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The winter that was: Looking back on a season we thought we knew

Thermometers in Kenora, Ont., showed 0 C on the first day of spring Thursday, a brief respite for the 15,000 residents of a city emerging from its coldest winter ever recorded. The average daily temperature in Kenora from December to February was -20.1, breaking a previous record set in 1938.

Over the past three months, Canadians have experienced one of the coldest and snowiest winters in decades. "Kenora set only one record among many," said Matt MacDonald, a meteorologist for Environment Canada. In Winnipeg, temperatures fell to -37 on Jan. 5, leading some locals to compare the weather to that of Mars.

Snowfall records were set in Windsor, Calgary and a litany of other cities across Canada. Toronto experienced its coldest winter in 20 years. Saskatoon residents faced the coldest in 18 years.

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Even Niagara Falls partially froze in early March. It was the second time this winter that people could enjoy the eerie sight – the Falls also came to an icy halt during a cold snap in January.

Montrealers were bundled up in thick coats during this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, with spectators feeling the wind chill of -20 at certain points during the hours-long march. Only two years earlier, the parade marched under a bright sun with people in shorts and flip flops enjoying a warm day of 20.

Across the country, snow has been falling for months. Some areas of Quebec saw snowstorms in October, leaving behind snow that has yet to melt, six months later. "If we could keep records of snowbanks, I think we would have broken records," Mr. MacDonald said.

'Polar vortex' becomes a household term

"Polar vortex" has now entered the public lexicon, although that's a development that isn't making meteorologists happy. A polar vortex is a huge pocket of frigid air that sits over the polar region in the winter. This year, that air was pushed south – and is the reason the weather has been miserable for so long.

Some Canadians have benefited, however. Baffin Island had one of its warmest winters on record. In the Yukon, a new high of 16.5 was set at the end of January. People called Environment Canada in disbelief when the forecast first came out, according to Mr. MacDonald.

One reason that spring temperatures have been delayed is the level of ice on the Great Lakes. More than 92 per cent of the lakes is covered in ice, the most since 1979. More than a metre thick in areas, the ice is creating a feedback loop with the polar vortex, with the unseasonably cold weather keeping the ice-covered lakes from warming the atmosphere.

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Don't blame climate change for the wacky weather, Mr. MacDonald said. "We've had cool winters like this in the past and we'll have them again in the future."

Rock salt shortages

The cold weather didn't stop at the border: The U.S. East Coast also experienced a deep freeze. American newspapers referred to 2014 as the year of the "Great Salt Shortage." A state of emergency was declared in Connecticut after officials there ran out of salt. The price of salt, which typically costs towns in that state $84 a tonne, was fetching $230 in early February. Neighbouring states also saw supplies run low.

Snowstorms in the south exacerbated the situation, creating demand in an area that typically doesn't see much snow. Across Ontario, some towns responded to shortages by using sand instead. Sitting on a large stockpile of salt, Niagara Falls was offered a significant premium for its supply. Officials there declined the offers, however, because the weather was so bad they feared that they could run short as well.

Frozen pipes

Some families in Winnipeg didn't have running water for weeks this winter as persistently cold temperatures froze the ground, turning solid the liquid in pipes. The city suffered its second-coldest winter in 75 years, with crews constantly sent to thaw out pipes. Each pipe can require hours of thawing to unblock. With only three thawing machines, the backlog was 15 days long in the depths of winter. At one point, nearly 1,000 homes were without water in Winnipeg.

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Hundreds of pipes also froze in Thunder Bay and Kenora, leading to a citywide boil-water advisory in the latter. Despite warmer weather, officials have warned it could take another month for the ground to thaw completely.

Money is short

The ice storm that felled tens of thousands of trees across Southern Ontario and Eastern Canada in the days around Christmas, leaving thousands of families in the dark, took its toll on the economy, leading to an estimated 0.5-per-cent drop in GDP. More than $200-million worth of damages to property was reported to insurance companies, and with crews working around the clock to restore power and clear trees, the cost to taxpayers in Toronto alone topped $100-million.

"Every area of the city was impacted," said Brian Mercer, the supervisor for forest policy and standards in Toronto. While temporary dump sites around the city were filled with the limbs of broken oaks and towering maples, the city still hasn't cleared all of the damaged trees. With some streets losing up to 90 per cent of their canopy to the storm, officials have yet to put a number on the loss of trees. City workers will soon be heading out to count the damaged trees and see which need pruning to keep healthy.

Municipal funds across Canada could see deficits after the costs of multiple storms and unexpected plowing are counted. It's too early to see the full impact on city budgets.

Toronto and Calgary saw record snowfalls. No part of Canada was spared. In Vancouver, the city's famously mild weather disappeared in February during one of the coldest and snowiest months in years. The City of Toronto issued 36 alerts for extreme cold this winter, each requiring authorities to open more beds in shelters to the city's homeless. Only nine such alerts were issued last year.

Maple syrup

One benefit of the cold, snowy winter: a rich, albeit late, season for maple syrup. Sap flows best when daytime temperatures hit 5 and nighttime temperatures float around -5 for several consecutive days. While that weather has yet to arrive throughout much of Ontario or Quebec, producers are hopeful that the brutal winter will lead to sweet syrup and a "great season," according to the head of Ontario's maple syrup producers.

What's the spring forecast

While one of the worst winters many Canadians have seen in their lifetimes is coming to a close, the outlook for early spring holds little relief. The first day of spring was accompanied with warnings across Canada for freezing rain, snowfalls and a blizzard. The good news: There may be a "slow start to the season," but the Weather Network said temperatures are expected to be near normal across the country this spring, although some stubborn pockets of frigid air will stick around.

"People are at their wits' end," said Lori Graham, the weather specialist at CTV Montreal.

Many people have headed south to avoid the last bouts of snow. Even Environment Canada spokesman David Phillips has left for warmer climates, leaving behind an amusing message blaming March's cold weather and the angry messages he's sure to receive.

"I do hope you get the weather you want for the rest of the winter. Bye for now," ends the voicemail from one of the country's most-sought-after experts on all things weather.

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