Long-range forecasts

by Josh MacFadyen

February 3 is getting a bad reputation. If like me you grow weary of Canadian winters around this time of year, and neither the Super Bowl nor Groundhog Day predictions offered any hope yesterday, you can at least take comfort in the fact that you weren’t in Snag, Yukon in 1947 for the coldest day in North American history (not to mention the Canadian Parliament which burned this day in 1916).

If like me, you are also an environmental historian you might ask where the heck Snag Yukon is, and why were Canadians there in 1947 with their thermometers and daily observation ledgers? Like many scholars writing for The Otter in recent months, you might be interested in the North and our reasons for studying and inhabiting it, both remotely and on the ground. And, like historians discussing the use of Geographic Information Systems in a workshop this weekend and in a new book from University of Calgary Press, you might wonder what the spatial patterns visible in big data, remote sensing, and Federal communication networks can tell us about the emergence of Canada.

These questions will be made a little easier to answer now that Environment Canada’s pre-1960 climate records are coming to Western University in 2014 for a long-term loan recently negotiated between Environment Canada and the university. The records will be stored at Western Archives, and made available for preservation, research, teaching, and digitization.

Climate historians are aware of the deep freeze in Snag thanks to the daily observations recorded by the local weather officer Gordon Toole in 1947. More recent summaries of this event are often given by Environment Canada’s (retired) senior climatologist, David Phillips, and even by Google, in one of its only Doodles drawn to commemorate Canadian history.

Google Doodle celebrates Canada's coldest day, -63 C

Google Doodle celebrates Canada’s coldest day, -63 C

Of course, when we talk about record-setting weather, the top weather stories of each year, and the Top Weather Events of the century, we are referring to the documentary evidence reported on paper — records. Snag was certainly not the only place experiencing that kind of cold temperature, and many other places experienced similar weather events at other times. It just happens to be the coldest time and place on our records. When did people like Gordon Toole arrive in Snag, and how long had the Federal Government been interested in that part of the North?

A 30-second glimpse at a time map of Environment Canada weather stations can answer some of these questions. I created the map in ArcGIS to visualize the stations that generated weather records between 1840 and 1960. The result shows many spatial patterns in Canadian climate history, including the appearance of relatively remote stations like Snag.

The “Snag A” station appeared for only a short time (1943-1966)

The “Snag A” station appeared for only a short time (1943-1966)

The map shows many spatial patterns: the beginning of what became Environment Canada’s weather stations in Toronto, their early concentration in Ontario, their relatively early expansion across the West, the later interest in the North, and the rapid appearance of Arctic stations along the DEW line in the late 1950s. The visualization shows us that the Snag station appeared quite recently, on an R.C.A.F. airbase in 1943; it was established in the latter half of the Second World War and just in time to capture this coldest temperature ever recorded. An article in the Montreal Gazette reported that 21-year old Gordon Toole had been there since the station began. He was content to stay another ten years, but others in the staff of sixteen men complained: “There aren’t enough women.”[1]

The map shows Canada’s “long-range” forecasting system, how we established remote sensors in all the areas that interested us, and how those areas changed at various points in the nation’s history. Other stations existed briefly, but if they did not record observations they were not included in this visualization. Remote stations such as the one in Snag would have been more difficult to justify in the nineteenth century, because they lacked regular communication to central forecasting offices.

Canada’s earliest meteorological observatories were established for reading terrestrial magnetism, not climate history or weather forecasting. Scientists understood the latter concepts only vaguely in the years before Confederation. However, when predicting the weather in real time became an established methodology in the 1870s, a network of weather stations were needed that could report regular observations. The forecasts were presented in two forms: storm warnings and daily probabilities. By 1879 the daily observations were telegraphed to the central meteorology office in Toronto and then re-distributed as warnings and probabilities to over 100 media centres in Eastern Canada. And so began our fascination with the daily weather report.

The nascent rail and telegraph systems were ideal for this communication network. In the 1880s the daily forecast for Eastern Canadian regions was even mounted on the sides of rail cars so that customers in farms and small towns could learn the short-range forecast, from the long-range. This was not quite rural time-discipline, but no doubt many farmers set their clocks to the local train schedule simply so they could get weather updates in real time. No doubt there were also many instances of “fair weather” symbols being darkened by clouds and drenched with rain.

Canadian Climate Stations 1885 detail showing the stations along the new CPR line in southern Saskatchewan

Canadian Climate Stations 1885 detail showing the stations along the new CPR line in southern Saskatchewan

The railway’s characteristic footprint across Canada is also reflected in the time map of its weather stations. For instance, the map shows the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the southern Prairies. Most of the early explorers and scientists believed the main line should traverse a more northerly route across the old Northwest. However, based on political and strategic reasons, the Dominion government selected a route cutting through the semi-arid prairie known as Palliser’s Triangle, and this is the route by which most new settlers entered the Prairie west. The appearance of climate stations along this route is evident in the time map in the 1880s. The agency established other stations in northern Saskatchewan and other parts of the Prairies, but not until after 1911 when settlers and the State became more interested in these areas.

Snag was “Snag A” because of its historical context (a wartime R.C.A.F. airbase) and the weather man was Gordon Toole because of his (a man, who complained that “The nearest white women … are 300 miles away at Whitehorse”[1]). The Montreal Gazette was clearly impressed that it could speak instantly with Toole “over 3,700 miles of telephone circuits spanning the frozen airwaves to a lonely outpost in the Yukon.” The long-range forecast was complete.

These are some of the ways we can use climate data, geospatial methods, and environmental history to add context to stories of extreme weather like the record temperature in Snag, Yukon. Happily, there is now the suggestion that Super Bowl Monday be named a national holiday. I suggest that Canada follow suit. The first U.S. attempt failed, but when it succeeds we may want to name the Canadian equivalent “Coldest Day in History” Monday in honour of Gordon Toole and the residents of Snag.

[1] “Snag Airport Shows 82.6 Below; Lowest Mark Ever on Continent,” The Montreal Gazette Feb 3, 1947, p 1.

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I am an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. As co-investigator on the Sustainable Farm Systems Project (based at the University of Saskatchewan) I am building on the work of the Great Plains Population and Environment Project, conducting new research in agriculture on the Plains and my own case study of Prince Edward Island. From 2010-2014 I was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow and then NiCHE project coordinator.

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