In January 1998, North America fell victim to an absolute corker of an ice storm. Although not unknown in these regions, this storm was so extreme – affecting individuals, industry and infrastructure – that it has gone down in history as Canada’s most expensive natural disaster.
Ice storms occur when warm and cold air collide. Warm air rises, cold air remains low and the snow in between melts, hitting the ground wet, and freezing instantly. Three storm fronts in quick succession left everything coated with ice that became thicker and thicker. Montreal and its rural environs received more than 10 cm (4 in) of freezing rain, twice the amount received in two previous record-breaking storms.
Power lines collapsed everywhere – Hydro-Quebec alone lost 3,000 km (1,850 mi). Steel pylons, said to be the strongest in the world, crumpled like tissue paper, wooden utility poles simply splintered under the weight of ice and phone lines collapsed. Trees fell on buildings and cars, and 100,000 people took refuge in hotels or emergency shelters. A state of emergency was declared.
By January 8 the military were involved. More than 4.7 million Canadians and 500,000 Americans were without power. Even after power was restored, large parts of Montreal were cordoned off as huge slabs of ice fell from buildings.
The rural areas were worst hit. Farmers could not feed, water or ventilate their livestock and almost a quarter of Canada’s dairy cows died frozen, starving and trapped in barns collapsing upon them from the weight of the ice. Ten million liters (18 million pints) of milk were dumped, millions of trees were snapped, and both the orchard areas and maple syrup industries were devastated. Several hundred thousand people were still without power three weeks later.
When: January 4-10 1998
Where: Ontario and Quebec, Canada, New England and New York State, USA
Death toll: 35 people died, 28 of whom were in Canada, 945 people were injured, and thousands of animals were killed.
You should know: The economic losses were enormous at about $4.4 billion US dollars, $3 billion of which were from Canada. Over one million maple trees were damaged; 22 per cent of Canada’s maple syrup taps were affected, including 23 per cent of Quebec’s 21 million taps and 285,000 of Ontario’s. The industry estimates that it could take 40 years before production recovers from the ice storm.