Top ten weather stories for 2011: story nine

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9. Groundhog Day Storm: Snowmageddon or Snowbigdeal?

A map of parts of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland impacted by a powerful winter storm.

During the last week of January, meteorologists across North America warned of pending doom – a storm of the century that could potentially affect 100 million people from New Mexico to Newfoundland. What became known as the Groundhog Day Storm shut down two countries with high winds, dangerous wind chill, ice, blizzards and flash freezes. The powerful and historic winter storm with life-threatening weather severely impacted ground travel and led to thousands of cancelled flights across North America and countless school closings.

The storm had an enormous impact on the United States and set the scene for the most devastating weather year in American history. The storm featured 2.5 cm of ice accretion in some areas, tornadoes in the South and more than a half metre of snow in Chicago from a blinding blizzard featuring 100 km/h winds. Cancellations and closures were everywhere and ranged from days to weeks. In the end, the storm was responsible for 36 lives and caused damages exceeding $4 billion US.

Conditions were ripe for a mammoth and powerful storm. A fierce Alberta Clipper led the charge, followed by a huge dome of Arctic air with a central pressure of 105.2 kPa that could re-supply the cold air for days. And it took direct aim at an equally impressive low pressure area coming ashore in northern California. That system crossed the Rockies and garnered support from a Texas low that was dragging moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The meteorological concoction intensified and lumbered northeastward along a powerful mid-latitude jet stream.

© Trucks buried in snow.  February storm recorded heavy snowfall in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

The sprawling storm headed for the Great Lakes and southern Ontario, with forecasts calling for a blanket of snow from Windsor to as far north as Sudbury. Fear of heavy snowfalls, lifted and drifted by powerful winds, along with freezing rain and frigid temperatures scared many into taking precautions ahead of the storm. Windsor declared a snow emergency before the storm’s arrival. In an unusual move, the Toronto District School Board closed its nearly 600 elementary and secondary schools – the first city-wide snow day for students since 1999. Via Rail added extra capacity to accommodate the increased demand for travel in the Ontario-Quebec corridor, and many workers stayed home or holed up in hotels. Even before the first snowflakes fell, flights were cancelled and provincial police urged drivers to stay home. In southern Ontario, there was a widespread blizzard warning – the first since March 1993’s ’storm of the century’. Of note, the criteria for a blizzard changed in Ontario (omitting wind chill) in the months leading up to the Groundhog Day storm, making the possibility of blizzards in Ontario more likely.

For portions of southern Ontario, the storm had more bark than bite. For example, at a critical moment in the early morning, the storm took on a shot of dry air which largely defused the weather bomb aimed at Toronto. Instead of the expected 30 cm of snow, the city received just 13 to 17 cm – a far smaller dump than many in recent years. Twitter users started calling the storm (previously dubbed Snowmageddon) Snowtorious, Snowbigdeal and Snowhysteria. But while the storm didn’t live up to its hype in Toronto, elsewhere in Ontario it was the real deal. Ontario Provincial Police reported dangerous conditions throughout southern Ontario, with blowing snow causing zero visibility in some areas. The Niagara region received 29 cm of snow, with even more to the lee of Lake Huron, while winds at Long Point approached 120 km/h. Across the south, vehicles slid off the snow-packed and icy roads, and many secondary roads were buried under deep snow drifts. Under the new criteria, blizzard conditions did take hold from Lake Huron to Niagara.

The storm had an even greater impact on Quebec and Atlantic Canada. In Quebec, several communities were bombarded with heavy snowfall, high winds and blowing snow. The hardest hit areas included: the Eastern Townships (between 15 and 50 cm of snow); Parc du Mont-Orford (50 cm); Owl’s Head (45 cm); Parc national du Mont-Mégantic (35 cm); Sutton (34 cm); and Bromont (30 cm). Three days later, a second system brought another 25 to 40 cm of snow to the same region. Traffic pile-ups were numerous, including one 3-km smash-up involving a school bus near Montreal that injured 29 people, and schools in the Eastern Townships and Sherbrooke were closed for days. Over the Maritimes, the Groundhog Day storm lasted two days, depositing between 20 and 40 cm of snow. It was the sixth time that winter that southeastern New Brunswick was hit by a significant snowfall and, as a result, building roofs were weakened and a few collapsed. In Halifax, schools were closed and events had to be rescheduled including the general meeting of the Whiskey Tasting Society, church youth groups and arts classes. Winds howled at 60 km/h and visibility was down to half a kilometre in whiteouts, shutting down air travel, disrupting traffic and forcing cancellations everywhere. The storm’s final blast in North America was felt in Clarenville and Bonavista in Newfoundland-Labrador. St. John’s got 20 to 30 cm of snow over four days and winds buffeted Bonavista with gusts at 76 km/h.

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