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Canada's top ten weather stories of 2013

4. The Nightmare during Christmas

Figure 4a. Map of Canada. See large map for details.

The weekend before Christmas a vigorous winter storm coated parts of eastern Canada with a thick mixture of snow, ice pellets, rain and freezing rain that plunged large parts of the region into days of cold and darkness. Thick glaze left roads and sidewalks slick and dangerous and knocked down power lines, leaving over 500,000 people without electricity. In addition to wreaking havoc in Canada’s largest city, it crippled North American transportation at one of the busiest travel times of the year. As damaging as it was, comparisons to the deadly ice storm that entombed the same region in 1998 weren’t even close with the earlier storm killing more than two dozen people and leaving another four million in the dark.

Though picturesque, the Christmas storm created extremely dangerous conditions as fallen power lines intertwined with broken tree limbs dangled across streets and property. The affected area extended from Lake Huron, across the Greater Toronto Area, east along Highway 401 to Cornwall, through Quebec’s Eastern Townships and across the central Maritimes centred on the Bay of Fundy. The epicentre of the freezing rain was in southern Ontario between Niagara and Trenton where between 20 and 30 mm fell – more than two-year’s worth in two days.

The complex weather system originated in Texas and sent warm moist air northward above a shallow surface layer of cold air lying in wait across eastern Canada. The first wave spread continuous mixed precipitation into southern Ontario late on December 20 and through the morning of December 21. A few hours of intermittent precipitation followed before a more potent storm tapping loads of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico arrived late in the afternoon and persisted into the next day. At Toronto Pearson Airport, an impressive 43 hours of freezing rain and drizzle occurred between the evening on December 20 and late afternoon on December 22 while temperatures remained fairly constant hovering about a degree around freezing for 60 hours. Trenton registered 55 hours of freezing precipitation, while farther north – between Kincardine and Ottawa – snow and ice pellets fell with peaks of 18 cm of snow in Ottawa and 15 cm of ice pellets in Cornwall. In southwestern Ontario and along the north shore of Lake Erie, it was all rain with totals between 40 and 70 mm. In Montréal and Ste-Hyacinthe, it was mostly snow totaling 11 cm and 20 cm respectively while the Gaspésie received up to 65 cm of snow with strong winds. Freezing rain totals in Quebec ranged from 15 to 25 mm through the Richelieu Valley and in Sherbrooke, and in the central Maritimes freezing rain coated surfaces with 10 to 30 mm of ice.

Broken trees because of ice.

Because temperatures remained below freezing in the wake of the storm, there was little natural melting. Wind strengths also picked up resulting in ice-ladened tree branches snapping, crackling and bringing down power lines for a week afterward. Over half of those plunged into darkness were in the Toronto region, with Toronto Hydro calling it one of the largest ice storms in history. The icy weather left the city with a fractured transit system, a water pumping station out of commission and two major hospitals running on back-up generators. Community centres were opened to warm and feed thousands of citizens, while retailers struggled to remain open through one of the busiest and most profitable shopping weeks of the year.

In Quebec, 53,000 people lost power with most living in the Eastern Townships, Montérégie and Montréal. In the Maritimes, the hardest hit area was centred in Rothesay and St. Stephen, New Brunswick where several thousand residents faced off-and-on power interruptions. Electrical trucks from Michigan to Maine and as far west as Manitoba arrived to help, but restoring electricity proved to be slow and difficult as power crews trudged through deep snow, crossed slippery surfaces or manoeuvred debris piles to reach damaged areas. By Boxing Day more than 100,000 people in homes, businesses and farms were still without electricity.

The storm was thought to have played a factor in fatalities in Ontario and Quebec, including six fatal highway crashes and five deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from the use of gas generators and other unsafe heating methods. Additional costs from worker overtime, spoiled food, and damaged homes, vehicles and public infrastructure is thought to exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. Irreplaceable is the loss of trees. In Toronto alone, some streets lost between 50 and 80 per cent of their mature canopy leaving large holes in the city’s urban forest.

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