worst winter toronto ever

What was the worst winter ever in Toronto?

This winter has been a mess of snow and ice but it hasn't come close to breaking any records. So far Environment Canada has recorded just 133.4 cms of snow, well shy of the all-time record of 207.4 cms set way back in 1938. Wednesday's dumping did little to push the city closer to a record.

In terms of sheer face-aching cold, the temperature broke a one-day record on Feb 12 this year when the recorded low was -21.3 and the high just -7.2. For comparison, the lowest ambient temperature - that's air temperature with no wind chill calculations - ever recorded in Toronto was -26.5 on Jan 10 1859.

Out in the Toronto Bay, the ice-breaking boat has been called on more than normal to keep a path open for the Island ferry. The ice has been as thick as 56 cms at times, the Globe and Mail reports.

Looking back, trying to identify the "worst" winter is difficult: some were snowy, some were cold, some were both, some featured massive one-off snowstorms while others were a matter of attrition, with snow falling for weeks on end. There has been extreme cold snaps and months-long deep freezes.

Here's a reminder of 5 times Toronto has been crippled by cold.


toronto snow 2008

The last time winter clung on like grim death was 2007-2008, when 194 cms of snow - just 13 cms shy of the all-time record - fell during a single frigid season. What made that year so unusual was that it followed two extremely dry winters when just 60 cms fell from November to March. For comparison, the winter average is around 115 cms.


toronto snowstorm

The blizzard of Jan 14-15 1999 was the final nail in the coffin in what had already been an usually white few weeks. 118.4 cms of snow fell over 14 days that month, blowing into waist-high drifts that shut down the subway and airport and forced numerous businesses to simply give up and stay closed.

It probably would have been OK if the snow had melted between storms, as it often does in Toronto, but each successive storm added to the pile. After a monster storm deposited another 27 cms, pushing some drifts over a metre high, mayor Mel Lastman called in 400 soldiers to help with the shovelling.


toronto snowstorm

Winter storms don't come much worse than the one that buried Toronto on Dec. 12 1946. Starting in the early hours of the morning, hours of heavy snow piled into half-metre drifts that buried downtown buildings up to the first-floor windows.

Phones rang off the hook in the coroner's office as men all over the city suffered coronaries trying to tackle the snow. At Queen and Mutual, a streetcar tipped onto its doors, killing one and injuring 43. Eaton's and Simpson's, rival Queen Street department stores, were closed by weather for the first time in their histories.

21 people died in Ontario as a direct result of the storm that had the city drafting schoolboys and garbagemen to help clear streetcar tracks.


toronto 1938 winter

Sure, the weather so far this season has been pretty bad - just ask those who lost power during the Christmas ice storm - but the winter 1937-38 still lays claim to the title of snowiest on record.

More than two metres of snow - 207.4 cms to be precise - dropped on Ontario that year and wild weather in Toronto caused highway pile-ups, bus crashes, and damage to the boats on the waterfront. In January, a powerful storm halted practically all streetcar service; hundreds waited in freezing shelters for vehicles that would never arrive.

As it would six years later, the exertion of shovelling so much snow claimed several lives.


toronto iceboat

It takes a lot to freeze Lake Ontario. Its southerly location relative to the other Great Lakes, extreme depth, and impressive width mean the lake stays mostly ice-free through even the coldest of cold snaps - but not in 1912.

A perishing blast of arctic weather - the worst of the last 114 years - caused the lake to freeze a metre thick near Toronto, allowing skaters to reach Rochester, if they desired. As the Star recalled in 2007, a group walkers reached more than three miles from the shore but turned back when they feared getting lost in the featureless expanse of grey.

There were even races between cars and iceboats on the Toronto Bay.

Though it's been colder since, no winter has delivered a freeze as long and intense as the one experienced in January and February 1912. For 56 days the temperature was below -10. To make matters worse, 143 cms of snow fell over the same period, more than we've had so far this year.

I think we have a winner.


Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Stephen Gardiner/blogTO Flickr pool.

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