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El Niño forecasted to bring warm winter to northwestern B.C., Environment Canada says

Shift to El Niño may bring milder winter to northwestern B.C., with uncertain precipitation
With the sun casting its glow on Hwy 16 between Prince Rupert and Terrace, lingering snowbanks stand as rare sentinels to a season past. This picturesque, albeit not unusual scene, is not expected to be commonplace this winter. As El Niño sets in, Environment Canada meteorologists anticipate milder temperatures, turning the iconic, snow-clad landscapes of northwestern B.C. into anomalies rather than the norm. The imminent warmer winter heralds a drastic shift from the La Niña conditions experienced over the past three years, introducing a season of unexpected warmth and uncertainty in precipitation. (Black Press Media file photo)

Environment Canada predicts that an El Niño is on the horizon, promising northwestern B.C. warmer-than-average temperatures in the approaching months. Alyssa Charbonneau, a meteorologist with the weather agency, indicated that the expected El Niño effects would probably begin close to Christmas and extend into the New Year.

“In Western Canada, we tend to see the impacts of El Niño in late fall and winter,” Charbonneau shared. “We’re talking close to Christmas and even into the new year.”

She highlighted that this forecast marks a noticeable shift from the past three years, which were characterized by La Niña conditions. “The past three years have been La Niña, so this will be quite the change,” she noted.

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of a natural climate pattern across the tropical Pacific Ocean that swings back and forth every three to seven years on average.

El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific and generally brings warmer-than-average temperatures over western and central Canada. On the other hand, La Niña is associated with colder-than-normal ocean water in the same region, often resulting in colder-than-average winters in western and central Canada.

Both El Niño and La Niña significantly influence weather and climate all around the globe.

The long-range forecast, according to Charbonneau, suggests a winter that could be gentler than those the area is accustomed to. However, she also pointed out that there is no clear consensus on expected precipitation levels during this period — conditions could swing between drier and wetter than usual.

“In the long-range forecast, as we look towards Christmas and even afterwards, we’re seeing indications of a potentially milder than normal winter in northwestern B.C. In terms of precipitation, we don’t really have a clear signal, so it could be drier, or wetter,” she explained.

Current weather patterns in the region are wet, particularly affecting coastal areas like Prince Rupert with storms. While these wet conditions are expected to temporarily subside, they’ll likely resume shortly after. However, Charbonneau acknowledged that the forecast becomes less certain beyond the next few weeks, citing the inherently unpredictable nature of fall seasonal forecasting.

“Beyond the next few weeks, our forecast guidance is a bit murkier. Without a strong signal in the fall from things like El Niño, fall seasonal forecasting is quite hit-or-miss and our seasonal models don’t always have a lot of skill, in terms of forecasting conditions,” she clarified.

Looking at the months of October, November, and December, Charbonneau mentioned there’s a 50 to 60 per cent probability of temperatures being above the norm in northwestern B.C. However, she advised that this doesn’t rule out the occasional cold spell. “It really washes out a lot of detail, in terms of the weather. It doesn’t mean that we couldn’t also see some cold spells mixed in there,” she said.

READ MORE: Drought, forecasted hot temperatures to raise wildfire risks in Terrace this summer

Regarding the specific details of daily temperatures, highs, lows, and variations during this three-month span, Charbonneau explained that the general data doesn’t offer much insight due to the long averaging period. “That information is not going to tell us too much about what the day-to-day weather is going to look like because that’s averaged over such a long period, but the best we can say is that there’s a chance of above-normal temperatures over the wall and it’s a bit hard, at least at this point, to pinpoint exactly what that’s going to look like in terms of daytime highs or overnight lows, or anything like that,” she elaborated.

Areas like Terrace might not see much sunshine, with more storms predicted to enter the region, resulting in predominantly cloudy and rainy weather. “We might see a break, but beyond the next week or so, it does look like we have some more storms once against forecast to move into northwestern B.C. and it’s likely to continue to be cloudy, showery,” Charbonneau noted.

Moreover, she added that averaging temperatures over a quarter can sometimes be misleading about daily weather conditions. “The problem when we’re averaging temperatures over a three-month period is that it doesn’t really paint a very good picture of what the weather will be day-to-day,” she explained.

Charbonneau also pointed out that every El Niño is unique, and while the upcoming one signals a possibly milder winter for B.C., it’s essential to approach forecasts with caution.

When asked about the relationship between the record-breaking temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and B.C.’s weather, Charbonneau expressed that it’s complicated to establish a direct connection, stating, “It could have an impact for places, such as Atlantic Canada, but as to the direct link to B.C.’s weather, I can’t really comment on that.”

Addressing the ongoing drought in northwestern B.C., Charbonneau mentioned that the recent rains, although beneficial, are not enough to counterbalance the longstanding precipitation deficit. “While recent rains are positive, it doesn’t look like we’ve had enough rain in the last little while to make up for what we’re missing. We need to see a continued wet pattern for that, too, and luckily, we do see more storms and rain on the way,” she remarked.

Discussing the Category 1 hurricane-strength winds that recently hit Haida Gwaii, she suggested that similar stormy weather might continue, potentially bringing strong winds to areas like Terrace depending on storm tracks. “Those storms can bring strong winds to the Terrace area as well, depending on where the low tracks, Haida Gwaii and other coastal areas are accustomed to very strong winds that we often see in our fall season,” Charbonneau concluded.

Looking even further, Charbonneau said that while we’re still in the early throws of fall, winter is approaching, as is the region’s first frost. In Terrace’s case, that date is, on average, Oct. 17.

Reflecting on the historical weather data, Charbonneau said that the record-low temperature in Terrace, -26 degrees Celsius, was documented on Dec. 16, 1964. “Sometimes in the winter, when we get into those patterns where that very cold, dry air masses settle over interior B.C. and you get those Arctic outflow winds, that combination can make it feel very cold as well.”

Right now, though, forecasting Terrace’s first frost and temperatures that cold is incredibly difficult, Charbonneau said.

“Currently, there’s no indication that we’ll get there in the next seven days.”

Viktor Elias joined the Terrace Standard in April 2023.

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