As a storm raged outside, the constantly ringing phones went unanswered at Environment Canada's Toronto offices last Thursday. Like many other workplaces in the city, it was shut down - by the worst series of blizzards ever to strike Toronto. As heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures swept along a corridor from Windsor, Ont., to the Maritimes, they snarled traffic, crippled public transportation and stranded thousands of commuters in Canada's largest city. Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman called in the Canadian Forces. In the northeastern United States, where the storm delivered heavy snow and freezing rain, it established a record low temperature in the state of Maine: -48° C.
Even so, Canada's first great storm of '99 paled beside other recent examples of nature's fury - last January's ice storm in Quebec, eastern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes, in particular. In economic and human terms, that blast, which disrupted electric power supplies to three million people and left more than 25 dead, was far more severe than last week's. Floods that inundated southern Manitoba in the spring of 1997 also produced greater dislocation - forcing 28,000 people from their homes and damaging hundreds of properties along the Red River. A year earlier, floods swept through Quebec's Saguenay region, leaving 10 dead and 2,000 families homeless.
Is it just our imaginations, or is the weather really getting worse? And if it is getting worse, just how bad can it get?
The answers, to the extent that science can provide them, are not comforting. For starters, it is not our imagination: the weather is indeed getting wilder. Researchers in the United States and Canada say extreme weather is not only becoming more frequent, it is getting more violent as well. The Ontario blizzard was typical, they say, of what Canadians can expect as Earth's temperature ratchets upward in the decades ahead.
As for how bad it could get, no one knows for sure. Computer models designed to simulate Earth's future climate hint at startling increases in snow and rainfall along with temperature shifts. But their reliability is unproven. And simulations designed to model large-scale climate changes are unhelpfully imprecise about what may happen to local weather patterns in the 21st century. Still, there is a growing consensus among climate-watchers that worse, possibly far worse, weather lies ahead. As William Hsieh, head of the Climate Prediction Group at the University of British Columbia, put it: "You'll get more storms, and stronger storms."
The reason for that isn't the heat, it's the humidity. Along with global warming, scientists now forecast what might best be called global wettening. Warmer air is capable of holding more water vapour than cooler air. The warmth also increases the rate at which glaciers and polar ice melt, introducing yet more moisture into the environment. Taken together, the two effects will vastly increase the amount of water moving through the atmosphere, leading inevitably to heavier falls of both rain and snow. For Canadians there is an extra jolt in the global weather outlook. The greatest increases in precipitation are forecast to occur in the higher latitudes - those occupied by Canada - and in the winter.
Students of the world's climate have drawn another, sobering conclusion: the impact of global warming is already upon us. One of the world's most sophisticated computer models of Earth's atmosphere is at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis in Victoria. "Changes," its researchers warned in a paper last September, "accelerate from the present into the next century."
In coming decades, their model suggests, Canada, and especially its central regions, can expect storms on the measure of last week's to become increasingly common. The number of extreme low pressure systems - the barometric engines that drive the most devastating storms - each winter could increase by more than 20 per cent by 2040. Precipitation - snow or ice in the winter and rain at other times - will become dramatically heavier. Other harsh weather patterns will also worsen: heat waves in some regions may become as much as 10 degrees hotter.
If human misery is the measure, the weather already seems bad enough. The last few years have produced a long list of unusual weather events:
» China's floods last summer, when the the Yangtze River burst its banks and displaced millions of people from their homes, were some of the worst in that country's long history.
» The entire world sweltered through record heat last year - the hottest in 500 years.
» In Florida, forest fires during bone-dry heat last May destroyed 200,000 hectares before they were finally brought under control in July. Ferocious fires in British Columbia bumped the cost of fighting them from $40 million to $100 million.
» A heat wave in the U.S. South in July killed more than 100 people, as temperatures simmered above 38°C for more than two weeks. Other hot spells killed more than 2,500 people in India and spawned raging brushfires in Australia.
» The most devastating storm to strike Central America in 200 years - Hurricane Mitch - killed an estimated 11,000 people in October. And in the U.S. Midwest, a spate of tornadoes left 129 people dead - more than the toll from the previous three years combined.
Although it is hard to say just how extreme the weather may become, researchers at Environment Canada's Victoria centre for climate modelling have some alarming predictions for the next half-century:
» Extremely violent winter storms that previously happened only once every 20 years will occur every 10 years, as the number of deep low-pressure systems generated each season increases.
» In some regions, including Canada's North, extreme daily maximum temperatures will peak at 10 Celsius degrees above present levels.
» Record rain and snow storms over Canada will deliver nearly 10 per cent more precipitation - and become more frequent. Vancouver's famous winter drizzle will become frequent torrential downpours. Blizzards in the East will last longer and dump more snow.
The changes, in fact, are already well under way. In a report released last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the number of heat waves lasting three days or longer each summer has jumped 88 per cent between 1949 and 1995. The same agency's National Climatic Data Center reported that extreme snow and rainstorms became 20 per cent more frequent over the last century.
New research at the University of Victoria's School of Earth and Ocean Sciences points for the first time to similar findings for Canada. Graduate student Daithi Stone, who is gathering data on extreme storms, has determined that current rain and snow falls are significantly heavier than those of decades past, especially in Eastern Canada. "Precipitation has been increasing steadily," says the 24-year-old researcher, "in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes for the last century, and in the North for about 40 years."
More snow means more avalanches like the one that killed nine people in a school gymnasium in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in northern Quebec, on New Year's Day. More winter precipitation will also mean more spring floods. And the presence of more heat and more water in the atmosphere means weather systems will hold more energy, giving them a bigger wallop when they touch down.
Some of the greatest changes will be felt in Central Canada, says Andrew Weaver, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Victoria's earth and ocean sciences school. "One of the misconceptions," he notes, "is that global warming means a slow, steady change in temperature. That is frankly not the issue. What will impact people most is the frequency of extreme events." Toronto's Storm of '99, like Montreal's Ice Storm of the Century and Winnipeg's Great Flood, could well turn out to be a mere overture to the far greater wrath of the weather to come.
A Storm to Remember
In a country that owes so much of its identity to geography and weather, a winter snowstorm would seem the ideal event to unite Canadians. So it was last week, when snowfalls in Toronto hit record levels of accumulation that clogged streets and caused delays or shutdowns of most services and businesses. Mayor Mel Lastman - declaring "I'm petrified!" - announced a state of emergency and called in the armed forces. The public reaction in the rest of the country was swift and near-unanimous. In Montreal, The Gazette's Aislin ran a cartoon describing Torontonians as "wimps" for needing the army - and he wasn't the only one to use that word. Across the country, people phoned radio stations to snicker at high-and-mighty Toronto's sudden impotence. At Pearson International Airport, Steven Thompson, a former Toronto and Montreal resident now living in New York City, blasted not only the airline but the city in general after his flight home was twice postponed - and then pushed back until the following day. "This city is full of complete wimps," he said. "I mean, get real - what was closing the subway all about? It's not that much snow."
Pity poor Toronto - or not, since that notion is clearly anathema to many Canadians elsewhere. Never mind that Toronto's snowfalls were, for a change, well above the levels of most Canadian cities. By mid-month the city had received 113 cm, compared with its average of 35.5 cm for all of January. As well, the temperature dropped to -24° C - and, when the effects of a bracing wind were added, reached the equivalent of -45° C. For many people in the rest of Canada, said David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, the issue was clear: "Now the people in Toronto are getting a dose of what the rest of us put up with all the time."
In fact, as the latest storm moved east, it dumped heavy snow on southern Quebec and the Maritimes. Once again, Montreal was hard hit: while its normal snowfall total for January is 46.7 cm, its total for the current month - including 39.6 cm that fell at the end of last week - reached 86.3 cm, with the month barely half over. Ottawa, meanwhile, had received 85 cm - with the temperature dropping to -30° C at one point. In and around both cities, many schools were closed, and flights cancelled.
The Atlantic provinces faced similar conditions. In New Brunswick, all schools were closed as up to 25 cm of snow hit much of the province. In Nova Scotia, freezing rain forced the closure of all schools outside Halifax and Cape Breton. And conditions could hardly have been more different at the other end of the the country in this weird winter. Vancouver, which reeled from two unaccustomed heavy snowfalls around Christmas, experienced highs of 13° C last week. And in Edmonton, where snowfall this winter is already at 114 cm, compared with the usual 127 cm for the whole season, temperatures climbed to 6° C on Thursday.
But the biggest weather-related disruptions were in the southern Ontario region ranging from Windsor through London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and the sprawling mass of Toronto and outlying bedroom communities - in all, home to some 7.5 million Canadians. Schools closed, hospitals postponed elective surgery, public transit systems shut down and stores sold out of everything from shovels to space heaters and winter boots. The ever-active Lastman at times appeared to be on every radio and television station at once, pleading with companies to allow workers to stay home. He also sent municipal employees around the city to distribute flyers imploring homeowners to shovel their walkways and dig out fire hydrants.
The fallout extended across Canada and the United States as Pearson airport - the country's main air traffic hub - functioned at a fraction of normal capacity, and many head offices with branches across the country closed or operated with skeleton staffs. With as much as 80 per cent of Canada's mail passing through plants in Toronto, Canada Post officials opted to send mail cross-country by truck, resulting in delays of two or three days. Courier companies reported setbacks in shipping and receiving parcels. But while those services suffered, telephone business boomed as snowbound workers checked with their employers or called Environment Canada for weather updates. Bell Ontario officials said that people in the 416 and 905 areas in and around Toronto made 42 million calls in a 13-hour period last week - eight million more than in the same period a week earlier.
Despite its drama, no one was equating southern Ontario's plight with the ice storm that hit large parts of Quebec, eastern Ontario and some of the Maritimes last January. That storm left millions of people without heat or electricity for up to three weeks, drove many of them from their homes for most of that period, and was associated with more than two dozen deaths.
For most people in and around Toronto, the storm was more an inconvenience than a cause of actual danger. But it posed serious risks for the homeless, the elderly and people with physical disabilities. As conditions deteriorated, the Red Cross opened a temporary shelter in the city's cavernous Moss Park Armoury for 115 street people, many of whom normally spend winter nights on heating-system grates outside the downtown office towers. The city provided red-and-green-plaid blankets, and tables with cookies, chocolate bars and bottled water lined one wall. Some of the homeless, grateful to be out of the cruel cold, said they found the presence of soldiers comforting. "I like the discipline and control," said Horace Tenn, 39, who usually lives in abandoned warehouses. He has turned down offers to spend a warmer night in other shelters, he said, because "people can get out of control, and there can be incidents."
The military's presence in downtown Toronto also provided the most tangible evidence of the scope of the storm. The Royal Canadian Dragoons from Petawawa, Ont., received orders to go to Toronto on Wednesday afternoon. By early Thursday afternoon, they had moved into the city with more than 5,000 meal rations, four kitchen trucks and 120 vehicles supplied with enough fuel for 48 hours of continuous use. Their convoy included four 12-tonne, eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers called Bisons that can power their way through almost any snowbank. "We've had general purpose training for war," said Lt.-Col. Pete Atkinson, the commanding officer, "but we're also good at plowing snow or pushing cars, helping the elderly - you name it." Individual soldiers played key roles in making order out of chaos. One soldier confronted a throng of several thousand grumbling, irritable commuters waiting for a shuttle bus to carry them across a closed portion of the subway line. "Get up against the wall, single file, and keep order," he bellowed, and they did, some of them standing ramrod straight.
Many problems resulted largely from the fact that the area, one of the southernmost parts of Canada, has become unaccustomed to receiving so much snow. In the 1970s, Toronto averaged about 150 cm a year, but that fell to about 120 cm in the 1980s. No snow fell in most parts of southern Ontario before the Christmas holidays. Then suddenly, in a two-week period, the region received about two-thirds of its normal total for an entire winter. The onslaught proved too much for the transportation and snow removal equipment to handle.
The provincially operated GO Transit trains that daily bring hundreds of thousands of commuters in and out of downtown Toronto was overwhelmed. Day after day, the failure of switches that route incoming traffic to the right platforms at the main Toronto terminus, Union Station, left trains stranded for hours within a few hundred metres of their destination - and others backed up along the track behind them. Many passengers, such as 24-year-old Leisa Mercer of Oakville, who inquired in the morning about the service, were told there was no guarantee there would be trains to get them home at the end of the day.
There were similar problems with bus, streetcar and subway services operated by the Toronto Transit Commission. Although most of the subway system is underground, parts run on the surface, where drifting snow frequently interrupted the electrical contact the trains need to operate. Because the so-called third rail that supplies the power is lethally dangerous, TTC employees have to be trained to work in its vicinity. That meant there were only 250 people capable of clearing snow-clogged rails. Said the TTC's harried chief general manager, David Gunn: "You can't just take school kids and send them in there with shovels."
On the roads, problems developed when drivers ignored a quickly evolving informal etiquette. With snowbanks protruding into the curb lanes, many drivers parked cars in a way that blocked streetcar lines. In most cases, streetcars had long waits - with traffic backed up behind them - while tow trucks cleared their path. But on one occasion, groups of passengers simply got off the streetcar and lifted the offending car into the snowbank - to the cheers of their fellow riders. And although the delays infuriated many commuters, others remained cheerful. "The snow adventure continues," said 42-year-old school community adviser Janet Kandler. "I love it."
At Pearson airport, passengers greeted news of postponements and cancellations with varying degrees of equanimity. Most were impatient. Gus Bawab, 30, an electrical engineer from Pickering, Ont., just east of Toronto, fumed as he struggled to get his parents on a flight back to their home in Lebanon. "Toronto should be more prepared," he said, "especially when they know it will snow like this."
But no amount of preparation would have helped Maclean's Senior Editor Patricia Hluchy and her neighbours in a row of townhouses in west-end Toronto. At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, the roof of a house in the middle of the row collapsed, apparently under the weight of the snow, twisting and wrenching the front walls loose from several adjacent dwellings, including Hluchy's. "We heard a crunching noise followed by the sound of debris falling," she said. "Half-asleep, I thought it was a landslide." Hluchy and her husband, Hamish Cameron, fled through their back door, jumped a fence and landed in a five-foot snowdrift. They trudged off to shelter at the home of relatives. Incredibly, no one in the row was hurt.
For people struggling to get through the normal routines of their everyday lives, there were mixed lessons about human behaviour. Anyone who owned a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a snow blower or a plow acquired instant popularity. Some did not wait to be asked to help: Mike Monette, a 34-year-old district sales manager for Newcourt Financial, began every day by using his blower to clear his neighbours' driveways along his small street in suburban Newmarket. The biggest problem, said Monette, echoing many other people, was "figuring out where to put the snow on top of what we already have." He shrugged off credit for his efforts, saying: "What kind of a jerk would I be if I was able to give some help, and didn't do it?"
As with any challenge, extra effort can make a difference. Take the tale of rival - and neighbouring - outdoor outfitting stores Mountain Equipment Co-op and Europe Bound. On Friday, after Thursday's heavy snowfall, a sign over Mountain Equipment Co-op said the storm had forced it to close early. But Europe Bound stayed open, posting a sign: "Let it snow!" Owner Joe Raftis said his three Toronto outlets sold close to 500 pairs of boots and socks and hundreds more gloves, scarves and long underwear in less than a week. When all the boots sold out, he said, "we had people who bought snowshoes and wore them to walk home."
At the same time, those who seemed in a position to gain the most sometimes claimed to be the hardest hit. David Thomas, who has been driving a cab in the west end of Toronto for 31 years, endured about 10 days of the bad weather that started on Jan. 2 before informing his regular customers he was staying home. Conditions were too difficult and customers too demanding, he said. On most residential streets, "I have to drive around the block four times looking for a place to park," said Thomas, then customers got angry because he could not stop right at their door, or even get in to their street at all. Said Thomas: "I expect people to rise above this kind of situation, and some of them just don't." And Luis Oliveiri, owner of Maple Green General Contractors, who runs a snowplow service lamented that this is his "most expensive winter ever" - because his clients pay a fixed fee for the season for maintenance, including clearing their driveways.
On the other hand, 25-year-old actor-waiter Robert Fidler cheerfully took a shovel to clear snow at the pub where he works. "I love this," said Fidler, whose employer paid him well and threw in a pair of new boots. And 15-year-old Greg Krisa, a high-school freshman, made $160 in a week by shovelling driveways in suburban Etobicoke - and, he said, "got to meet my new neighbours."
While Toronto got most of the attention, other municipalities in southern Ontario faced similar difficulties - and individuals coped the best they could. Kitchener-Waterloo residents Dan and Maureen Klein were at home awaiting the arrival of their baby - who was a week overdue - when Maureen's water broke. Aware of the coming storm, they nonetheless decided to make the 85-km drive into Toronto to Women's College Hospital, where Maureen was scheduled to deliver. She had an 8½-lb. girl, Kayleigh - and her doctor said she could stay in the hospital until conditions improved enough for a safe trip home.
In the Windsor area, the snowfall was heavy enough to cancel school-bus service - but not enough to close schools. Montreal native Doug Malloch, a 42-year-old human-resources manager at Ford Canada, was unimpressed. "I remember the Montreal storm of '79 where it was above our heads - and everybody got around fine," he said. "People have to make do. This is Canada, for heaven's sake."
In that way, Malloch typified the feelings of many storm-stuck Canadians: wherever they were, they were sure things were worse somewhere else, or at some other time. In Toronto, Lavetta Griffin, 27, had been involved in three minor traffic accidents in slightly more than a week - each time as a passenger. But last year, Griffin had to evacuate her house in Ottawa during the ice storm. She said she was just relieved that none of her mishaps were serious and added dryly that, with her recent record, "it's getting harder to get a ride from friends and family."
As the storm moved into the capital, Ottawa International Airport president Paul Benoit demonstrated similar stoicism. "It's Canada. It's winter," said Benoit. "Be prepared for it." There are always later flights, another day to make it to work, something else to do when original plans are ruined by the weather. And, as much of the country realized last week, there is always Toronto to blame, or mock.
Contributing to these cover stories were Maclean's correspondents Susan McClelland, Susan Oh, Dan Hawaleshka, Mark Nichols, Kimberley Noble, Warren Caragata, Shanda Deziel, Patricia Chisholm, Celia Milne, Julie Cazzin, Kristine Ryall and Joe Power in Toronto, John DeMont in Halifax, Luke Fisher in Ottawa, Brenda Branswell in Montreal, Chris Wood in Vancouver and Brian Bergman in Calgary.
Maclean's January 25, 1999