Canadian Rockies: global weather patterns, local effects: wrapped in thermals not cotton wool

In January the Canadian Rockies normally experience very cold conditions.  When I first came to Banff in the winter of 2010/11 the warmest temperature in the month from mid-December to mid-January was minus 15oC and most mornings the short walk to catch the ski bus outside the hotel was in a cool minus 25oC.  How far you walked across the car park before ice formed on nasal hairs indicated just how cold it was that day.  Clear skies and very cold air meant that on several days we were treated to spectacular ‘sun dog’ phenomena, the sun refracting though billions of microscopic ice crystals to create a circular rainbow rim and a spear-like ‘strike’ to the ground.

The downside was that, afflicted with Reynaud’s Phenomenon, my fingers would become unbearably painfully cold within 30 minutes, requiring frequent visits back to the ski lodge to warm them up.  Stopping to take photos with my gloves off didn’t help.

Since I arrived in Banff on 15 January this year it has been unusually warm and sunny.  Extremely pleasant.  Temperatures have been as high as plus 6oC in Banff, some say a record for January, and my hands have only required the occasional warming up.

I suspect that the mild weather is directly associated with the exceptionally cold weather which has affected the eastern parts of Canada and the USA as far south as Florida where those who can afford it have for decades fled for winter warmth and sunshine.  Normally the ‘Polar Vortex’ is over Alaska and North West Canada but now lies to the east.  Dubbed the ‘North American Cold Wave’, the effects have been dramatic.

Why do I think what is happening in the east is relevant?.  Simple.  There is a global circulation of air, the key word being ‘circulation’.  Atmospheric circulation systems are global in scale and the cold air in the east of North America has pulled air from the warm south up the western side of the continent.  Air from Mexico and California has cooled as it travels north but has brought relatively balmy conditions to the Canadian Rockies.

No prospect of sun dogs but blue skies, high cirrus cloud and the occasional tongue of cloud along the valley below has made for some interesting photographic skies.

Cloud in the valley below

Cloud in the valley below

.... is only a thin band.  Hoarfrost on the trees, and the chair lifts below the cloud base.

…. is only a thin band.  Hoarfrost on the trees (and the chair lifts) below the cloud base.

The Ski Lodge at Lake Louise below the cloud band

The Ski Lodge at Lake Louise below the cloud band

Today, Monday morning 27 January, and the temperature was suddenly down to minus 19oC in Banff, significantly colder on the ski slopes.  During the morning my hands suffered in consequence. Painfull.

However, completely cloudless sky,  a little warmth in the sun a month after the winter solstice, and choosing runs on sunny slopes paid dividends by the afternoon. It’s better to wrap yourself up in thermals rather than cotton wool.  Lower temperatures than recently are forecast for the week ahead but with the jet stream displaced and the polar vortex migrating the forecasts are less reliable than normal for a usually very predictable Continental Climate.  So who knows?

The one nagging doubt for skiing is the lack of snowfall.  Strong winds blew the heavy snow of two weeks ago off the peaks and there has been very little since. There is a 60% chance of snow showers on Thursday so here’s hoping.  Whatever, it’s great to be here.

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