Winter on the Avalon Peninsula

Geoff Mann

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On the morning of Friday, 13 January it was -20°C in St John’s, eight inches of snow on the ground. By Saturday noon it was +12°C, raining on and off and blowing hard enough at the top of Signal Hill that it was difficult to keep your eyes open. On Tuesday, it was 13°C and almost sunny all the way from Heart’s Delight through Heart’s Desire and up to Heart’s Content, but 6°C in Harbour Grace, the fog so thick you couldn’t see the end of the wharf.

Barely ten minutes down the road in Bay Roberts it was 15°C. Everyone in the McDonald’s parking lot was grinning. ‘Some weather!’ they’d say as they passed, eyebrows raised. ‘We’re warmer than Florida!’ ‘Who’d want to be in Florida?’

‘It’s crazy,’ I said to the two women in the minivan parked next to me. ‘We’ll take it,’ the driver said. ‘Nicer than Florida. Who’d believe it?’ Normally, no one: in eastern Canada, ‘Florida’ is the word that captures the essence of nice weather; thousands of the region’s retired ‘snowbirds’ flock there each winter, returning home in early spring with stories of meteorological perfection. But here we are, so we must believe it.

Days like this don’t come out of nowhere. Pretty much everyone says the weather is changing, and some say it’s changing fast. It’s getting warmer all round. Summers are hotter, winters are milder, and there is a lot less snow: ‘Don’t even bother to shovel, it’ll be gone in a day or two!’ But the ups and downs do not always seem like a drastic change from the norm, at least relative to recent memory. The weather in Newfoundland has always been volatile and unpredictable, especially perhaps on the Avalon peninsula in the island’s south-east, which splays out, butterfly-shaped, into the ocean at the very edge of the continent, virtually surrounded by the Atlantic.

One notable change, though, is this: if you think of Newfoundland weather on any given winter day as a cloud of possibility, the cloud seems to be drifting up the thermometer, but the higher end is moving quicker than the lower, which is caught in the ice, or unable to keep up in the snow. Winter is generally warmer, but you still get those bone chilling days, and storms like ‘Snowmageddon’ of January 2020, when a metre of snow and eighty mile-an-hour winds produced drifts as high as five metres in St John’s, the provincial capital.

This also means that the daily cloud of weather possibility in winter stretches farther and farther either side of 0°C. That’s not nothing, as they say, because the bridge across 0°C isn’t just another notch on the thermometer, but the most extreme temperature transition we experience. It’s a change of state. We notice it. It’s one thing to live in a place where the temperature on 15 January usually varies between, say, 5° and 15°C or -5° and -15°C. It’s another thing when you’re crossing and recrossing the freezing point seven or eight times a month.

Many of the everyday ways in which lots of us experience a North American winter – road conditions, layers of clothing, flows of precipitation and wind over land – take on a qualitatively different character when what had been snow is suddenly all water all at once, and roads switch back and forth between hardpack, puddles and skating rinks, or flurries turn to downpour on the walk home from school and back to freezing rain on the way to hockey practice that evening. And this is to say nothing of the far more devastating changes brought on by the rethawing-refreezing instability of sea ice: for many communities in Newfoundland (and Labrador, the province’s mainland portion), safe winter travel across the ice is no longer possible, and the livelihoods that the ice made possible – hunting, fishing – are disintegrating with it.

Hegel has a term for the moment at which quantitative change takes on a qualitative meaning: Maß (‘measure’). His most straightforward example is the changes marked by 0°C and 100°C, points at which, having changed very little in the ‘measureless’ distance between, water suddenly becomes something completely different. Measure is the moment when ‘a seemingly innocent change of quantity acts as a kind of snare, to catch hold of the quality.’

These points of measure knotting quality and quantity together, Hegel argued, formed the ‘essential structure’ of ‘existences in Nature’, something the weather in south-east Newfoundland is perhaps unlikely to reveal. But it is something of a snare, catching hold not only of the qualitative uncertainty (rain or snow? liquid or solid?) but also the fundamental unsettledness of it all. If the difference between climate and weather is the difference between ‘what you expect’ and ‘what you get’ (or what you have in your closet and what you wear), what does it mean if we no longer know what to expect? There’s a meaningful difference between feeling uncertain and feeling consistently surprised.

To a climatologist this might sound like naive folk wisdom, but on the ground in Newfoundland it gives a qualitative dimension to the ‘weather’ that feels like ‘climate’: is today more like winter is supposed to be, or is it closer to what you would usually call spring? It can seem as if climatic macro-patterns are almost as unpredictable as weather’s micro-events. Who’s to say what an ‘average winter day’ is like when we don’t have them any more? It’s as if our memories are no longer useful, unable to prepare or equip us for what comes next.

Climate scientists have long spoken of the ocean’s memory, the way it carries the record of past dynamics in a way that helps us use data from the past to forecast the future. But the ocean is now losing its memory, as the ‘noise’ of rising sea surface temperature anomalies drowns out longer-term signals. In other words, important parts of ocean surface dynamics are becoming more sensitive to weather, and less, you might say, to climate – more ‘what you get’ and less ‘what you expect’.

Ocean memory also plays a key part in the weather in Newfoundland, if in a somewhat different way. Locked under the surface of the sea out on the Newfoundland and Labrador shelf is a stratum of water known as the cold intermediate layer. The CIL was once the winter surface layer, but as winter ends, freshwater melt from sea ice and a warming surface layer trap it fifty or so metres down. Some years the CIL is large and deep enough to reach the ocean floor, others it is patchy and thinner. All other things being equal, the cooler the winter, the bigger the CIL, the longer it persists near the surface, and the cooler the summer sea. Which is to say that in Newfoundland, a place that is in so many ways defined by the sea, the winter is a key determinant of the summer. The extent of the CIL has always varied cyclically, but there is a concern that if it shrinks permanently because of rising temperatures, or fails to form adequately, the sea won’t be able to provide some of its stabilising, if unpredictable, services to Newfoundland’s weather – and its climate. The ocean will have lost its memory.

Wind and snow are forecast for next week. It feels as if that is something to be cherished, even more than the balmy promises of Florida.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.