Snow on the ground and army jokes

As you probably noticed if you live in or near Toronto, we had a bunch of somewhat unexpected snow yesterday – the Weather Network reported that 22 cm fell in the city between Sunday night and Monday. This meant that it was time for the usual round of army jokes, as people recall that day in 1999 when then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the troops to help Toronto dig out. The city has been laughed at ever since – unfairly, I think.

To give some background: according to Toronto weather records (mostly from Pearson Airport), here is the list of all the times that the city has had more than 40 cm of snow on the ground, sorted in order of snow depth.

Year Month Day Snow on ground (cm)
1999 1 15 67
1999 1 16 67
1999 1 17 55
2008 2 15 48
2008 2 13 48
2008 2 16 48
1999 1 13 48
1999 1 14 48
2008 2 14 48
2004 1 30 46
2004 1 29 46
2004 1 28 46
2004 1 31 46
2008 2 17 45
2004 2 1 44
1966 1 29 43
1982 2 7 43
1982 2 6 43
1976 1 25 43
1966 1 24 43
1966 1 25 43
1966 1 28 43
1966 1 27 43
1982 2 9 42
2004 2 2 41
1966 1 31 41
1976 1 24 41
1966 2 1 41
1966 2 2 41
1982 2 8 41
1966 1 26 41

As you might expect, these days tend to bunch a bit: if you’ve got a whole lot of snow on the ground on one day, most of it is likely to be there on the next day. The top 15 days are all contained in three batches:

  • January 28-31, 2004: The city got 31.6 cm of snow over two days, adding to the amount that was already there.
  • February 13-16, 2008: Over 30 cm of snow on February 6, and two other snowfalls in the following week. (The city then got 14.8 mm of rain on February 17. That must have made walking around a whole lot of fun.)
  • January 13-17, 1999: This is when Toronto called in the army.

While I understand why people like to poke fun at Toronto, I should point out that there were good reasons why somebody should have been called in to help, if not necessarily the troops. At that time, the city had historically high levels of snow on the ground – far more than at any time before or since. In some of the older neighbourhoods of the city, there was no place to put all of the snow when it was shovelled, as there weren’t large lawns on which to park it. So the piles of snow started to take up room on the streets, cutting many of them down to one lane.

For ordinary travel, this was just a minor inconvenience: drivers just made eye contact, and somebody moved off into a nearby driveway to let the other driver go by. But what would happen if there was an emergency? Ambulances and fire trucks would have been stalled by traffic coming the other way. By the time the oncoming drivers had moved into nearby driveways, precious minutes would have been wasted.

Calling in the army made Toronto the butt of jokes then, and seemingly for the rest of eternity. But clearing off the snow saved lives. It was worth it.

(While I’m on the subject of weather – the average temperature in January 2015 was -7.6C, more than a degree warmer than last year, but still colder than two-thirds of the Januarys (Januaries?) in recent Toronto history. It is grimly ironic that, in a time in which the planet appears to be growing ever hotter, Southern Ontario is colder than usual.)

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About davetill

I'm a writer and occasional web designer. I live in Toronto.
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