Tales stir memories of past winters - Keith Roulston editorial
The stories of the 50th anniversary of the great blizzard of 1971, published in The Citizen a couple of weeks ago, were a reminder of how much the climate has changed.
Not that that once-in-a-lifetime storm was indicative of the weather of the pre-climate-change days, but there were plenty of other harsh winters back then as well which maintained our area’s reputation as the “snow-belt”.
Not all winters, mind you. I remember when we bought our current home in the country. The people who were selling it were from the city and only lived there one year before retreating to the city, assured us that the 900-foot laneway was no problem in winter. They had, they assured us, been able to keep it cleaned out using one of those big scoops that you push. We chuckled because we knew that the winter of 1974/1975 had been a pussycat compared to the usual weather, with the first storm not blowing in until March, and then quickly melting away.
Normal winters returned the very next year and for several of the following winters. Looking up file copies of The Blyth Standard of the day, the reality of those winters is recorded. A January, 1976 paper writes of a return to old-fashioned winters, with Blyth village staff having to hire equipment from George Radford Construction to load and haul away giant mountains of snow lining main street. The village clerk warned the village faced high snow removal costs.
The next winter, there was a story about a three-day storm that was so fierce The Standard’s staff couldn’t make it to work and printing of the newspaper was delayed.
A 1978 paper talked about travellers from Guelph, Kitchener and Kirkland Lake sheltering overnight in Blyth Public School because highways were blocked. One gentleman from New Zealand who was visiting with friends locally couldn’t get to Toronto to catch his plane home. He had the experience of a lifetime seeing a real Canadian winter firsthand.
I’m sure there will be similar stories from other newspapers of the era. I have some personal recollections, like the fact that on Moncrieff Rd. just west of Highway 4, there used to be as high as 15 feet snowbanks on the sides of the road. One time I decided to walk to town to work on the paper and in the canyon between those banks there were snow drifts nearly as high as my head that I had to climb over (they were mostly hard enough to walk on until you’d plunge through to your hip every few steps).
I recall one winter when those mountainous snowbanks had narrowed the road so much that the township brought in a bulldozer which went back and forth crossways on the road, pushing the banks into neighbouring fields, sometime demolishing farm fences in the process. Later, the municipality re-engineered the road, raising it so high that snow blew off.
Because so much of the snow that buried Huron County was from off-lake squalls and flurries, back then we use to wait impatiently for Lake Huron to freeze over so the winds couldn’t pick up any moisture anymore.
Back in January of this year, on a trip to Goderich, you could see that the ice only extended a hundred yards or so from shore. Down on Lake Erie, the lack of ice on the lake’s northern edge left lakeshore properties vulnerable to damage from towering waves when gale-force winds blew across the shallow lake from the south. It’s been much colder, but as of last week the Great Lakes had only 24 per cent ice cover.
It’s been painfully cold lately, but temperatures were above normal all through November, December and January until the last few weeks.
Similarly, this has been much more like a normal winter since the cold snap began, with enough snow on the ground to allow snowmobile trails to open and snowmobilers to enjoy their hobby. That’s a rare occurrence in recent years – and even then sufficient snow didn’t fall until a month of winter had already expired.
The lack of typical snow-belt winter weather has made driving much safer and more convenient. Years ago a few people usually died every year because of whiteouts and other winter conditions. Travel has been improved because of a number of changes like redesigned roads, improved snow removal equipment, advances like de-icing and better vehicles like all-wheel-drive trucks and cars.
Still, the biggest changes have come because the climate is changing. It’s no guarantee that winters will remain a pale shadow of the harsh conditions of years ago – we could still have a history-making blizzard one of these years. Climatologists remind us repeatedly that weather is from year to year while climate is a long-term trend.
After the winters of the past decade, it’s hard to argue that the climate isn’t changing. I’m not sure, though, that even those worried about climate change want to return to the weather of the 1970s.