Editorial: Damn the polar vortex, full steam ahead!

Governments can't wipe out winter woes, and shouldn't have to

This image captured by NOAA's GOES-East satellite on Jan. 6, 2014, at 11:01 a.m. EST shows a frontal system that is draped from north to south along the U.S. East Coast. Behind the front lies the clearer skies bitter cold air associated with the polar vortex. (AP Photo/NASA)

“You can’t get too much winter in the winter,” wrote the aptly named Robert Frost in his poem Snow. Canadians might beg to differ.

The winter of 2013-14 is so far proving to be the frostiest in recent Canadian memory. With the exceptions of Calgary and the West Coast of British Columbia, the entire country has experienced a vicious spate of blustery, snowy and damned cold weather unrivalled since the mid-1990s. And nothing gets Canadians talking like a polar vortex.

Parts of Alberta and the entire province of Saskatchewan were under an Environment Canada wind-chill warning earlier this week. Winnipeg has endured its second-coldest December since 1893, prompting a local museum to announce (not entirely accurately) that it was colder in Winnipeg than on the surface of Mars.

Urban central Canada has suffered its own uncharacteristic wallop of winter weather. An ice storm in southern Ontario downed countless trees, cut power to hundreds of thousands of residents and froze transportation networks. That was followed a week later by another brutal cold snap. Maritime provinces were hit with freezing rain and winds gusting up to 130 km/hour earlier this week. In Newfoundland, blizzards, yet more freezing rain and a fire at a transformer station left 190,000 residents without power over the weekend and necessitated a series of rolling blackouts. Schools, from elementary to post-secondary, have been closed in the province for most of the week to conserve power.

Suffering through the steely grasp of winter is certainly nothing new for Canadians. And complaining about it is perfectly natural, though that should not mask the fact that we are actually getting better and better at dealing with it.

Cold weather is much less a mortal threat than it once was. “There were many more deaths from cold weather in the 1920s or 1930s,” says David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada and a popular weather historian. (In 1934, it was so cold, Lake Ontario froze solid.) “Farmers would get caught between the barn and the house and freeze to death. If you read the newspapers from that era, you’ll see the weekly winter death toll was simply an accepted fact of life.”

Longer and more accurate forecasts, new methods of disseminating weather information and a host of new warnings have greatly improved our ability to predict and prepare for winter weather and, where necessary, find refuge, notes Phillips. Warming stations and homeless shelters are now an expected municipal response to the physical dangers of cold weather.

A combination of experience and improved technology means we’re also getting better at dealing with the practical aspects of snow and ice. Prairie farmers have learned to boost feed for their livestock as the temperature plummets—an extra pound of grain for every 5° the thermometer drops below -20° C. Fuel injectors have eliminated that once-familiar problem of frozen carburetors in cars. And winter outerwear is simply much better than it once was.

Some aspects of modern life, such as airports and electricity grids, can never be entirely protected from winter’s curse. But a lot has been done to improve the odds. De-icing planes is far more efficient than it once was, for instance. To avoid the domino effect that brought down more than 130 transmission towers across Quebec during the ice storm of 1998, Hydro-Québec now strengthens every 10th tower to prevent mass toppling. And street-level utility poles, of which 30,000 fell in 1998, are now designed so that ice buildup brings down conductors and wires instead of the poles themselves, making it easier to get power back up and running.

All this progress may come at a hidden cost, however. Governments, it seems, are now expected to do more and more to shelter residents from winter’s hardships. This week, for example, Ontario handed out $100 grocery gift cards and food baskets to select families who lost food when their fridges and freezers went dark. And there were calls in Toronto for the Army to help pick up broken tree branches.

In Kitchener, Ont., a lively municipal debate has arisen over a citizen’s demand that city snowplows stop depositing that dreaded ridge of heavy snow across driveways. “Let the revolt begin!” declared Mary Gillen Linington in the Waterloo Region Record newspaper, demanding the city snow-blow the end of her driveway or face a tax rebellion. At Toronto’s Pearson airport, police were called to sort out angry lineups at the luggage pickup area caused by flight delays.

No government or institution will ever be able to eliminate fully the inconvenience winter throws our way, nor should they be expected to. Let’s not forget that the ability to survive winter has always been one of the defining characteristics of a Canadian. Even if this proves to be the coldest winter in 20 years, we’ve seen much worse, and lived to tell the tale.

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