Top ten weather stories for 2008: story nine

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9. The Coldest Place On Earth

Map of Canada highlighting regions affected by the bout of extremely cold weather during the winer of 2008

Old-timers on the Prairies will tell you that winters aren't what they used to be and statistics back them up! Over the past quarter century, 17 winters were warmer than normal and only 5 colder. The last significantly cold winter was 12 years ago. At the end of January 2008, however, there was a sobering reminder of winters past when numbing glacial cold gripped the West. Even the heartiest old-timer, conditioned to expect warmer winters, was shocked and "Where was global warming?" became the rallying cry.

A strong Arctic ridge of high pressure ushered in teeth-chattering Siberian air and bone-chilling winds across the West. Temperatures tumbled to -40°C in all three Prairie provinces – and you had to subtract at least another 10 to get the "feel-like" temperatures. At its worst, on January 29, wind chills dipped to a deadly -52 in Regina. To the north, La Ronge felt more like -53 and Meadow Lake -56. Uranium City earned the ignominious distinction of being the coldest place on the continent – and possibly the entire planet – at an unbearable -59 wind chill. Vostok, Antarctica, which holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth (-89.2°C in 1983) was mild in comparison at -44 with the wind chill. A day later, Brandon boasted a -51 wind chill. The penetrating cold didn't break any records, but it did at times eclipse high marks for electricity and gas consumption in several cities, including Calgary, Red Deer, Winnipeg and Regina. Millions of residents cranked up the thermostat to beat back the cold.

Tragically, the Arctic cold claimed several lives – some homeless, some stranded in the open and two young sisters, dressed only in T-shirts and diapers, who perished on the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan. Across the Prairies, the homeless crowded shelters, hospitals were pushed to handle an overflow of frostbite cases, vets reported cats' ears and noses falling off, and farmers struggled to save newborn livestock.

The deep freeze had a vise-like grip on life in the West and the North. Concerts, bingos, hockey games and other events were postponed, and then cancelled. In northern Alberta, pipes froze, especially under mobile homes, and engineers suspended production at the Syncrude oil sands facility due to instrument freeze-up. In Edmonton, the NHL Oilers gave free jump-starts to any fan whose vehicle froze in the arena parking lot. It was so cold in Calgary that the zoo kept its Siberian tigers inside. The unbearable cold stopped garbage pick-up and snow clearing and shut down transit systems. City streets were littered with broken cars with dead batteries, and the theft of unlocked, idling vehicles was just too high to count. Cab companies ran full out on the coldest days, and roadside assistance services for boosting or towing had unprecedented numbers of calls. It's hard to believe that any good news could be attributed to the mid-winter cold snap, but experts were cautiously optimistic that the pine beetle took quite a beating – likely slowing its progress in northwest Alberta.

In the North, Yellowknife experienced one of its longest stretches of cold in years. There were nine straight days of -40°C temperatures. Lingering ice fog obscured entire neighbourhoods, caused several flight disruptions, lengthened work commutes and halted mail delivery. The -50 wind chill and freezing fog filled emergency shelters. In a rare move, the Yellowknife school board advised parents and caregivers that they were closing schools to ensure the safety of students and staff. If schools weren't cancelled, recess was, and students had to endure long cold waits for buses. In the Yukon, store clerks took off their gloves to use cash registers. Tow trucks rescued countless frozen vehicles and repair shops were backlogged. And for humanitarian reasons, the annual Polar Games for Grade 5 and 6 students were postponed.

The bout of cold weather led to the winter of 2007-2008 being the second coldest in 11 years on the Prairies. The Pacific Coast also felt its effects and registered its coldest winter in 15 years.

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