Yellowknifers awoke to a light dusting of snow on Sunday morning, but it’s still nothing like the snowfall the city would have ordinarily received by now.
To reach November 7 with barely any snow on the ground is extraordinary, driven in part by a warm October. Since records began in 1955, this is the latest Yellowknife has had to wait for at least one centimetre of snow to stick.
“There’s no snow or nothing right now. It’s just weird,” said Bobby Drygeese, who runs a tourism and Indigenous cultural teaching camp on the shore of Great Slave Lake across from Yellowknife.
Chief Fred Sangris of Ndilǫ said he had never seen a fall like it.
“I live outdoors and travel outdoors. I’ve seen a lot of changes, but this particular weather is unusual and I’ve never seen this type of weather before,” Sangris told Cabin Radio on Friday.
“Right now we should be playing hockey or skating on Back Bay, or looking through the ice and watching fish swim.
“We could be travelling on the land, getting to our hunting areas, trapping areas, firewood. We gather a lot of firewood at this time of year. But with this ice and this type of weather, no one is gathering wood. It has a huge impact on hunters and trappers.”
Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA, described enjoying paddling under a dark night sky for the first time.
“I remember skating this time last year on Back Bay. And I’ve been going out for paddles all of October and now into November, which has never happened in my memory,” he said.
“I was paddling the other night and it was complete darkness. I realized I hadn’t had that experience before. You don’t get that darkness in September and October.
“A guy told me he goes up the Stagg River every year hunting and you can still paddle Stagg. You could almost be snowmobiling it by this time in most years. I think it’s creating a big shift for a lot of people’s seasonal activities out on the land.”
Inspecting the record
Almost every day since November 1955, workers have recorded the amount of snow on the ground at Yellowknife’s main weather station. That provides a record against which the current absence of snow can be measured.
The snowfall record is not quite as reliable as Yellowknife’s temperature record – the data is occasionally patchy, and does not exist at all for much of 1997 – but enough data exists to be confident of when snow arrived in every other year. It’s also important to note that the record is for the weather station’s location only. If you live somewhere else, like a cabin on the Ingraham Trail, your experience may be different.
By Sunday morning, the snow on the ground in Yellowknife still amounted to less than a centimetre. A measurement of less than a centimetre is registered as “trace” in the meteorological log so, for the purposes of this article, we have taken one centimetre of snow on the ground to be the first significant snowfall of the year.
Using that measurement, this year is the latest arrival of settled snow in Yellowknife’s history.
In 1995, Yellowknifers had to wait until November 4 for any snow to stick. Snow stuck on the same day in 1955 – 4 cm had settled on November 4 after 9 cm fell a day earlier.
Every other year shows settled snow on the ground before November.
In some years – 2010 being the most recent example – there was settled snow as early as mid-September. That year, Yellowknife measured a centimetre on the ground on both September 16 and September 23 before it vanished, returning on October 14.
Despite the early snowfall, it ultimately took until November 9, 2010 for snow that year to settle and stay settled for the duration of winter. This is a second, slightly different statistic: not just when significant snow on the ground was measured, but the date on which snow stuck and remained there for the winter.
November 9 is the latest that has happened this century. Whether Yellowknife this year surpasses that mark remains to be seen, though it’s looking likely.
There’s one more way to look at the data: how much snow was on the ground on a given date each year.
We’ve taken November 6 as our reference point, since we’ve just completed that day this year. This time last year, there was 20 cm of snow on the ground by November 6.
There are only four other years in Yellowknife’s record during which no snow was measured on the ground on November 6.
In 1958, the first snow had settled on October 8 – up to 15 cm – but that had gradually disappeared by early November. In 1970 there was 5 cm by mid-October but, again, it had vanished by November 6.
In 2010, again, there had been 15 cm on the ground in mid-October but none was left by November 6. (Another 10 cm had accumulated by November 10.)
In 1997, there is no record available.
A ‘real-time example’ at COP26
Yellowknife’s warm October and almost-snowless start to November are taking place as world leaders and scientists gather for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
Katrina Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, is an NWT delegate at the conference.
“A couple of people, when they realized I was here, sent me messages that normally they’d be out skidooing and hunting right now and there’s no ice,” Nokleby said from Scotland on Friday.
“I have been sharing that story and the fact that we have no snow, and our green Halloween, and how unusual that’s been for me to see, even in the 15 years that I’ve been in the Northwest Territories.
“I very much am using those real-time examples we are seeing to impress upon people that climate change isn’t something that’s happening in 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years. It’s happening to us right now in the territory.”
Chief Sangris said: “I’m glad world leaders have gathered in Scotland to talk about it and I’m really hoping that they will deal with it, because it is what it is – an industrial world – and it’s having a huge impact on our climate.”
He added he has seen two types of people react to the mild weather so far: “One type of people want the ice to freeze really quick and get this over with. The other people want to lay in the sun, wear sunglasses, and let this weather last as long as it can.”
Johnson acknowledged there are Yellowknife residents who see the positives in maintaining warmer weather for longer.
“But when you look at the rippling and long-term effects, it’s really not worth it in any sense,” he added.
While individual weather events cannot in isolation represent climate change, Johnson says the NWT’s experience in recent years demonstrates a shift in which weather events more frequently reach the extremes.
“I don’t like to take weather phenomena and pin them on climate change but when you add up a series of weather events like we have seen in the past year or so – flooding, high water levels, milder winters, and now this – I think it’s hard not to point to an overall change in the climate.
“It has a larger impact on how you view the place you live. In Yellowknife, we’re not a place that usually gets four seasons and now, all of a sudden, we’re going to get fall.
“I’m not sure what that does for our collective understanding of Yellowknife – we get a whole new season.”
Sarah Sibley contributed reporting.