ActiveHistory.ca is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!
The following post by Josh MacFadyen was originally featured on January 9, 2014.
Many Canadians had a brush with homelessness, or at least heat-lessness, over the holidays. Over half a million customers across Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick spent Christmas in the cold and dark, and ten days after the 2013 ice storm homes were still coming online. With the region currently experiencing snow storms and extreme cold temperature warnings, Canadians may be thinking about the fragility of urban energy systems and our level of preparedness for extreme weather events. (At least we seem to be intrigued by travel delays, frost quakes, ice mayors, historic frozen negatives, boiling squirt gun experiments, and of course Frozen, as well as more serious local relief efforts such as Coldest night of the year and “In from the Cold” campaigns.)
The ice storm was deemed the largest in Toronto history, but since it follows only fifteen years after a similar ice storm in Quebec and Eastern Ontario these may not be isolated 100-year events. Extreme weather events appear to be on the increase, and 2013 was a banner year. Debates over the Toronto’s preparedness and resilience are ongoing. Anthony Haines, CEO of Toronto Hydro, promised there will be discussions regarding future improvements and “there is no doubt, learning is to be had.” Winter storms can be especially risky when cold weather and power outages overlap, and historically, extreme cold has been far more lethal than floods and heat waves.
I suggest that the kind of learning “to be had” includes a broad understanding of our historical relationships with extreme weather and urban energy supplies, including food and heat. Climatologists will be working to identify the frequency of these weather events, but historical climate data also allow historians to create detailed risk-maps of extreme cold weather events in Canada over time. Historical research in energy, transportation, and urban planning may then show us how Canadians adapted to these challenges over time.