David Phillips: Taking a Look at the Sky

Canada’s senior climatologist says what we’re experiencing these days is not the weather our grandparents knew

By Peter Feniak

Photo: Glen Horenblas.

As February 2019 came to an end, media across Canada asked David Phillips to assess the month. “If I was giving a gold medal for misery, I think it would probably go to Ottawa,” he told reporters.

He wasn’t talking politics. He was talking about our climate. Coast to coast, Canada’s winter seemed extra-frigid, the country deeper in snow. Ottawa had 56 per cent more snowfall than normal. Victoria and Vancouver woke up to heavy snowfall. Calgary hadn’t seen this kind of cold in February since 1936. Montreal’s ambulance service answered some 800 calls for falls on ice. It was a month of fierce snowstorms, mountainous snowbanks, bitter winds, plunging temperatures, and icy, rutted, pot-holed roads. “Even fans of winter,” Phillips said, “have to say that February was too much—too much snow, too much cold; it just went on and on.”

As spring sunlight pours into his bright, west-facing office in the vast complex that houses Environment and Climate Change Canada/Toronto, Phillips, the department’s senior climatologist, sees the pain of our freezing February already fading from memory. “We have short attention spans when it comes to the weather,” says the well-known commentator. Canadians hope for a pleasant summer: one without the vast wildfires and eye-stinging smoke that plagued so many a year ago and made “smoke Canada’s top weather story,” as Phillips put it.

Phillips studies Canada’s seasons keenly, constantly adding to a personal hoard of information, and he’s always ready to share what he’s learned in his 40-plus years on the job.

“You know,” he smiles, “we Canadians spend more money on clothes than any other people in the world. It’s not because we’re fashion-conscious. It’s because we have lots of weather. It’s ‘the seasons.’”

Phillips joined Canada’s civil service in 1967, with a degree in geography from the University of Windsor, in his hometown. He began to study key characteristics of the Great Lakes:

“I’d go to conferences and talk about lake-effect snow, wave heights, and ‘Does it rain more over the water than over the land?’ And just to get it going, I’d begin with a story: ‘You know, back in ’76, there was this nasty lake-effect storm that buried Chicago and then came and hit Detroit and Windsor.’ I found that after the talk, people were talking more about the story. Even scientists would say, ‘I remember that storm.’”

Storytelling became a specialty for this modest, amiable Canadian. Phillips now answers about 700 calls from media every year, appears regularly on radio and television, and gives speeches across Canada. He has authored seven books and been the “Weather Wise” columnist for Canadian Geographic magazine. He’s also the creator of the Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar—with “a weather fact [for] each day of the year since 1986.”

The calendar never fails to fascinate. A quick glance at this year’s version shows that, in Canada, “most incidents of lightning happen on a Sunday,” that Saskatchewan is the province with the most hot days (above 30°C/86°F on average), and that “if you spray your shovel with aerosol cooking spray before shovelling, snow slides off more easily.” Each year, Phillips and a small team create a new calendar, with full-colour “climate photos” and all-new entries. His office is neat, but its shelves are jam-packed with files. “I have 35,000 stories in my weather collection,” he grins. “All kinds of trivia.”

In the late 1970s, Phillips says, he was caught up in the then-current mania for lists. As books of lists popped up everywhere, he began mining his files for lists such as the 10 biggest hailstones (“Biggest hailstone: Cedoux, SK, August 1973, 114 mm/4.5 in. diameter, 290 g/10.2 oz”) and the 10 worst tornadoes (“Worst tornado: the Regina Cyclone of June 1912, 28 deaths, 300 injured, a city devastated”). He was creating a list of “strange things falling from the sky” when, he says, “I hit upon this idea of a calendar.”  (“Strange things falling” include a shower of live lizards in Montreal in 1857 and frogs that rained down on 11th Ave. in Calgary in 1921—events attributed to tornadoes over water.)

The first Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar was printed in black and white and sold only in government bookstores in 1986. “There are not a lot of big sellers in government bookstores,” Phillips grins, “but people would ask for the calendar.” It became, for a time, the bestselling calendar in the country. It didn’t make Phillips a rich man: the profits—substantial over time—went to his employer, the Canadian government. “I was never motivated by the money,” he explains. “I loved weather stories.”

Weather, Climate, and the Difference

Genial, quick-witted, and media-friendly, Phillips has a “public outreach mandate” that has kept him busy well past the optional retirement age. He has no agent for speaking or media engagements. The government provides his services free of charge—whether to a public audience or to, as he recalls, “the Potato Growers of Alberta, the Apple Growers of Ontario, or the Port Authorities in Saint John.” (Those who make their living from the land or on the water, Phillips says, are particularly astute students of weather and climate.)

Not every audience understands that weather and climate are quite different, distinct things. Phillips has often been introduced as “a meteorologist for Environment Canada.” That’s not what he is. (“I never correct them,” the senior climatologist says. “It’s live.”) In his office, he makes the distinction clear.

“Weather is the day-to-day experience of our climate. Meteorologists will be interested in the next few hours, today’s weather, and up to maybe 10 days. They feel that after that, they can’t really give the detail. Climatologists take over with the season: ‘What is the summer going to be like?’ I have models from our supercomputer in Montreal, plus what the Americans are saying. I can tell them, ‘This is what our guess is.’ Climate is the statistics of weather.

“If you took all of the local weather and averaged it and then looked at the extremes, essentially you’d be describing the climate of that area. I do use the word normal, because climate is about normals, about averaging over periods of, say, 30 years. There are exceptions to normal. And really, it’s as if normal doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Weather and Climate: It Is Not What Our Grandparents Knew”—that’s the title of his current national speaking series. Phillips elaborates:

“In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the weather was very stable in Canada. The summers were hot. The winters were cold. And now it’s as if things are more wild; there are more jokers in the weather deck. All kinds of climate controls are changing. Take land cover—forests are diminishing. There’s the heat people are generating. It’s also the landscape. I mean, every time it rains in Toronto now, it’s a flood. I think 75 per cent of Toronto is impervious to a raindrop; the pavement can’t absorb it.

“My focus on climate is the connection with the weather. People say, ‘Well, you know, the climate is changing, but I’ll be safely dead before it begins to bite deep and hard; it’ll happen in eons of time.’ I say, ‘No.’ It is a fact that if you change the climate, you change the weather, and the weather—what you see out the window—can really change. Storms could be stormier. It’s certainly warmer than it used to be, and when it rains, it rains in a heavier dose—warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air.

“We really have the evidence to suggest that the climate has changed. So has the weather. We don’t want to own up to the fact that we’re responsible for it, even though it’s changing like hell. You can’t get scientists to agree on anything, but now 98 per cent believe that the world is warming up faster than it has in a long time.”

What should we do about this rapid change? “That’s not my area,” Phillips points out. “We stay with the science. Our job is to provide the policy people with the best science, the best information.”

Weather prediction in Canada began, Phillips says, “essentially for forecasting for ships on the Great Lakes and the Eastern seaboard. People were losing their lives on the Great Lakes. It was considered the most turbulent water in the world. Life expectancy as a sailor was five or six years. It’s the wild winds, the storms that can come up in a moment and cause all kinds of havoc.”

Once, a system of coloured flags and pulleys operated by harbourmasters gave a forecast for ship captains. That changed with the introduction of the telegraph.  (Though with telegraph wires down, Phillips notes, Halifax was tragically unprepared for the deadly hurricane that swept through its harbour in 1870.) Daily forecasts from the Weather Service became standard in 1876—issued at 10 a.m. to cover 24 hours and posted, Phillips says, “down at the post office or the railway station; people would go down there and read something like ‘cloudy today with a west breeze.’”

Today, with weather observed by radar and satellite, information flows 24/7 to an interested and often anxious public. “People tend to notice when forecasts are wrong,” Phillips says. “They overlook the many times they’re correct. We give the best that science can provide. We forecast for the second-largest country in the world with very different weather from one corner to another. It’s a huge responsibility.”

Climatologists had predicted that our weather last winter would be kinder than it was. Sometimes things change, Phillips says:

“This year was supposed to be an El Niño year [El Niño is the name given to the phenomenon that results in unusually warm water in the Pacific that can lead to a warmer, milder winter on land]. Well, we were wrong. El Niño was there, but it was a weak guy and didn’t connect with the atmosphere. A stronger El Niño effect would have held off the polar vortex that descended in winter 2019.” Instead, a winter that began “warmer than normal out west” turned into “the Prairies’ coldest February on record. Think about it; we have 70-some years of good national weather records, and February was absolutely relentless.” Phillips adds, “I think the polar vortex is coming south now more often, so you have this kind of irony: we’re in a warmer world, but we can still face a nasty bout of polar vortex.”

“Climate Is Personal”

David Phillips was born in September 1944, in “the thunderstorm capital of Canada.” That’s a title claimed by Windsor, whose hot, humid weather often brings the booming cloudbursts. Legend (told to the Windsor Star) has it that his mother, Jean, held Phillips as a baby to witness a distant tornado ripping through the west end of the city.

“My mother is my hero,” Phillips says today. His parents’ marriage foundered early and, he says, “She went back to school and became a teacher and raised me and three other kids.” His father and mother reconciled in his teen years, and the family moved to Alberta, living in both Edmonton and Calgary. “Then my mother [with the children] moved back to Windsor.”

It was at the University of Windsor that Phillips met his wife, Darlene. They’ve been married for 50 years, with two daughters, Jennifer and Kelley, and two grandchildren. When family days in Aurora, north of Toronto, gave way to an empty nest, David and Darlene Phillips moved north to a condo overlooking Kempenfelt Bay in Barrie.

Given Phillips’s popularity with media and the public, his employer has given him the green light to work from his Barrie home office three days a week. “Sometimes it’s better for the media,” he smiles in his Toronto office, “because you can’t use FaceTime and Skype from here.” (The Environment and Climate Change Canada office complex, heavy in sophisticated technology, interferes with online social media appearances.)

Phillips travels to Toronto by GO train, stops at a station near York University, then takes “the 20-minute walk through the industrial parkway.” (He’s a strong proponent of better understanding weather and climate simply by “being outside and taking a look at the sky.”) A similar 20-minute outdoor walk home when returning to Barrie helps keep him hale. He supplements that with regular work on a treadmill in the condo gym.

Like many achievers, he’s an early riser: “This morning, I was up at quarter-to-four. I get up, I read the paper, I have breakfast. I get on the first train, get in here about seven o’clock, and then I take the first train home—the four o’clock at York U—and get home about six.” And when he and Darlene are out socially, he tries his best to please her by not getting caught up in long conversations about the weather.

Phillips remains an interview subject perennially on the go-to list for media across the country, especially when the seasons change or we reach a weather landmark such as Groundhog Day. He’s accessible to the public, as well, and there are always questions:

“I get e-mails from people saying, ‘I saw a double rainbow; what’s that caused by?’ Or, ‘Two days ago, we saw a sun pillar, sort of on an angle’; they wanted to know why that was. Weather’s always been a fascination for Canadians, but I think in many ways it’s even more so now. At some level, climate is personal. It’s hard to imagine some sector that’s not affected.”

Phillips isn’t sure if this year’s Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar will be his last. “It’s a lot of work,” he admits. Whether there’s a calendar or not, by sharing, in his engaging way, his knowledge of weather and climate, he has become a beloved figure on the Canadian scene. He sees it this way:

“I’m competing with entertainment. That’s why I do stories and trivia—to be able to hook people, to tell them something that I want them to remember. They’ll remember the fact that men are hit by lightning four times more often than women—women always cheer when I say that.”

Phillips’s career contributions to the ongoing Canadian conversation about weather and climate have been rewarded often—from honorary degrees (Windsor, Waterloo, Nipissing) to the Order of Canada. And he greatly values his distinguished memberships, such as being a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and part of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. For all he has achieved, his passion for his work remains undimmed. He chuckles when he’s asked about stepping away:

“There are two questions I’m asked the most: when I’m going to retire and what the summer’s going to be like. And I don’t know the answer to either one.