It takes an incredible stretch of cold weather to keep the temperature below freezing for longer than a week or two in most of Canada’s populated areas. A month is almost unheard of — even in Alberta. Calgary has weather records stretching back to 1881, and yet, managed such a feat only once (January, 1950). Farther south near the Montana border, they’ve never suffered through a month without a thaw. Even Canada’s oldest weather station in Toronto with 177 years worth of data has never encountered a month that remained below freezing in its entirety.
And yet, a large swath of folks from Alberta and Ontario come out to the Okanagan to escape the cold. Don’t tell them this, but even the Okanagan Valley is not immune to extreme cold like you’ll never find in Toronto — largely unknown in part because anyone under the age of 80 has never experienced what the Okanagan had to offer in 1937. I confess to being a bit disappointed about that — for extreme cold means skating on lakes that haven’t frozen over in half a century. Who wouldn’t want that opportunity?
1937 was an interesting year all across the continent. Raleigh, North Carolina started the year without freezing until February, marking the first and last time it has made it through an entire winter month without a frost. Out west, 1937 was at the tail end of the dust bowl drought. Year after year the Prairies experienced extreme heat in Summer, extreme cold in Winter, and drought year round. Previous weather records thought unbeatable were broken – and then were surpassed a year later.
Between 1933 and 1937, the Prairies experienced only 60% of its normal rainfall. Thousands of livestock were lost to starvation and suffocation, crops withered and 250,000 people across the region abandoned their land to seek better lives elsewhere.
On top of moisture that never materialized, summer temperatures sucked up what little moisture did fall. The temperatures that had been progressively rising over the decades, peaking in the mid-1930s.
30 years earlier in July of 1906, Spences Bridge, BC set the Canadian record for hottest month ever recorded. The average daily average maximum temperature was 35.5°C (95.9°F) and the daily mean was 26.6°C (79.9°F). Ten years later in 1916, Pelee Island, Ontario — thanks to those warm Ontario nights, beat Spences Bridge’s mean by averaging 26.9°C (80.4°F). Right on cue, exactly a decade later in 1926, Wallaceburg, Ontario came close to beating that by averaging 26.8°C (80.2°F).
Anyone looking for the decadal pattern to continue was not disappointed for exactly 10 years later in July of 1936 Morris, Manitoba tied the all-time Canadian record with an average mean temperature of 26.9°C (80.4°F).
None of the above four records have been matched since.
As outlined previously, temperature extremes and extremely high averages don’t always coincide. In fact, the reason average temperatures are going up over time is that extreme temperature events are becoming less common, and extremes as a whole tend to pull down average temperatures.
1936 was one of those rare years where extreme temperatures and extremely high averages did coexist. All across the Canadian Prairies the mercury climbed above 105°F/40.6°C Day after day the heat persisted. New records were formed only to be beaten the following week. Emerson, Manitoba hit 40 degrees Celsius during three successive July heat waves — seven days in total for a Canadian record that still stands today. Emerson along with St Albans, Manitoba peaked at 112°F/44.4°C, also a new Canadian record. This record would only stand for one year because Sweet Grass and Midale over in Saskatchwan, would set the Canadian record that still stands today: 113°F/45°C.
The 1937 heatwave was extreme, but short-lived. By contrast, the 1936 heat wave broke every temperature record imaginable. Spences Bridge’s 1906 record of 35.5°C (95.9°F) was topped by Nashlyn and Willow Creek of Saskatchwan in July, 1936 as they averaged 35.8°C (96.4°F) and 35.6°C (96.1°F) for the month. Another record that still stands 80 years later.
And then there’s the cold. Mindblowingly cold temperatures. A little known fact is that snow typically evaporates (technically, sublimates) quicker in extreme cold than moderate cold. This certainly didn’t help the prairie drought situation. February of 1936 was the coldest month ever recorded in most of western Canada. Even on the coast of British Columbia where flowers are normally in full bloom in February, the temperature stayed below freezing most of the month.
For those of you from the Okanagan, you’ll be happy to know that you were not spared the pain and suffering. 1936 was brutal – both in winter and summer, but the most brutal of all was January, 1937. None of the dozen or so weather stations in the Okanagan valley managed to rise above freezing, even for a single day for the entire month. Not Vernon. Not Kelowna. Not Oliver. Not even Penticton where the temperature is moderated by the two large lakes sandwiching the city.
Since Okanagan weather records began in the late 1800s through 2016, this has never occurred before or since. A truly amazing anomaly we’ll probably never see again. Well, you can never say never with the weather, but it sure looks and feels like it’s outside the realm of possibilities.
January 1937 is the only month that remained below freezing from start to finish.