A litany of weather problems gripped vast swaths of Canada and the United States on the first Monday of 2014, ushering a "pick your misery" list of headaches that has so far included flight cancellations, stalled shipments, overwhelmed homeless shelters, school closures, crop damage and record-low temperatures.
From Crowsnest Pass, Alta., to Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, Canadians confronted freezing rain, snow, high winds and teeth-cracking cold, with some communities heeding as many as four different consecutive weather alerts. The coldest air in almost 20 years also swept over the U.S. toward the East Coast, with 90 per cent of the contiguous U.S. expected to be at or below the freezing mark Monday, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
"It was a lexicon of winter misery being played out," said Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips. "Pick your misery. The weather gods are out to punish you."
The unstable conditions stemmed from a tug-of-war between a warm, moist system from Texas and cold Arctic air. Like "a bully waiting in the bush," the cold front inevitably prevailed, Mr. Phillips said. Particularly unusual was how quickly the weather shifted in places such as Windsor, Ont., where the temperature went from around the freezing point Sunday to -18 C on Monday. "It's like a reverse Chinook," he said.
Freezing rain across Eastern Canada forced hundreds of airline passengers to be diverted to Fredericton, and Nova Scotians were facing warnings of winds gusting up to 130 kilometres per hour. But in Newfoundland, where schools have been closed until Wednesday, there was some reprieve: Crews made progress in restoring power for thousands as the island entered its fourth day of outages triggered by cold weather, a fire at a terminal station and a power plant that went off-line.
The Ontario Provincial Police reported several accidents and vehicles in ditches on a highway north of Toronto, and buses for two Ottawa school boards were cancelled. In Quebec, warmer temperatures brought rainfall warnings. The Prairies faced a whirlpool of frigid, dense air – known as a polar vortex – that blanketed Saskatchewan and Manitoba and descended into much of the United States. More than 3,500 U.S. flights were cancelled, with more than half of Chicago O'Hare's 2,400 daily flights axed amid a temperature of -25 C. Minnesota shuttered its schools because of the cold for the first time since 1997, farmers from Texas to Florida braced for damaged crops, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard pushed the city's travel emergency level to "red," making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergencies or to seek shelter.
Mr. Phillips warned that the Arctic air will soon flood the eastern part of Canada and cause flash freezes. "It's going to be a messy situation," he said. Some communities – including Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Quebec City – were expected to see a drastic drop in temperatures by Tuesday. Those seeking some relief were urged to look forward to the weekend.
"Just wait it out," Mr. Phillips advised. "By the end of this week, we'll be into a January thaw in the east and, while not thawing in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, instead of having highs of -25, we'll have highs of -4."
With reports from Bloomberg, Reuters and The Canadian Press