melted much of it.

That's affecting a number of businesses that rely on winter.

While ski hills opened after a later-than-normal start, snowmobilers are finding their season quickly disappearing.

"The further it gets into the season, folks get anxious," said Gregg Villeneuve, president of the Seaway Valley Snowmobile Association, an industry that relies on colder temperatures to freeze the ground, making it possible for heavy machinery to groom the trails.

"They just want to be able to get out and ride and use their machines ... and they're just seeing their machines sit there and not do anything."

In his 25 years of snowmobiling, Villeneuve said he's never seen such a late start to the season.

"You sit there and scratch your head, because what do we do?" he said. "We're really subject to the weather."

Seaway Valley Snowmobile Association/Facebook
Seaway Valley Snowmobile Association/Facebook

Could affect Winterlude return this year

A decades-old Winterlude triathlon is also in jeopardy if the canal doesn't open in time.

The annual winter festival will once again take place in person this year after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, but some events might need to change plans if weather remains unseasonably mild.

"Our event is 100 per cent weather-dependent," said Rick Hellard, one of the race directors of the Winterlude Triathlon, which ideally begins with an eight kilometre skate on the canal. This year, that's appearing less likely.

"The skate's the one that sort of attracts a lot of people and when the skate is tentative, then people sort of hold off, and hold off, and hold off," he said.

According to the National Capital Commission, which manages the Rideau Canal Skateway, there needs to be about two weeks of consistently –15 to –20 C temperatures before the ice can be a safe thickness to support crowds of skaters.

While Phillips says you can't base next year's winter prediction on this year's, it could be a sign of what's to come decades down the line.

"This year may be ... sort of a dry run, or a dress rehearsal, of what would be normal say in 2050 or 2060," he said.