On December 20, 2013, a freezing curtain of rain and mist descended on the city of Toronto. Overnight, every outdoor surface—roads, sidewalks, cars, windows—was coated with a layer of ice up to three inches thick, making the world look like a mystical dimension of crystal and frost.
Massive tree branches bent and snapped under the strain, collapsing onto power lines and parked cars. Hydro poles tilted and power lines sagged under the weight of ice, disrupting connections across the system. Over the next few days, six hundred thousand people lost power. Some wouldn’t see the lights come on again until after Christmas; one unlucky family would end up waiting until the New Year.
Toronto-based singer-songwriter Lindsay Czitron remembers the storm clearly, as it occurred on the night of her twenty-second birthday party. While her party plans went off without a hitch, the next day was a different story. She woke to no cellphone signal and no power. Making the most out of a bad situation, she took her camera outside and snapped some photos of her iced-over city.
Soon, after cell service returned, she made her way to her dad’s place in Etobicoke, which still had power. The journey to his place was potentially treacherous for Czitron, as she has hypermobility spectrum disorder, a disability that affects her connective tissue. She wore a pair of high-traction winter boots, took diligent care with each step, and made the trip without incident. “I joked on Facebook, ‘When I said I wanted a winter wonderland for my birthday this is not what I meant!’” she says.
Elsewhere in the city, emergency response teams went door to door checking on people and advising them to stay indoors if they could. Accidents piled up on the roadways, which had turned skating-rink slick, and hospital admittances spiked with slip-and-fall injuries from icy sidewalks and stairwells. The city set up fourteen public heating centres, and the Toronto Police Service further offered thirteen of its stations to the public as safe places to escape from the intense cold.
For Torontonians, 2013’s ice storm was devastating—one man died and the damage cost the city $200 million. But it was just a blip on the radar compared to the catastrophic Quebec ice storm of early January 1998, which left 1.5 million households without power, some for up to three weeks, temporarily displacing six hundred thousand people from their homes and claiming thirty-five lives. When all was said and done, Quebec’s bill from storm damage came in at an estimated $5.4 billion.
David Phillips, a senior climatologist who has been with Environment and Climate Change Canada for fifty years, says that changing weather patterns over the last thirty-five years have caused the climatic conditions that cause ice storms to increase in frequency. Freezing rain occurs when the air temperature is not quite cold enough to turn rainfall into snowflakes, and warmer winters mean longer periods within these potentially dangerous temperature ranges. The kind of ice storms that used to be small, isolated events, Phillips says, are now lasting longer and covering larger swathes of land. From Kingston to the Bay of Fundy, from Niagara Falls through Trenton, Canadians are already beginning to feel the impact of these broader, longer and more intense ice storms—and climate change means things will only continue to get worse.
Ice storms require a specific set of conditions to manifest. A warm air mass carrying a great deal of moisture collides with a cold, high-pressure air mass. This results in a sort of warm-air sandwich: frozen precipitation melts as it passes through the warm air, refreezes when it hits the second layer of cold air, and coats everything in its path with ice.
In 2002, Environment and Climate Change Canada conducted a study looking into twenty-five documented ice storms that took place in Canada and the US between 1844 and 2002. Tracking the long-term patterns of storm movements and sizes, the department discovered that, over the last 150 years, the prevalence of large ice storms has increased in areas like Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the northeastern United States, as ice storm paths have slowly tracked northwards. It also found evidence that freezing rain events are lasting longer on average, bringing more precipitation—which, in turn, means more ice settling on surfaces. During Toronto’s ice storm, for example, the thermostat hovered around zero degrees for two full days, allowing for the perfect conditions for ice accretion.
Heather Auld, one of the principal researchers on Environment and Climate Change Canada’s climate study, has since continued her work in climate science and adaptation. In 1996, two years before the Quebec ice storm, Auld began to warn people about the possibility that a major ice storm could hit Canada. Today, she’s the principal climate scientist at Risk Sciences International, a risk management company specializing in health and safety issues, climate change and infrastructure, and property and the environment.
“Ice storms often happen when the atmosphere has been cold for a while and starts to warm up rapidly,” says Auld. “When that happens we don’t get a smooth transition from snow to rain, but instead we get freezing rain.” According to Auld, because of climate change, areas in Ontario, Quebec and the eastern seaboard may increasingly get freezing rain during the times of the year when they historically had snow, while experiencing more precipitation overall.
Auld has worked on climate models that study freezing rain projections in Ontario for the rest of the century, and the numbers are unsettling. Between 2040 and 2070, she says, the Ottawa region could see approximately 40 percent more freezing rain events, and those that occur will likely last longer than previous such events.
Even if we cut global carbon emissions to zero today, it would still take an unfathomably long time for the environment to heal and regenerate from the damage of industrialization and consumer culture. If we hope to weather the storm, we’ll need to adapt by adjusting to our new climatic norms and making our cities more resistant to extreme weather events.
How would you react to a winter blackout? At first, you might assume it’s a momentary outage—the lights will be back on soon enough. You sit tight and remain patient. Minutes pass. When minutes turn to hours, your apartment begins to get cold. The battery in your phone starts dying, and you have no way to charge it. You go to the sink for a glass of water but the tap doesn’t work. You have no TV and no internet. If cell reception is down, it’s difficult to contact friends and loved ones to see if they have power, if they are safe, if you might bunker down with them.
“I’ve been through power-outs before, but usually the cellphone towers don’t go down,” Czitron says. That was partially what made the 2013 Toronto storm so unsettling. She remembers thinking, “Oh, I have no cellphone signal, so I can’t keep in touch with anyone!”
During the 1998 Quebec ice storm, businesses and schools were shut down for weeks, effectively putting society on hold until power was restored. Being powerless for that long translated into a loss of productivity for businesses, a loss of wages for workers, and skyrocketing costs for insurance companies, which had to respond to people seeking compensation for weather-related damage to their homes and vehicles.
Even after the freezing rain subsides, cleaning up the post-storm damage can prove tricky and dangerous. Darren Mason, director of Power Systems Services East with Toronto Hydro, vividly remembers coordinating ice storm remediation work in 2013; his teams ran twelve-hour, round-the-clock shifts and were utterly exhausted after two weeks of non-stop work in hazardous conditions. The storm put approximately 416,000 Toronto Hydro customers out of power. The utility had never before faced a weather event as damaging or as challenging.
“We had some heads-up weather forecasting, that something big would be coming our way,” Mason recalls. “You try your best to prepare for whatever it is. It hit us harder than what we could handle with our own resources.”
Eventually, crews from other hydro systems came through with assistance, and the province pledged $131 million from its disaster relief program. Other electricity transmission and distribution companies in the surrounding region sent crews, including Hydro One, Hydro Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie Public Utilities Commission and Alectra Utilities. Manitoba Hydro also flew in a team of two dozen hydro workers from Winnipeg.
“Within a day and a half we recognized that it was still escalating. The number of people without power was still large, and we had large areas out, not just homes,” says Mason. “Trees would rip down the house services, and rip the wires right off the houses. We had to disconnect them in order to allow electricians to make permanent repairs on their house.”
With the help of extra crews and funding from the province, Toronto Hydro restored power to 86 percent of households within seventy-two hours—just in time for Christmas.
The more we rely on technology, the greater the consequences when those technologies fail. Nearly every aspect of our lives depends upon continuous access to electricity and communication networks, which are susceptible to natural disasters and shifting environmental conditions. “Society has changed. We’re more vulnerable to freezing rain,” says Phillips. “We think we can engineer our way out of these things, but in many ways we’re much more vulnerable than we were in the past.”
There is one way to ice-storm-proof our hydroelectric systems: we could bury the power lines underground, retrofitting existing above-ground hydro lines to completely protect them from ice and rain. However, this procedure is extremely expensive, due to the extensive digging required. Moreover, the lines would then be vulnerable to flooding, and any future repairs or maintenance work would take longer and cost more, since the lines would need to be dug up and re-buried.
When asked about the possibility of burying our existing infrastructure, Reza Iravani, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, says it’s always a question of cost. “You can come up with a design, but the cost is prohibitive,” he says, “and nobody designs a system for that condition since ice storms are still so rare.”
In most new developments, like the condo buildings and subdivisions springing up across suburban southern Ontario, power lines are being installed underground. The junction points (where two cables connect) are most vulnerable to flooding, so those points are held inside waterproof vaults which are sometimes located above ground. In denser parts of cities, however, undergrounding can be impossible because other types of infrastructure, such as gas lines and drainage pipes, are already taking up the space where the power lines would need to go.
Another important preventative measure is individual and community disaster preparation. In the aftermath of the 2013 storm, the city of Toronto updated its emergency response plan to include ice storm contingencies. It also provided a list of items for citizens to include in a seventy-two-hour survival kit, such as batteries, food, water and a radio. But this requires public buy-in: Czitron, who focussed on birthday celebrations instead of storm preparation in 2013, admits she has not yet taken any steps to be better prepared next time.
As for the city, its post-storm preparedness involved chainsaws and tree-trimmers. In the months following the 2013 storm, Toronto’s Urban Forestry Operations went on a ruthless city-wide pruning mission. An army of tree-hacking crews scoured the streets, cutting branches wherever they grew near power lines, hoping to prevent ice-coated branches from breaking and disrupting power distribution in the future. Over twelve thousand trees were trimmed at the time.
Today, city workers remain vigilant for new branches that pose a threat to power lines. All over the city, you can find trees with giant holes cut out of them. A tall maple near the bottom of my street stands with a massive slice taken out of its crown, only a fraction of its former glory—a reminder both of the storms of the past, and the storms still to come.