Jayme Poisson Staff Reporter March 20, 2012  Photo by Ed Horner
Let’s start with the good news.

Thanks to the unseasonably warm winter, the city has saved $10 million to $12 million in snow removal costs (a number that could rise to $15 million if we don’t get any more snow). Heating bills were down about 20 per cent. Flu rates and car accidents dropped, too.

Of course, it’s hard to measure the intangible feeling of drinking beer on a sun-filled patio or walking your dog in a T-shirt in mid-March. For most, it’s sheer delight with a touch of “what the heck is going on here?” loitering in the background.

Climatologists back up what everyone basking in the sun has already said. Yes, that was Toronto’s warmest winter, with the least amount of snowfall since record-keeping began in 1937.

From November up until Tuesday — which felt more like summer than the first day of spring — the average temperature in the city was 2.2C. The usual average is minus 2.4C, a difference of 4.6 degrees.

Monday’s 22.8C was the warmest March 19th ever recorded, says Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips.

The normal temperature around this time of year is about 6C.

Toronto is in step with a mind-boggling trend across North America.

Winnipeg broke record highs in March four days straight with temperatures reaching 23.7C. (Last year at this time, temperatures hovered around minus 7C). Chicago annihilated its records five days in a row. And South Dakota hit 34C, the earliest 30-plus reading ever recorded in the Northern Plains, according to Jeff Masters, author of WunderBlog. This is the first time in four years the U.S. hasn’t issued extreme flood warnings.

But experts caution it’s not all early blossoms and ultimate Frisbee. There are consequences, too — some unforeseen.

The Midwest has already seen an early and deadly start to tornado season. There are drought worries, too.

Windsor has already had a tornado warning. On Tuesday, Hamilton issued a smog alert, the earliest in the season since 2005.

“When the temperature gets much warmer things get out of sync in the natural system,” said Gord Miller, Ontario’s environmental commissioner.

For one, trees budded before the run for maple syrup really ever started. Producers are reporting two-thirds less than usual, a dismal season.

And because there were no frigid winter months to kill off pests like wasps, black flies and pine beetles, brace yourself for an insect-filled summer. The cold kills fungus, too.

And while it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the coming months, more dry weather could mean more wildfires. “Will we have a serious drought this spring?” said Miller, adding less snow melt could be precarious for hydro reservoirs.

One of the reasons March temperatures are so high, said Phillips, is because there were no winter-like conditions to cool the air down.

In spring, warmer air from the Southern U.S. moves up into Canada and is tempered by the winter’s Arctic air — usually. This year’s southerly winds are not only several weeks ahead of schedule, but that Arctic air is almost non-existent, causing a much warmer end of winter and start to spring.

“What happens when that warm air comes north, it sees Canada with snow on the ground, ice in the rivers and lakes, snow on the ground,” Phillips said.

“The air becomes chilled, refrigerated. But this year there was no winter to cool it. It’s been looking like spring since some time in February.”

Phillips pointed out that Canadians, who may feel like they really didn’t earn this weather having got a free-pass this winter, shouldn’t feel like they’re going to be punished. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go from the winter-that-wasn’t to the summer from hell.”

The weather could well work to the advantage of farmers, translating into a longer growing season. But there’s always a risk of a cold snap and sudden frost. Stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums are about to bloom.

“Will they bloom when the weather is too cold for the bees to work? Will there be a frost that will kill the flowers?” asked Colin Reesor, a farmer in Bruce County. “There is serious big time risk of a wipeout here.”

The same reasoning could apply to gardeners. If everything’s in flower, a cold snap could wipe out seeds for the next year, said Miller.

Heather Auld, a principal climate scientist with Risk Science International, said it’s too early to say if recent weather patterns can be attributed to climate change. But she added that temperatures are in keeping with general predicted trends of the earth’s warming. “This is an example of what could be lying ahead in the future.”

To put those trends into perspective, NASA released a video that plots 131 years of global warming in just 26 seconds. It shows a map of the world turning from blue to yellow to spotted red and staying that way.

For Miller, there’s not much mystery. Ten years ago, he used to talk about climate change in the future tense. Today, he uses the present. “This is the kind of disruption and change. We’re seeing it. It’s real now.”

With files from Zoe McKnight

A city heating up

Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips crunched some numbers for the Toronto area, comparing this unseasonably warm season with the period from November to the end of March, starting in 1937:

• From Nov. 1 until March 20 — the first day of spring — the average temperature in Toronto was 2.2C. Normally, it’s minus 2.4C.

• The city has had 25 days of snowfall to date. Usually, it snows about 40 days.

• Total snowfall was 40 cm, the least amount to date. Normally, we get up to 103 cm.

• There was five times as much rain as snow. The two are typically even.

• Temperatures hit freezing on 18 days. Normally, it would be 55 or 56 days.

• Previously, the warmest winter was from November 2001 to the end of March, 2002. The average temperature then was 1.5C.

• In March, Toronto broke at least seven weather records. Monday’s 22.8C high was the warmest March 19th on record.

Photo by Ed Horner

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