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Firefighters help push a stuck car during Tuesday’s record snowfall in Ottawa. Knowing how much snow is on the ground is important when dealing with the realities and consequences of climate change. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Firefighters help push a stuck car during Tuesday’s record snowfall in Ottawa. Knowing how much snow is on the ground is important when dealing with the realities and consequences of climate change. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Canadian scientists turn to Twitter to track snowfall Add to ...

It was as if all of winter had been packed into a single snowball.

From threatening minus 40 in either measure to a slamming of the nation’s capital with a single-day snowfall record of 51 centimetres, it was a week to be cheered by skiers, snowmobilers and chiropractors – and one to be cursed by shovellers and those unfortunate enough to be sitting behind a steering wheel.

“Probably more cars pushed by more people on more streets from more snow piles in history of Ottawa today,” Citizen local columnist Kelly Egan tweeted. Even one of the Ottawa Senators, young defenceman Mark Borowiecki, supposed to be out with an injury, was seen pushing stuck cars near the Canadian Tire Centre.

Just before heading out for the sixth driveway clearing of the day, I decided to put in a call to “Dr. Snow” to see if he might make a bit of sense of this for those eastern Canadians who had naively convinced themselves that the worst was over.

Richard Kelly doesn’t much care one way or the other to be called Dr. Snow, but he knows it’s inevitable: a 50-year-old Brit expat with thick, snow-white hair and a résumé that suggests he may know more about snow than anyone else on Earth.

He cannot, however, verify the oft-quoted line from Canadian poet Margaret Atwood that the Inuit “have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love.”

“I don’t know about that,” he says. “But I can tell you I’ve heard a lot of different expletives attributed to snow.”

You will not, however, hear Richard Kelly, associate dean, faculty of environment, at the University of Waterloo, curse his chosen research topic.

When told he had missed the record snowfall back in his own province – he has been in Washington attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention – his reaction was immediate: “I kind of regret it.”

Growing up in London, the young Richard Kelly rarely experienced snowfall of any depth – and certainly of no staying power.

“But I had a fascination with it when it did come,” he says. “All Brits feel this way about snow: a little bit of a novelty factor – then it’s a nuisance factor.”

In 2000, he left England to spend five years as a research scientist at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, then moved north in 2006 to take up a post at the University of Waterloo. He had found his calling. “Canadians are a little like Brits in that they do tend to talk about weather a lot,” he says.

And so much of the talk is negative, almost as if Voltaire’s dismissal of this land as “a few acres of snow” set the standard.

Voltaire, unfortunately, was a bitter old French poet who never got over his lover’s husband fitting her with a chastity belt, thereby dousing their “mutual flame/ Just then your tyrant husband came/ That hoary Jailer was too hard,/ To love he all access has barred.”

The thing is, as Quebec’s Gilles Vigneault so wonderfully put it in song, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” – “My country is not a country, it’s winter.”

Instead of a national chionophobia – fear of snow – then, Prof. Kelly would like more Canadians to appreciate their great good fortune. Snow is money.

According to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, snow contributes $1.7-trillion a year to the U.S. gross domestic product, covering everything from recreation to agriculture, from power production to industrial output.

Prof. Kelly’s main academic interest in Canada is the measurement of snowfall and ice hydrology, particularly where glaciers are concerned. Less snow in the mountains means less water for agriculture. The state of California, for example, gets 70 per cent of its available water from snowmelt. Less snow means more drought.

In Canada, a growing concern is shifting to shrinking seasons. “We know that the snow season in the Northern Hemisphere is shortening in its duration at the springtime end,” Prof. Kelly says. “And this is particularly evident and important at high latitude.”

The Bow River, for example, flows out of the Rockies and irrigates vast tracts of the Canadian Prairies. When the spring melt comes early, water is most available before planting even begins.

Knowing how much snow is on the ground is of rising importance – and not just in Canada, but around a world trying to come to terms with the realities and consequences of climate change.

“Snowfall is difficult to measure at the best of times,” Prof. Kelly says. Satellite images can identify how much ground is covered, but depth analysis remains tricky. Tracking fronts and estimating helps, but there is nothing quite to compare with an accurate account on the ground – as was taking place hourly in Ottawa this past week: 40 cm … 45 cm … 50 cm … 51 cm!

Prof. Kelly and his colleagues therefore decided to augment their satellite and scientific evidence with a novel approach to measuring snowfall around the planet: Twitter.

The University of Waterloo’s snowtweets project (www.snowtweets.org) asks participants wherever they happen to live simply to track snowfall, or lack thereof, in their own backyards and around their communities.

The idea is simplicity itself. Grab a ruler, step outside, check the level, use your mobile phone to tweet out the results and location using the hashtag #snowtweets. The hope is to use this real-time reporting of snow coverage to provide specific detail to larger-scale remote sensing of the snow cover.

It’s hardly a scientific hypothesis, Prof. Kelly says, but it is “an exploration of how we can use alternative sources of data to help with the science.”

Many experts pooh-pooh “citizen science,” but Prof. Kelly’s little project has already produced thousands of tweets from around the world.

There was interest in it at the Washington gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Not as much as in “gravitational waves,” of course, but enough to encourage Prof. Kelly and his colleagues to keep seeing what social media might have to help forecast spring melts, potential flooding and future water availability.

Using social media for research is promising, but far from perfect, he concedes: “You have to beat the bushes to get people to do a little more.”

The tweets flow in when there is an “event” – a big storm. But the tweeters have trouble following up.

In the case of the nation’s capital this past week, it may well because they were too busy shovelling out.

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