Whither winter? After record warmth, a cold snap is coming too late for the Ice Dragon Boat Festival races

After what has been to this point Ottawa’s third warmest winter on record, a cold snap is coming, with weather watchers predicting below-average temperatures to start February.

But it comes just too late for the BeaverTails Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival, which had hoped to host its sold-out races on Dow’s Lake Feb. 3-4 as the 45th edition of Winterlude begins.

Having to cancel is “crushing,” CEO John Brooman said Friday.

“We’ve got about 110 teams coming — we’re completely sold out. Seventy per cent of those are from out of town, either flying in or driving in. So, from a tourism perspective and an economic impact for the City of Ottawa, it’s probably in the neighbourhood of about $4 million loss.

“For us, it’s a devastating blow because we have obviously just come through COVID, and this is our first kick at the can to come back for the ice event for the BeaverTails Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival. Sponsors are in place, teams are very excited to be coming in.”

Organizers exhausted efforts to find a new venue or reschedule the event, which features boats with dragon heads and tails running the course on skate-like blades.

“There’s no blame, there’s no fault, simply that Dow’s Lake has about six inches of ice on it right now and the rest is a combination of water and slush and snow,” Brooman said.

The National Capital Commission is “doing what they can, but it’s not going to happen.”

Registered racers will get full refunds, with organizers planning to welcome them back in 2024.

An upside is that the dragon boat festival has a full slate of free concerts lined up at The Rainbow through Winterlude, which runs until Feb. 20, Brooman said. Its foundation will also continue its Shiver ’N Giver charity fundraiser for Boys and Girls Clubs Ottawa, Cornerstone Housing For Women, Kidney Foundation of Canada, and Tim Hortons Foundation Camps.

Looking at November through January, this has been Ottawa’s third warmest winter according to records dating back to 1872, Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said Thursday. Only the winters of 1931 and 2001 were milder.

“What a winter this has been,” he said. “It’s looked liked winter, but it doesn’t feel like winter. It’s been so mild and yet it’s been snowy.”

January has been about five degrees warmer than normal, with an average temperature of -5.1 C when it should be -10.3 C. December was more than 3 C warmer than normal and November was 1.5 C to 2 C warmer.

The coldest “moment” in Ottawa this winter was -18.3 C on Jan. 16, a threshold beaten 22 times last winter.

Most Canadians would call -20 C a cold day, Phillips said, and Ottawa gets an average of 16 or 17 of them in an average winter. There have been none this winter when normally there would have been a dozen by late January.

As of Thursday — with snow still falling —  Ottawa had received 171 centimetres of snow when it would normally have 122. A small storm was predicted for this weekend, with another 10 centimetres forecast.

The entire snowfall for a typical winter is about 210 centimetres.

And there’s “still a lot more plowing and pushing and shovelling to go.”

Get ready for a cold snap, though. Much colder temperatures are expected to start Sunday night with a forecast low of -16 C and to linger next week, dipping as low as an expected -25 C Thursday night.

Weather models have February in Ottawa starting with two cold weeks and then likely average temperatures.

“Don’t give up on winter,” Phillips said, adding “maybe the coldest moment of the winter is before us.”

According to a report commissioned by the NCC and released in 2020, winters could be four weeks shorter by the 2030s, with average temperatures in Ottawa are expected to rise by 1.8 C by the 2030s and 3.2 C by the 2050s.

“This may be the dress rehearsal of what we’re going to see that’s normal,” Phillips said. “In 2050, this may be the normal kind of winter: It starts at the end of January and is over by March 1.

“Its not saying that next winter is going to be like this winter plus one … It doesn’t work that way.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said the team behind Winterlude “pays continual attention to weather conditions and develops contingency plans as required” and had adapted activities and venues to changing conditions. The NCC updates Winterlude on Rideau Canal Skateway ice conditions daily.

Ice sculptures on Sparks Street can be covered to protect them during warm spells, for example. For the Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques Cartier Park, the City of Gatineau uses “snow cannons” that can operate in changing weather conditions, making snow when temperatures are best.

“Should the weather impact planned activities, efforts will be made to relocate or adapt them — cancelling would be the last resort,” a Canadian Heritage spokesperson wrote in an email.

NCC crews will soon resume work to build up the ice on the skateway following several days of snow, a spokesperson said Friday. The skateway can’t open for its season until the surface is at least 30 centimetres thick with good quality ice.

“For that to happen, we need 10 to 14 days of consecutive cold weather. So far, the winter has been mild and hasn’t reached the temperatures and number of consecutive days required. In the meantime, for safety reasons, the NCC asks the public not to venture on the ice.”

With cold temperatures just around the corner, it’s frustrating for folks like Brooman to have just missed that weather window.

“It’s going to be painful to watch the snowblowers on Dow’s Lake next week.”

With files from Joanne Laucius




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