Cars stuck in snow in Owen Sound in the early 1900s.
by
Grey Roots

Weather Events of our History

Grey Roots

Like most Grey County residents I took the snowstorm of early January in stride, after all, this region of Ontario is hit by so many winter storms that it is practically a regular occurrence, but when the words “blizzard” and “polar vortex” were being bandied about it reminded me of the much loved children’s book “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The accurate details of the novel document the winter of 1880-1881 when the snow arrived in October and blizzard after blizzard left much of the American mid-west snowbound until late March, resulting in the near-starvation of thousands of families when rail service was almost entirely suspended.

One of the worst winter storms in Ontario’s history is the “Blizzard of ‘77”, that hit Southern Ontario and upstate New York, from January 28 to February 1, 1977. Within the first 4 hours of the storm the temperature dropped from -3 to -18C, with peak wind gusts ranging from 74 to 111km/h. The drifted snow on the roadways was difficult to clear because the strong wind had packed it solidly. Cars overheated when snow got under the radiator, melted, and then refroze. Those attempting to travel by foot also found travel very difficult with very high winds, poor visibility and deep snow. People formed human chains to people stranded in cars so the motorists would not get lost trying to find shelter.

With the rapid onset of the storm about 2000 students in the Niagara region were stranded overnight in the schools. The militia were called in to get the children home and in some cases school buses were caught in the storm while trying to take children home, bus drivers took the children to nearby houses to wait it out.

Snowmobiles became the only reliable method of transportation and were used to deliver aid and to transport nurses, doctors and hydro workers. The depth of the snow in the hardest hit areas was extreme with snowmobilers passing over vehicles and even the roofs of houses, without knowing it. Snow levels reached the power lines forcing people to step over them. With many phone lines down, in the pre-cell phone era Citizens Band (CB) radio operators were instrumental in communications with local police authorities.

Interestingly, in the fall of that year there was a marked increased in births at local hospitals, with Niagara Regional Hospital seeing an 18% increase- perhaps an effect of the prolonged confinement!

Since 1977 Ontario has seen its fair share of winter storms and blizzards, including the ice storm of January 1998, when at least 25 people died and millions were left without power for days and even weeks and15000 troops were deployed to aid in the clean up. Environment Canada claims that the 1998 ice storm affected more Canadians than any other weather event in our known history.

Weather calamities of the past affect how we live today and there have been times when weather events change the course of history. The lull in the storms on either side of the Normandy invasion of World War 2, and the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840’s resulting in the mass emigrations and many other weather events remind us that while we may complain about the weather there is nothing we can do to control it.

 

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