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From Telegraph to Internet – Canada’s Weather Service Since 1871

Getting the Weather Word Out

As rain began to fall on August 25, 1873, residents of the outports and farms on Cape Breton Island secured their doors and shutters against a rising wind. Few people on this rugged island expected anything more than a later summer gale. But that night, after gathering strength for a week in the mid-Atlantic, a hurricane spiralled up the coast of the United States and smashed headlong into Cape Breton’s east shore.

By mid-afternoon the next day, the Great Nova Scotian Cyclone had laid waste to a large swath of Cape Breton. Newspapers were filled with accounts of steamers driven aground and bridges washed away in the deluge that accompanied the high winds. The storm’s final toll: almost 1000 people dead, some 1200 ships sunk or smashed, hundreds of homes and bridges destroyed.

Tragically, meteorologists in Toronto know a day in advance that the hurricane would make landfall in the Maritimes, but no alarm was raised because the telegraph lines to Halifax were down.

Aside from the waterlogged farms and wind-whipped coastal towns on Cape Breton, the hurricane was felt most 1500 kilometres to the west, in Ottawa. Politicians, prompted by the public outcry over the disaster, opened the coffers for the development of a national weather warning system. This was a major boost for Canada’s fledgling weather service, which had been set up only two years earlier, in 1871.

The primary mission of a meteorological service is to get the weather word out to the public quickly. No matter how perfect the forecast, if it does not reach the public in time, it has no value. As a result, the Canadian weather service has always been one of the largest consumers of telecommunications services in Canada, creating and adapting technologies to deliver more weather information to more people more quickly.

In fact, telecommunications helped transform meteorology from an interesting to a practical science, and make national weather services possible. In turn society’s basic need for weather warnings has often been behind communications devices such as the telegraph, radiotelephone, and automatic telephone answering systems. Telecommunications and weather services have evolved hand-in-hand.

The Formative Years

Meteorology and forecasting were still in their formative years in the mid-nineteenth century. If you lived in Upper or Lower Canada you likely divided your own weather forecast based on local conditions and accumulated weather lore – “red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” for example.

Samuel Morse’s invention of the electric telegraph in 1844 signalled a new age in meteorology. For the first time forecasters had a tool with which to relay observations over vast distances to warn towns in the path of a storm, if the lines were not damaged, and to inform others of sunny skies ahead.

By 1876, land lines linked all major cities in Eastern Canada. Public weather forecasts were issued from Toronto at 10 a.m., every day except Sunday and covered the following 24 hours. Compared to today’s forecast they were short and simple. For example, the forecast for the Maritimes on January 1, 1878 was, “decreasing northerly winds to westerly winds, clearing and colder weather.”

Distributing these forecasts, however, was anything but simple: getting the weather word out usually meant sending the latest forecast by telegraph.  On receipt, the person in charge would arrange to post, for public inspection, the forecasts in a framed bulletin board outside the local telegraph office, post office, school or railway station. In the United States, besides posting daily forecasts, some communities used flag signals, steam whistles, search lights, and even sirens and bombs to advise people of approaching weather.

Most afternoon newspapers in large cities began publishing the telegraphed weather bulletins as soon as they became available. At first they were only a recitation of the previous day’s highs and lows across the country, later they offered predictions and weather maps. 

For farming communities along rail lines between Windsor and Halifax, an ingenious system was developed in 1884 to get the weather word out. After receiving a mooring dispatch from the central weather office in Toronto, railway agents affixed large metal discs (the shape depended on the approaching weather system) to the engine or baggage cars. To farmers working their fields, a full moon chugging by signalled sunny skies, a crescent moon meant showers, and a star meant prolonged rainy periods. 

Operators at 35 warning stations at ports and harbours along the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Atlantic seaboard used a similar method to warn sailors of approaching gales. The system of cautionary storm signalled was quite simple. The Central office in Toronto sent warnings to the signal stations. Operators at the headlands to the ports or harbours acknowledged the message by return telegraph then raised wicker baskets, cones or drums from a mast or pole representing a different weather pattern. This simple system of storm warnings proved so effective that it was not until the 1950s when the last cautionary storm station with its wicker baskets and signal drums was decommissioned.

Although useful, all these early systems were limited by the constraints of time and space. Often forecasts were old news by the time papers were published or a ship’s pilot spotted the signal. And too often, workers whose job it was to update the warnings simply never did, or did it too late to make the information worthwhile.

Inevitably, people began to question the reliability of the entire system. Further, as weather services began spreading across the country officials realized that forecasts were reaching only a fraction of the population. For example southern British Columbia had a weather service in 1894 while Manitoba’s service began in 1899. The service in Saskatchewan and Alberta started up in 1903 and in Newfoundland in 1910.

Wireless Radio Breakthrough

In the 1920s all that changed with the technological breakthrough of the wireless radio. Like the telegraph 70 years earlier, the radio revolutionized the way weather was delivered to Canadians. Information could be gathered from hundreds of remote weather stations across the country and transmitted to isolated logging camps, island communities and even ships sat sear. By the mid-1930s, news and the daily national weather forecasts were a central component of radio broadcasts.

In the 1930s, weather forecasts for all of Canada except southern British Columbia were issued twice daily by a staff of four meteorologists at 9:40 a.m. and 9:40 p.m. The forecasts were based on data from about 217 stations across North America and were for the ensuing 36 to 48 hours, and occasionally for as long as 60 hours.

Forecasts were distributed as widely as possible through traditional means, the daily press and the posting of daily weather maps and bulletins on public buildings as well as by telephone, government wireless and radio broadcasting stations. In 1935, the weather service provided a daily national weather synopsis and forecast for the 10:35 p.m. Eastern Standard Time broadcasts of the Canadian Radio Commission’s Trans-Canada network, the predecessor of the CBC.

During the Second World War, Canadian and American government officials banned broadcasting and publishing public weather information over North America. Officials did permit some local weather radio broadcasts and weather maps in newspapers. But for security reasons, no mention could be made of the fog, visibility, air pressure, wind direction and cloud height.

Even baseball announcers were prohibited from commenting on the weather. One announcer was reputed to have told his audience during a rain delay, “stick you head out the window if you don’t understand the reason for suspension of play.”

Following the war, radio (because reports could be updated so quickly throughout the day) became the natural avenue for disseminating weather information. This continues today as frequent weather broadcasts are made every day on hundreds of AM or FM radio stations.

There is another type of radio we are likely to find aboard a combine on a Saskatchewan wheat farm, in a lobster boat off the coast of Nova Scotia or in the lodge of a Northern Ontario fishing camp – Weatheradio. This is Environment Canada’s network of low-power VHF-FM radio stations which began transmitting a continuous stream of weather reports in 1976.

The service, which is available to over 90 per cent of the population, provides taped messages of weather watches and warnings, public and marine forecasts, and current weather forecasts. Routinely revised programs run on a cycle of five to 10 minutes in length. Weatheradio receivers are portable, inexpensive and available from many electronic retailers in Canada. In addition, some receivers are equipped with a tone signal and or a flashing light to alert users of warning of severe weather.

Weather Surfing

Televised weather casts have remained the most popular and effective way of dissemination information about the weather ever since they made their Canadian debut on September 8, 1952 on CBLT-TV in Toronto. In the early days, broadcasters used grease pencils and puppets as props. Today, most weather segments are illustrated with radar images and computer animation.

In 1988, The Weather Network and its French language equivalent, MétéoMedia, became Canada’s only channels dedicated to broadcasting weather news, two of just a small number of networks in the world to do so.

Despite this vestiges of the old systems remain, only they’ve been updated and given a modern sheen. Where telephone operators in farming communities in the year 1900 read morning forecasts to dozens of local residents, Canadians today are much more likely to go online to get their weather. In fact, Environment Canada’s Weatheroffice website averages over half a billion individual visits to our comprehensive weather website each year.

Weather.gc.ca gives anyone in the world instant access to the latest weather forecasts from across Canada: current forecasts, extended outlooks to seven days, the UV index, and also the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI).

With the increased speed of microprocessors, weather enthusiasts can now marshal the same specific tools as practising meteorologists. Using a laptop, farmers or boat captains living in Cape Breton can download the latest radar and satellite images from weather services around the world. They can watch as a hurricane is born in the mid-Atlantic and follow its progress as it spirals up the east coast of the United States. And they can well informed decisions about where to hunker down and wait out the gale or pack up and dash for the safety of higher ground.