Ottawa Ice-pocalypse or How to Survive an Ice Storm

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A spring of daily monsoon-like rain and floods? I went out. The day Ottawa was colder than Mars? I went out. Polar vortex freezing Canada? I went out. Late-summer humidex of 40⁰C? I went out and I enjoyed it. 40⁰C fever? I still go out. Yeah, well, I get cabin fever quickly.

But last weekend’s ice storm was no joke. It scared me.

When I came to Canada, my weather vocabulary suddenly expanded. I learned new terminology and associated definitions for windchill, humidex, blizzard, ice pellets, wet now, sleet, slush, winter storm, hail, Indian summer, lake effect snow and more. Over the months and the following years, I witnessed the amazing range of meteorological phenomenon Ontario experiences, going “yeah, okay, we have rain in France too, we just don’t have five different words for it” to “holy shit, I thought this only happened in disaster movies!”

I learned that it could get really hot in Canada, that 20 cm of snow meant business as usual and that windchill wasn’t just a buzzword. I’ve seen people jogging in a blizzard and yes, it looked like they enjoyed it.

And I learned that there’s one weather phenomena you don’t mess with—freezing rain. Around Ottawa, the ice storm of January 1998 is still mentioned—everybody’s got a story about it. And when freezing rain is forecast, you pay attention. It’s not just rain, it’s not just ice—it’s a killer combination.

Freezing rain creates an amazing scenery.

Freezing rain causes accidents and damages.

Lovely, but deadly.

Fortunately, freezing rain doesn’t happen that often. It occurs when rain freezes on contact on surfaces maintained at temperature below 0⁰C. The raindrops become supercooled while passing through a sub-freezing layer of air hundreds of meters above the ground, and then freeze upon impact with any surface they encounter—roads, trees, electrical wires, vehicles, my jacket.

Most episodes of freezing rain I’ve seen don’t last long. Either it gets cold and freezing rain turns into snow, either it gets warm and it just rains.

All Ontario was expecting shitty weather over the weekend. Snow, ice pellets, rain and sleet were forecast, which basically means “look, we have no idea what’s gonna happen but don’t wear shorts, ’right?”

It was cold on Saturday but it didn’t snow. On Sunday, it felt a bit stormy. I still went out and while it wasn’t a pleasant walk, sidewalks weren’t icy—but I was, my winter jacket was entirely coated in ice by the time I took a break in a coffee shop. Things started to get really bad on Sunday evening. Wind and freezing rain, the deadly combination for a dangerous type of winter hazard. It didn’t take long for a thick coat of ice to form on roads, sidewalks, trees and power lines.

We live on a main road and the city trucks had spread salt on it, but around 8 p.m., neighbours living on side streets were having a hard time driving up the gentle slope because the wheels had no traction. It was chaos on Merivale, as if Mark had played with Hot Wheels cars—there were a couple of minor accidents close to our streets, one car was stuck on the median and another one had apparently missed the turn to our street and had ended up on the sidewalk.

My walk was shorter than usual. I literally couldn’t go anywhere—too icy.

All night, all I could hear and feel was wind and ice-coated tree branches creaking, bending and breaking under the extra weight.

On Monday morning, the city woke up to glaze ice, commute chaos and school closures. It was still rainy, windy and icy, although the temperature had gone up a degree or two, creating a new hazard—falling ice. On picture, shiny ice looks magical. In real life, it’s awful. No matter how good your balance is, you really can’t walk on ice, especially when it’s windy.

On Monday night, the aftermath of the weekend ice storm wasn’t pretty. It looked as if a giant in the sky had crushed hundreds of drinking glasses before sprinkling the shards all over the city.

Winter ain’t going away. On Tuesday, it snowed and the city looked like a cake with icing and powdered sugar.

I hate winter.

Coated in ice after going grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon

Coated in ice after going grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

After a night of freezing rain, on Monday morning

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Around Merivale Road, on Monday evening

Ottawa on Tuesday, after the storm

Ottawa on Tuesday, after the storm

Ottawa on Tuesday, after the storm

Ottawa on Tuesday, after the storm

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

13 Comments

  1. Martin Penwald on

    The most dangerous kind of freezing rain happens after a long period of very cold weather. During 1 week, temperatures are below -20°, and everything is kept dry and frozen. But when the weather get warmer quickly, a rain at 3 or 4° can still freeze on the ground, but not on the vehicules or the trees. So it is not immediately apparent the road is awfully slippery.

    • Oh yes! Ice is really, really dangerous. You have to pay attention everywhere you go… I saw that on Monday: sometimes, the sidewalk is 90% salted but good luck when you get to the last remaining 10%. Same things with roads, I assume.

      • Martin Penwald on

        For the roads, it depends where. In Saskatchewan, 6 or 7 years ago, they didn’t have the budget to clean the roads, so it was possible to drive 300 km on glare ice.

      • Martin Penwald on

        In fact, to be pedant, ice doesn’t slip. It’s the thin layer of water between the ice and the shoes/tires that make the all thing slippery. That’s why it is more dangerous with mild températures around 0° than when it is -20°.

  2. Martin Penwald on

    I was in a snow storm last saturday, between St-Cloud, MN and Black River Falls, WI. Not awfully bad, but still, it is mid-april.

    • It’s funny how quickly we (as Canadians) forget that the US also gets severe winter conditions in the North. It doesn’t stop at the border!

  3. Il m’est arrivé de sortir et de trouver notre rue entièrement et parfaitement gelée, comme une longue patinoire géante. Il n’y a qu’au Canada qu’on voit ça !

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