Manitobans are asking themselves, “When is this blasted winter ever going to end?” It will eventually end, but the third coldest winter, since temperatures were first recorded over 100 years ago, is still lingering and testing the durability of weather-challenged Manitobans.
Discussions about the weather persist among Manitobans, primarily because the province is in the depths of a lengthy deep-freeze. The reason for this unpleasant turn in the weather is a Polar Vortex parked over Manitoba. Environment Canada meteorologists reported that for a three-month stretch from December to February, the temperature averaged only about -20°C, which is far below the normal average of -14.3°C. The brutal cold has only been topped for low temperatures by the winter of 1978-79 (second) and the coldest winter ever in 1875-76.
It has been so cold that frost has penetrated to a ground depth of 2.1 metres in some locations in Winnipeg, when normally the depth is 1.5 metres. With the depth of frost has come frozen waterlines. Water service to some of the affected properties have yet to be restored and some homeowners have been waiting days and weeks for their service to be restored.
In a press release, the city announced crews are working to restore water service seven days a week, and that all available staff and equipment resources have been assigned to this effort. “The city of Winnipeg is currently experiencing the highest number of frozen water pipes to be recorded in 35 years,” according to the release.
The city is using “specialized CSA approved electrical thawing machines (DBH) equipped with a computer system to monitor the current and automatically shuts off if there is any dangerous current loss into the house. The DBH, capable of thawing large diameter and long lengths of water pipes, is a self-contained unit which is towed to the site where pipe thawing is required. Unfortunately, contractors do not have these specialized electrical machines, nor are they available for rent.
“The Water and Waste Department ordered two other types of electrical thawing units to evaluate. One unit was received on February 28 ... and will be tested. Normally, in a typical winter, the city only requires one thawing crew to address frozen water pipes.
“There are currently about 537 properties on the list for thawing service. Based on the number of properties on the waiting list, and the number of properties with complex thawing requirements, it currently takes about 12 to 14 days to thaw a frozen water pipe. It is difficult to give a timeframe for individual properties as pipe thawing can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to complete.”
“So that customers have a temporary water supply as soon as possible while waiting for thawing service, staff will install a temporary water supply by connecting a hose from the property owner’s outside tap to a neighbour's outside tap, provided that it is possible to do so (i.e., the taps aren’t frozen) and the neighbour agrees to this arrangement. Currently there are 67 hose lines in place.
According to the city, even if the weather does start to warm up over the next few weeks, it will be at least May or June before the frost is out of the ground. Those water pipes at risk of freezing will remain vulnerable over the next few months.
In the interim, the city has also opened 12 indoor pool locations and the Fort Rouge Leisure Centre for those residents with frozen waterlines wanting to shower.
But if you think this winter has had some bone-chilling cold, Old Man Winter struck with a vengeance on January 9, 1899, when the temperature fell to minus 52.8°C at Norway House, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the province since official weather records have been taken.
Snag, Yukon, has the dubious distinction of having recorded Canada’s lowest temperature ever, which was a mind-numbing -62.8°C on February 3, 1947. In a Canadian History magazine article (February-March 1997) about this event, author David W. Philips wrote that weather observer Gordon Toole’s “exhaled breath made a tinkling sound as it fell to the ground in a white powder ... One only had to remain outside for three or four minutes with face exposed before cheeks, nose and ears were frozen.”
Carrying the thermometer back to the barracks at Snag Airport, 30 metres from the weather station instruments, Toole, “From the corner of his eye ... saw ... the bulb at the end, well below the -80°F point — the last mark on the thermometer.”
Toole marked the metal sheath where a tiny bit of alcohol remained and estimated the temperature to be -83°F. The thermometer was packed up and sent to Toronto for verification. Three months later, the temperature was verified to have been -81.4°F.
The month of February 1876 in Winnipeg was noted for its severe chill, although the temperature was nothing near what had been recorded at Snag in 1947.
“The mercury marked the lowest degree Thursday, that has been recorded here for eight years,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 12, 1876. “The figure was -43°F (-41.6°C). One degree higher has frequently been reached, in former years, but it remained for 1876 to carry off the palm for a real cold snap. We don’t know whether it is anything to brag of, though.”
On March 3, 1876, the Free Press commented on a London Free Press report about the adverse weather conditions. The local newspaper said that the London, Ontario, publication would have been fairer in its assessment if it had also said “all Ontario would stay indoors and freeze, while here the weather — owing to the dryness of the atmosphere — is not at all disagreeable.”
Sound familiar? Possibly this is the origin of the common statement — “It doesn’t feel that cold because it’s a dry cold” — heard across Manitoba when the thermometer reading dips to well below freezing.
On February 22, 1876, the temperature hit a low of -34.4°C and the next day the low was recorded at -35°C. On the last day of February — a leap year so the final day was the 29th — the low stood at -30°C.
Throughout Manitoba’s recorded history, a common theme is the bite of winter’s chilly breath. Some of the earliest comments on local weather were made by Hudson’s Bay Company factors (governors) at the various posts serving the fur trade. Though general in nature, these entries in daily journals relate how weather has been a serious topic throughout the years and how much it played upon people’s minds, as it does to this day.
What remains to be seen is if we — like Manitobans of 1876 — will have to wait until late March for a change in the weather for the better, but we do know that winter will eventually end.