Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.2 Year of ‘The Big Snow’

I know it’s only January but it’s beginning to feel like the year of the big snow. We’re two months into the winter (but not forgetting two snowfalls in November) and we’ve already had 198.5 cm of snow. Luckily, it’s also been a mild winter so much of that snow had melted away before the big dump this week, but still, we’ve already seen a lot of snow.

And it doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.

Those of you old enough to remember, and living in Canada, then, may recall ‘the big snow’, the winter of 1970/71. Total snowfall for that winter was (in Ottawa at least) 175 inches, but that wasn’t the whole story. It continued to snow after the spring equinox March 21; the total for the whole snowy period was a whopping 204 ¾ inches! (520.1 cms!!). The City of Ottawa issued ‘Survival Certificates’ to citizens on March 22 but they were premature:

 (We had begun the transition to metric in 1970 but Canadians still thought in Imperial measure (pounds and inches) and so we had inches of snowfall then. 175 inches was one helluva lot of snow. In centimeters it’s 444.5 and sounds like even more but if you have a pre-Cambrian mindset it’s hard to know how much that is. It’s a big number but how deep is the snow, really? Up to your knees? Over your head?. I’m a comparatively early adopter of the metric system but it’s taken me 50 years to automatically find myself comfortable with how much snow 5 or 10 centimeters is without converting it to inches. Maybe I subconsciously still do convert: let’s see, there’s 2.5 cm to an inch. 5 cms is about 2 inches – that’s not much. 10 cms/4 inches is beginning to feel more substantial. And 20 cms of snow is a lot. I don’t need to calculate that anymore.

But even at 5 centimeters of forecasted accumulative snowfall our friendly Environment Canada Distant Early Warning system (they call it ‘Weather Advisory’ but we know what they really mean: take cover) sends out alarms anyway: Snow forecast, 5 cm: Snow Watch in Effect; my i-phone alerts me, echoing Environment Canada’s advisory. A few hours later when they realise the snow may actually accumulate beyond 5 cm the advisory gets revised upwards to Weather Warning. I’m not sure the taxonomy for increasing levels of alarm beyond that.

It seems to me – but then, memory fails – ‘back in the day’ we didn’t get this sort of advice from our ever-helpful government. They might forecast heavy snowfall, up to ten inches, say, but beyond that they assumed Canadians knew what that meant: shoveling, driving likely hazardous, best to stay home; and some actually did. But now we get this:

Who are these warnings intended for? 

(And who writes these things? Is there an army of nameless faceless meteorologists (public servants all) toiling away in some underground bunker, peering at their computer screens evaluating data models and sending out this pro forma ‘information’? Never mind, soon they will be redundant, replaced by ChatGPT.) 

Call me politically incorrect but I can only suppose our government is concerned for the hundreds of thousand recent immigrants from tropical climates who have no experience of snow and might have no idea what to do from looking out the window, and crazily attempt to drive to Montreal anyway. No wait, that’s what multi-generational Canadians do. 

The first draft of this post was written on a very snowy and blowy Sunday morning. I glanced up from my keyboard to see that I can barely see across the street for blowing snow. It’s quite impressive. But then, we’ve seen it all before, many times. Even this winter, already too many times. I showed my asawa in the Philippines pictures of the blowing snow and snowbanks. ‘Amazing!’ she said, ‘don’t go outside.’ She used to say she wanted to see a Canadian winter and snow; ‘used to say’ – now she says, ‘Canadian weather is crazy’. I have to agree but then remind her that the Philippines has 20 typhoons per year, some at Level 4 or 5, plus the occasional volcano and frequent earthquakes. Living on Earth is a risky business.

But I digress. I was referring to the winter of the Big Snow, 1971.

Meteorology records tell us that the first Ottawa snowfall in the fall of 1970 was November 10 but on the 12th, 9½ inches (24.6 cm); citizens didn’t see the ground again for 139 days. Christmas was a wonderful winter wonderland but still no particular apprehension that this was going to be a record year. By February it was beginning to look exceptional. By March some worried there was so much snow it might not melt by summer, a harbinger of threatening climate change, a returning ice age. The biggest single day dump all winter was 12½ inches, February 13. It’s a significant amount but Ottawa has had worse – just 6 years ago (Feb. 16, 2016) (how soon we forget) we had a near record 37 cms fall – that’s 14 ½ inches. But in 1971 they already had so much snow they hardly noticed another 12; it snowed almost every day in February – almost 63 inches in total for the month and the piles kept piling up.

And it didn’t stop there. 10 ¾ inches fell on March 4, and March 7, another 7 inches.

The Big Snow wasn’t just an Ottawa phenomenon, it covered all of Southern Ontario and Western Quebec. I have pictures of snowed-in cottages at Lake Scugog when Marlene and I were visiting friends during the February Reading week (I was in the last year of my MBA studies at Queen’s). It snowed all that week. I have a photograph somewhere of a phonebooth, door ajar, the light still on, snow all the way up to the ceiling. We were beginning to notice there was a lot of snow. 

Kingston has a milder climate than the Ontario hinterland as Lake Ontario moderates local temperature; consequently Kingston tends to get more rain than snow, or it melts. So we didn’t particularly notice that 1971 was an exceptional year for snow. I was shocked however when I drove up to Ottawa with a few friends to watch Muhammed Ali fight Joe Frazier on closed circuit tv on the big screen at Lansdowne Park Arena. It was March 8, 1971. The countryside didn’t seem exceptionally snowbound as I drove up Hwy 15 to Ottawa but as we neared Smith Falls things changed, with snow piles along the shoulders of the highway well above the roof level of the car. The streets of Smith Falls had snowbanks so high you couldn’t see the houses on either side of you. It was like driving through tunnels.

And it got worse. As we drove on to Ottawa the snowbanks seemed to get higher and higher. We reached the city wide-eyed. We drove around the Glebe streets near Lansdown Park looking for a parking spot. Impossible. The streets were one-lane tracks, the snowbanks surely six feet high or more. In some places the streets were almost impassable as thoughtless parkers assumed space along the street leaving barely room to get by. I finally found a residence where the proprietor was willing to rent part of his driveway for the evening. 

(For those non-comprehending young’uns reading this blog post, in those days cities did not clear the streets the way they do now-a-days. There were no snow blowers and massive trucks to remove the snowbanks along the roadways, except perhaps the main streets. 

(Even as I write this post I am reminded that last Saturday, or more accurately Sunday morning, 2:00 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of a tractor with snowblower attached widening the walking path behind my house along the Hydro easement. I thought, this is a service, and an expense, unthinkable 50 years ago.) 

Fight over (Frazier won the punishing bout by unanimous decision by the way, retaining the World Heavyweight Championship title) we were surprised anew as we exited the arena with the amount of snow, streetlights glistening off the hills of white. Our drive home to Kingston was uneventful. At least it wasn’t snowing.

So here we are at the end of January, 2023. How does this compare with the winter of 1970/71. Here’s a chart I put together from Environment Canada sources:

 1970/71 2022/23 
December111.3172.596.4 108.4
January76.7249.291.1 198.5

We’re lagging behind because of the substantial November lead that ‘70/71 grabbed out of the gate. And that mighty month of February looks uncatchable. 

February 2 is the half-way point, more or less, in the traditional winter calendar. We don’t know what Wiarton Willi will have to say about this winter – he only forecasts how long it will last, not how much snow we will get – but the winter of 2022/23 is beginning to feel a lot like 1971. And a lot more shovelling yet. Keep those shovels handy.

Let’s check back in April.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

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