The winter that ruined everything

It broke records, kneecapped the economy, and showed us how ill-prepared Canada is for a future of extreme weather

Andrew Vaughan/CP

Andrew Vaughan/CP

In Winnipeg, frigid temperatures and heaping snowbanks are all part of the local charm. When your city’s nickname is “Winterpeg”—a label so famous it appears in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary—complaining about the cold is a waste of warm air. It’s bloody freezing. Everyone knows it. Bundle up and carry on.

But this record-breaking Canadian winter has been so nasty, so unrelenting, that even the Peg is losing its patience. Manitoba’s capital marked its coldest December-to-February stretch in 35 years, with a nagging mean temperature of -20.3° C. It’s been so ridiculously bitter that the ground is freezing at depths nobody can remember: more than two metres down. At last count, the unprecedented frost line has left nearly 1,000 addresses with frozen pipes—and city officials scrambling to restore running water with the four machines they have that can thaw the lines.

Some families haven’t been able to use their taps or toilets for two weeks. If they want to freshen up, Mayor Sam Katz has kindly offered the shower facilities at city-run pools. “This is like the exclamation point on a really rough season,” says Ian McCausland, a commercial photographer whose north-end studio lost its water supply more than a week ago. “People are really on edge.”

For McCausland, his pipes turned icy at the worst possible moment. His biggest shoot of the year was scheduled for March 10, and when he phoned his client to break the news—and explain his plan to order a Johnny-on-the-spot to replace his indoor plumbing—the client was not exactly flush with joy. Eventually, McCausland did find an acceptable solution: a company that rents high-end, trailer-style bathrooms complete with flowing water and a mirror. Parked a few steps from his studio door, the temporary john cost him $600 for the week. “This is my biggest client,” he says, “so I am willing to do everything.”

He is definitely not alone. From coast to coast, Canadians have done everything they can to survive this winter of discontent. The Old Man arrived early and never let go, unleashing a harsh brew of bone-chilling mornings, wicked gusts of wind and collective pleas for mercy. We learned a new scientific term—“polar vortex”—and felt it, firsthand, on our fingertips. It’s been so bleak that, as of early March, 92.2 per cent of the Great Lakes were covered in ice, the most since 1979. On March 1, Regina broke a 130-year-old record for that day’s temperarture: -36° C, with a wind chill of -53° C. In Kenora, Ont., where all-time winter lows have wreaked havoc on its maze of underground pipes, the city is in the midst of a two-week boil-water advisory.

In Toronto, where the mercury also nosedived to the lowest point in two decades, the city surpassed its record for consecutive days with at least one centimetre of snow on the ground: 89, as of March 7, and counting. No town, though, amassed more white stuff than Stephenville, N.L. (population 7,800). The winter isn’t even over, and the seaside community has already been hammered with more than two metres (the same height, for the record, as Michael Jordan.) “In December, it snowed 26 days,” says Mayor Tom O’Brien. “The snow kept coming and coming. It wasn’t one big wallop.”

The economy was certainly walloped—again and again. Blizzards, blinding storms, sweeping power outages and mass flight cancellations struck an undeniable blow to America’s fragile recovery (and, by extension, Canada’s). One analyst estimated the fierce winter cost the United States $50 billion in lost production. Although Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen hasn’t gone quite that far, she did concede at a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing that “unseasonably cold weather has played some role” in “a range of data that has been soft,” from retail sales to manufacturing slumps. (Yellen would have issued her statement sooner, but her testimony was delayed by a Washington snowstorm.)

North of the border, GDP fell by 0.5 per cent in December, a dip triggered almost entirely by the pre-Christmas ice storms that rocked Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Canadian retail stores reported their biggest one-month drop in a year. And in a spat that garnered significant headlines, the country’s two main railways—CP and CN—blamed “the harshest winter in 60 years” for their inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain sitting in bins across the Prairies.

Economists are fairly confident the gloomy numbers will eventually pass, like winter itself. By the second quarter, they say, the season’s losses will be almost entirely recouped, with the North American economy picking up significant steam on its road to recovery. But that rosy economic outlook glosses over a much frostier reality: This winter for the ages will cost Canadian cities untold millions in extra snow-clearing, pothole maintenance and other infrastructure repair bills that have yet to arrive. In this era of climate change—when scientists expect severe bouts of weather to become the rule rather than the exception—the past few months have provided a disturbing glimpse of the overwhelming costs to come. A few hundred bucks for a port-a-potty is just the beginning.

“Municipalities, which means taxpayers, will struggle to deal with the liability generated from the extreme winter we’ve experienced,” says Jason Thistlethwaite, director of the University of Waterloo’s Climate Change Adaptation Project. “I’ve been reading too much of: ‘Well, the winter weather is an anomalous disruption in the recovery of the economy.’ No. This is a new normal. This is a new cost that needs to be incorporated into budget forecasts. You can’t call something an anomaly when it’s part of a larger pattern.”

Consider this pattern: In 2008, private insurance payouts linked to severe weather in Canada exceeded $1 billion for the first time. The annual tally has stayed above $1 billion every year since and, in 2013, the final figure was a whopping $3.2 billion. Even when you subtract last summer’s horrific flooding in Alberta ($1.74 billion worth of insurance claims), 2013 was still a record year.

That dollar figure includes $200 million in insured losses linked to the Christmas ice storms, which ravaged homes and left thousands without power. But that amount is still far lower than the price tag facing affected municipalities, which shoulder the burden of cleaning up the mess left behind. Roads and sidewalks, after all, are not insurable.

In Toronto alone, the ice storm cost the public purse more than $100 million; throw in Hamilton and the rest of the GTA, and the liability climbs to $275 million. Point to any Canadian city these days, and it’s hard to find one that won’t be digging deeper into its pockets to pay for this brutal winter.

In Edmonton, potholes are already such an epidemic that the city is teaming up with the University of Alberta engineering department to figure out ways to make roads more robust in chilly conditions. (Last year, the City of Champions paid out a record $464,000 to motorists whose cars were damaged by craters.) In Chatham, Ont., one winter pothole went so deep, it revealed the city’s original yellow brick road. Down the highway in Windsor, councillors were forced to commit an extra $1 million to their snow-removal budget—by early January. And in Niagara Falls, the unbearable cold triggered 42 water-main breaks by the end of February, more than half the total of the entire year before.

Calgary’s sidewalks have been so icy that, between December and February, the city was slapped with an alarming rash of claims for injury and property damage: 264, more than triple the number filed during the same span over the previous three years combined. “We have to have a conversation in Canada, which hasn’t happened yet, on how we would like to address the increasing costs of extreme weather,” Thistlethwaite says. “How we want to pay for this increased vulnerability is critical, because we can’t just keep our tail between our legs. It’s tough for taxpayers, and it’s really tough on property owners.”

For proof, look no further than Winnipeg. Hundreds of homes are still without water, their pipes frozen solid, and the city has only four machines that can defrost the lines. (And one of those devices was purchased last week, after the emergency began.) On average, it takes four to six hours to thaw a single pipe, which means it will be at least another couple of weeks before everyone’s water is running again. “Our staff are working around the clock,” says Daniel Vandal, a councillor in Winnipeg’s Saint Boniface ward. “If we had better equipment, we could triple the staff working around the clock.”

Exactly how much this hiccup will cost the city remains to be seen. But for Vandal, it’s a price that must be paid, regardless of the final dollar figure. “It’s incumbent on us as political leaders and administrators to start thinking about the changes in climate,” he says. “We have to be better prepared in the future, because we can’t let 800 or 1,000 homes go without water. We have to absorb those costs, even though it is a huge financial hit to cities that are already financially strapped.”

It’s entirely possible that climate change had nothing to do with the extreme winter we’ve witnessed. Although a new theory out of the U.S.—dubbed “Santa’s Revenge”—strongly suggests Arctic warming could trigger such a vicious cold spell, other researchers are not so convinced, pointing instead to the natural cycle of weather. In other words, Canada has endured tough winters before, and this may have simply been another one.

“We’re not going to point to any one event and say it’s definitely climate change,” says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a research centre affiliated with Western University. “But what used to be common is not so common anymore, and what used to be rare is more common.”

For Thistlethwaite—whose research focuses on practical, cost-effective ways to adapt to global warming—the winter of 2014 reaffirms two irrefutable facts: that increasing bouts of severe weather, triggered by climate change or not, can inflict massive costs; and those costs are amplified by the state of the infrastructure that takes the pounding. “Our infrastructure is basically built from a historical perspective, looking at the last hundred years and the extremes we’ve seen, and building those extremes into the design,” he says. “Well, from a climate change perspective, that’s the equivalent of driving down the road by looking in your rear-view mirror.”

Instead, he says, city planners need to try to predict the weather to come, not the weather they’ve known. “Extreme weather is costing a fortune to our municipalities, and more and more our infrastructure will need to be more solid,” says Claude Dauphin, mayor of the Montreal borough of Lachine, and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). “Last week, we had our board of directors meeting in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the mayor was telling me he had more than 400 water pipes that were frozen. Four hundred is unbelievable. Can you imagine?”

Imagine 1,000.

Almost 60 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure was built more than 70 years ago and, according to a recent analysis by the FCM, one-third of all city roads are in dire need of repair. “It’s not a coincidence that all these pipes are freezing,” Dauphin says. “It is the extreme weather plus the aging of our infrastructure. But our only source of revenue is property taxes, and citizens are fed up with having increases to their property taxes.”

The federal government recently announced the “New Building Canada Fund,” a 10-year, $14-billion infrastructure program that is the largest ever of its kind. But municipalities—which own the vast majority of the country’s roads, water lines and public transit systems—are worried about the fine print. For one, the fund cannot be used to pay for core infrastructure projects, such as fixing winter-beaten roads. “We are happy with the plan, but we are asking for some flexibility,” Dauphin says. “We want to make sure that $14 billion will be spent in the best way possible. With extreme weather, we’re stuck with the bill.”

While politicians sort out the details, potholes will remain a top priority for municipal repair crews in the weeks to come, as will aging water mains (frozen or otherwise). But most experts agree that city storm sewers require the most urgent overhaul, by far. “Insurance companies are getting absolutely whacked with water damage claims,” McGillivray says. “Water damage has actually surpassed fire as the main cause of homeowner claims in Canada, and water in basements is becoming an absolute epidemic right across the country.”

Just wait until all those giant snowbanks start to melt—with nowhere else to go but down. Even in Winterpeg, they might be wishing spring never came.

Worst Winter ever

Calgary: With 52.4 cm of snow, it was Calgary’s snowiest December since 1924, when 56.9 cm fell. In November, Red Deer broke records dating back a century, receiving a whopping 62.5 cm of snow.

North Battleford: The city hit 9.3° C on Jan. 15, the warmest January temperature ever recorded

Burwash: On Jan. 24, it reached 16.5° C, the warmest January temperature ever recorded in the Yukon

Winnipeg: Since record-keeping began in 1938, this was the city’s second-coldest winter ever

Yorkton: On Jan. 15, wind gusts reached 117 km/h, the strongest gusts ever recorded for January

Kenora: The city experienced its coldest winter on record

Great Lakes: As of March 7, 92.2 per cent of the Great Lakes were covered in ice—their second-highest level of ice coverage since record-keeping began. The record remains February 1979, when 94.7 per cent were covered in ice.

Hamilton: The city set a record low on Jan. 7, hitting -24° C (-41° with the wind chill)

Ottawa: The capital was colder and snowier than average in December, January and February

Charlottetown: P.E.I.’s capital got 300 cm of snow from December to February, a 52 per cent increase from normal levels

Stephenville: With spring around the corner, the town has more than two metres of snow still on the ground

Toronto: It was the city’s coldest winter in 20 years, and the most snowbound on record (days with at least one centimetre of snow on the ground). The previous record was 81 days; as of March 7, Toronto was at 89 days.

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