Alberni Valley residents should be prepared for a mild and dry winter when the El Niño and the Pacific Blob collide this winter, says Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips.
“The probability is higher that you’re going to have a milder than a colder than normal winter,” Phillips said.
Whether that’s caused by the El Niño alone or by a mix of it and the Pacific Blob is less clear.
“Maybe it will be the El Niño plus the Pacific Blob will produce the cancellation of winter across the entire coast, maybe the El Niño will duke it out with the Pacific Blob and it will cancel out,” said Phillips.
El Niño occurs when the surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific extend westward, causing water in the west to become warmer than average.
The El Niño also causes a shift in atmospheric circulation.
The Pacific Blob is a large mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that extends off the western coast of North America.
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Whether or however the two meet, judging by past El Niños the weather will be warm and dry.
“When you look at central Vancouver Island—if the past is a guide to the future—you generally see across from a temperature point of view in the seven super El Niños we’ve had since 1950, five of those were warmer than normal, one was colder and one was in between,” he said.
Snowfall trends have been much the same, with six out of seven El Niños producing less snow.
“So clearly the dice are loaded to give you a milder than normal winter like last year,” said Phillips.
But it could even be worse.
“What we’ve got is something we’ve never seen… it’s almost like having two back-to-back El Niños.”
That means that unlike last year, Vancouver Island is not starting from the baseline—it’s under it.
Port Alberni’s water reservoirs—Bainbridge and Lizard Lakes—depend on melting snowpack to fill them to bursting before the hot summers begin.
“The problem this year is that you need a good wet season to replenish the water levels in the reservoirs… you’ve already had one dry and warm year and if you double it you’re going to be further behind when the wet season comes to an end,” said Phillips.
The summer of 2015 was a bad one for all of Vancouver Island—the province announced drought level 4, the most severe level available. And municipalities were hit hard; charged with providing water to their residents, they implemented water restrictions hard and early in an attempt to conserve water. Areas like Nanaimo went all the way to stage 4 restrictions.
Port Alberni didn’t go that far but even as early as March, city utilities superintendent Brian Mousley was concerned about the lack of snowpack.
“The glass is full and every sip you take, there’s nothing replenishing it,” Mousley said.
Levels didn’t improve by June—just the opposite in fact, forcing city engineer Guy Cicon to implement water restrictions earlier than ever before in his almost two-decade long run at the city.
“I only recall having water restrictions twice in the past many years,” he said in June.
“It isn’t something that we normally do.”
He took it one step further in mid-July when he imposed stage 2 water restrictions—harsher limits than Port Alberni has ever had.
But last year might not be the most severe summer after El Niño is through with the Alberni Valley.
“Early indications are that it doesn’t look good so you may be in a worse situation come next spring than you were this spring,” said Phillips.
“You’re starting from lower levels and not adding to it.”
It’s not only drinking water that could be affected—the lack of rain could have drastic implications for much of B.C.
Last year, the Hupacasath First Nation ceased operations at their Upnit hydroelectric dam on China Creek on May 20—the earliest closure ever.
“You’re a water resource province,” said Phillips.
“It’s very important to you and it’s hard to imagine a sector that doesn’t depend on it.”