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Yellowknife fumbles for light switch under relentless January gloom


It’s not just you. Almost an entire month of grey skies in Yellowknife has left many residents forgetting what the sun even looks like.

Inuvik residents know how that feels, with a month of polar darkness every year. But in Yellowknife, ordinarily home to blue January skies and brutally cold temperatures, the sun’s absence behind so much cloud is unusual.

Natalie Hasell, a meteorologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, sounded shocked on Wednesday when Cabin Radio asked her to review recent cloud cover in Yellowknife.

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There was silence as Hasell tried to find the date of Yellowknife’s last clear sky.

“Wow. This is different,” she said.

“Oh! Look. Two hours of clear skies on December 21. But it was the middle of the night.”

Finally, Hasell concluded that the last recorded occurrence of any significant daytime sunshine in Yellowknife was December 15.

“That’s almost an entire month of grey. How does that feel?” she laughed.

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Not great, Natalie. Not great.

Weather station data published by WeatherStats suggests cloud cover in Yellowknife has been almost permanent for weeks.

Cloud cover is measured in oktas, or eighths. Zero oktas means a cloudless blue sky, and eight oktas mean it is completely cloudy.

Since Christmas Eve, Yellowknife has registered one hour – one single hour – below seven oktas. That hour was 6am on December 27, when the city briefly enjoyed four oktas.

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Aurora bore(alis)

If an absence of sunny winter days is wearing on Yellowknifers, imagine being a tourist who paid good money to see the northern lights here recently. That cloud is sticking around most nights, too.

Richard McIntosh, owner of Sundog Adventures, says the disappointment is obvious in people missing out on that experience.

A family on a five-day visit from Singapore “didn’t see the northern lights at all, and that was their primary reason for coming to Yellowknife,” McIntosh told Cabin Radio.

“They still enjoyed their visit and the daytime activities, but you couldn’t help but notice the disappointment in their faces.”

McIntosh is concerned about what this might mean for the future of tourism in Yellowknife, especially if increased winter cloud cover is a trend in years to come. (Some climate models forecast a gradual increase in winter precipitation in the decades ahead, which could suggest a corresponding increase in cloud.)

“For many people traveling overseas, this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip for them,” said McIntosh.

“Word of mouth, as we know, is one of the best ways of promoting an area. If they go back and say they didn’t see the northern lights, it’s definitely not good for the industry.”

McIntosh stressed he still believes activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling and dogsledding make a trip to Yellowknife worthwhile in any winter weather.

“I also still recommend that people go out with our tour operators at night, even if they don’t see the northern lights,” he said.

“Many of our operators are great storytellers, and there’s still so much to see and learn about. So it’s not completely devastating, it’s just very unfortunate for the people that are here.”

Hasell said the immediate forecast isn’t promising for this month’s visitors, although cloud does at least often bring milder weather like that experienced over the past few weeks.

She said people in Yellowknife shouldn’t expect a sunny day (or cloudless night) until at least January 25. Temperatures over the next week are expected to remain mostly above -20C.