When David Phillips looks out his window, he’s baffled by what he sees.

“I can’t believe how green the grass is,” he said.

A senior climatologist for Environment Canada, Mr. Phillips isn’t merely daydreaming when he gazes out at the street from his office on Toronto’s Dufferin Street; he’s gathering data.

“There’s even a puddle over there and it’s not ice-covered – it’s liquid,” he said over the phone on Tuesday, his voice rising incredulously.

Mr. Phillips’s reaction is a more learned version of what amateur meteorologists are noticing across the country: It’s really warm out. On the first full day of winter, big parts of Canada are feeling far from wintry.

Especially in Central Canada, snowfall is way down and temperatures are way up. On Wednesday in Toronto, the afternoon temperature is expected to rise to 11 C. Forecasts put the Christmas Eve temperature in Ottawa at 16 C.

The reason, he says, is the weather phenomenon known as El Nino, caused by warm waters in the eastern Pacific and normally recurring every five years or so.

Only this is “the Godzilla of El Ninos,” Mr. Phillips said. Where water temperatures must be 0.5 degrees warmer than usual to qualify as an El Nino, this year they are 3.1 degrees warmer.

Hence the office workers walking to lunch in rolled-up shirt sleeves. And the chubby squirrels that naturalists have been spotting in Toronto, using the warm spell to gorge before frosts drive them to hibernate.

Of course, as the rodents seem to know, winter will rear its head eventually.

“We think the second half of winter will be more winter-like than the first half,” Mr. Phillips said.

Meanwhile, the tropical hiatus hasn’t been shared evenly across the country, with the west landing more seasonable weather. Victoria has an unusual chance of flurries this Christmas, while Quebec City, which almost always has snow on Dec. 25, may be green this year.

With winter “missing in action” in Central and Eastern Canada, some seasonal businesses have been left bewildered.

“It’s like spring conditions in December,” said Isabelle Vallée, a spokeswoman from the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec.

At Blue Mountain near Collingwood, Ont. – where only the beginner hill is open – skiers are “kind of waiting on the winter to come,” according to resort spokeswoman Tara Lovell.

“We are the snowiest country in the world and we’re not living up to that reputation,” Mr. Phillips said.

The warm conditions have left the country in a surreal meteorological limbo.

“It’s not winter, it’s not spring, it’s not fall, it’s obviously not summer – I’m confused. And nature’s confused,” he said.

While this year’s freakish weather seems unrelated to climate change, Mr. Phillips said that it may be a harbinger of winters to come: “We notice that our green Christmases are a little more frequent now – that’s climate change.”

That’s likely very bad news for the planet, but in the meantime, Mr. Phillips is taking a philosophical view of this season’s balmy blip.

“I must say … most of us are happy about it,” he said. “We’re not all skiers and snowmobilers and ice fishers.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015 8:17PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015 7:47AM EST