Crushed Hopes: The Climatology of the Victoria Day Long Weekend on the Avalon

A typical early summer scene in St. John’s.

In much of Canada, the Victoria Day weekend marks an unofficial start to the summer season. Across the country, cottages and cabins are reopened, camping gear is dusted off, and patio umbrellas begin to bloom. We enthusiastically shed our winter wardrobe and embrace summer’s promise for outdoor fun… just as long as the weather cooperates. A little good weather can go a long way to making this weekend memorable, while bad weather can quickly sour our late spring exuberance and leave us doubting that summer will ever arrive. But this is Canada, and cold wet weather is common in late May; in weather-battered Newfoundland, it’s the norm. So perhaps our best bet for maximizing our enjoyment of the weekend is to arm ourselves with realistic weather expectations – that is, a firm understanding of the May 24th weekend climate, based on observations at some of the island’s airports (St. John’s, Gander, and Stephenville).

Let’s focus on St. John’s, since the majority of our population lives on the Avalon Peninsula. I’m also a ‘bad news first’ kind of person, and the Victoria Day climate in St. John’s certainly qualifies. While everybody has his or her own impression of what constitutes ‘good’ weather, it’s doubtful the typical St. John’s Victoria Day forecast fits anybody’s definition. Cool temperatures, frequent fog, and a very high chance of rain conspire to dampen any optimism that summer is just around the corner. Based on the last 30 years (1984-2013), a forecast for the three-day weekend would read:

“An 83% chance of rain over the weekend, with 17mm expected from midnight Friday through midnight Monday. Daily highs near 11oC, cooling to 2oC overnight. Morning fog expected, mixed with rain and drizzle. There is a slight chance conditions will clear up briefly, before clouds and fog return.”

Let’s break it down in greater detail. We’ll focus on daytime hours alone (6AM to 9PM), since we’re happy to sleep through late night bad weather. On average over the holiday weekend, St. John’s can expect only seven hours with sunshine (clear to mainly clear skies), nine daytime hours with precipitation, and a full thirteen (!) with fog. Roughly, 1 in 4 Victoria Day weekends remain foggy and/or cloudy throughout all daylight hours, and 5 in 6 see daytime rain at some point over the weekend. Put all of this together, and the chances of a glorious weekend full of summer’s promise are…well, not great.

Maybe we should lower our expectations, and hope for just one good day. After all, one in three’s not bad, right? Looking through the climate record, we can check how often we see at least one day with a solid stretch of good weather during the daytime. We’ll set our bar relatively low, and expect i) fewer than 5 hours with precipitation, ii) at least 5 hours with clear-to-mainly-clear skies, and at least an 8 hour stretch with temperatures above a modest 5oC. Unfortunately, results aren’t encouraging: only 2 of every 5 years will have any days meeting these criteria. Only four years in the past thirty featured two good weather days, and there is one solitary year with good weather throughout. All told, seventeen of the ninety Victoria weekend days in the past 30 years meet our (admittedly subjective) criteria.

Enough of the bad news; let’s talk coping strategies. Avalon residents could simply resign themselves to poor weather, and stoically head to the cabin or campsite regardless, armed with rain gear and a few packs of cards. Or we could dig a little deeper into the climatology and see if there’s a better time or place to usher in a start to summer. For example, we could consider trading in Victoria Day for America’s Memorial Day weekend, which arrives a week later. This makes a noticeable difference in St. John’s, with the number of good weather days rising to 24 out of 90, with at least one good weather day appearing in 19 of the last 30 years. That’s a full 23% improvement in our chances, just for shrugging off a minor monarchic tradition.

Better yet, we could consider leaving the Avalon in search of better weather. Conditions improve a little in Gander (20/90 days had good weather), and a lot in Stephenville (38/90 days), suggesting this might be a great weekend to check out the island’s interior or West Coast. This second option looks particularly appealing, with 12 of the last 30 years featuring two or more good weather days, and only 8 years with none. For Newfoundland weather, those are tremendous odds. Gander and Stephenville also see an improvement from a shift from Victoria to Memorial Day, respectively gaining an additional 6 and 4 good weather days.

The U.S. wants you to have a better weekend than the U.K. 

So if you live on the Avalon, don’t get your hopes up for good weather this Victoria Day. Unless you’re willing to drive west, in which case maybe we can carpool? I’ll bring the snacks, and a Petition to Recognize Memorial Day.



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