From Telegraph to Mobile Apps - 150 years of Canadian weather service history
Canadians see their weather service as an essential service of government, and they appreciate the importance and value of weather forecasts and information for planning their daily lives. The majority of Canadians also understand that it is an immense and challenging task issuing and updating weather warnings and forecasts 24 hours a day, every day of the year to nearly 40 million citizens engaged in a multitude of pursuits across the second largest country in the world. Forecasting the weather in Canada presents an extraordinary challenge, demanding extraordinary talents and resources, especially given the constraints of an immense range of meteorological conditions, such enormous climate variations, and the scarcity of observations on land and sea.
Not only is the weather changing continuously but so is the science of meteorology. The Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) constantly revitalizes and transforms in order to keep up with the incredible advances in all aspects of observational infrastructure, atmospheric sciences, computer technology, and certainly, in the dissemination of weather services to the Canadian public. Modernization through the ages has ensured that the MSC continues to provide the best and most useful weather information and services possible to safeguard the health and safety, the security of property and the quality of life of for all Canadians.
From the earliest times to the present day, Canadians have been careful weather watchers. Since time immemorial Indigenous peoples of Canada have relied on their deep knowledge of the landscape and natural environment. The early European explorers, trappers and traders noted weather conditions in their ship logs and diaries. More than a century and a half ago, when Canada’s first meteorological observatory was established, it used the most advanced equipment of its time: mercury thermometers, barometers and rain gauges. Today, in addition to the hundreds of observing sites across the country, this equipment is supplemented by high technology in the form of automated weather stations equipped with electronic sensors and satellite-relays. Whatever the methods used, we have accumulated and still add to a body of knowledge that grows in value with each year. Canada’s vast collection of billions of weather and water observations is a vital source of historic data.
In the beginning…
As rain began to fall on August 25, 1873, residents of the outports and farms on Cape Breton Island secured their doors and shutters against a rising wind. Few people on this rugged island expected anything more than a late summer gale. But that night, after gathering strength for a week in the mid-Atlantic, a hurricane spiraled up the coast of the United States and smashed headlong into Cape Breton’s east shore. By mid-afternoon the next day, the Great Nova Scotian Cyclone had laid waste to a large swath of the Maritimes. Newspapers were filled with accounts of steamers driven aground and bridges washed away in the deluge that accompanied the high winds. The storm’s final toll included almost 1,000 people dead, some 1,200 ships sunk or smashed, and hundreds of homes and bridges destroyed.
Tragically, weather officials in Toronto knew a day in advance that the hurricane would make landfall in the Maritimes, based on weather reports received from Washington, DC. But no alarm was raised in the East because the telegraph lines to Halifax were down. Aside from the waterlogged farms and wind-whipped coastal towns on Cape Breton, the hurricane was felt most 1,500 kilometres to the west, in Ottawa. Politicians, prompted by the public outcry over the disaster, opened the coffers for the development of a national weather warning system. This was a major boost for Canada’s fledgling weather service, which had been set up only two years earlier, in 1871 when the focus was on establishing a volunteer network of weather-observing stations; storm warnings and forecasting came later.
The formative years
Meteorology and forecasting were still in their formative years in the mid-nineteenth century. If you lived in Upper or Lower Canada (modern day Ontario and Québec) you likely divined your own weather forecast based on local conditions and accumulated weather lore - “red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” for example. Samuel Morse’s invention of the electric telegraph in 1844 signaled a new age in meteorology. For the first time forecasters had a tool with which to relay observations over vast distances to warn towns in the path of a storm - if the lines were not damaged - and to inform others of sunny skies ahead.
By mid-1870s, land lines linked all major cities in Eastern Canada. In the Map Room at Toronto’s Central Office, technicians plotted thrice-daily observations from Canadian and American weather stations and young assistants to the Director drew lines of equal pressure and shaded areas of precipitation. Within a few years they began to understand large-scale weather patterns and by 1876 were confident to issue their first weather forecasts or “probabilities” and Canadian-prepared storm warnings. Forecasts were issued from Toronto at 10 a.m., every day except Sunday and covered the following 24 hours. Compared to today’s forecast they were short and simple. For example, the forecast for the Maritimes on January 1, 1878 was, “decreasing northerly winds to westerly winds, clearing and colder weather.” Distributing these forecasts, however, was anything but simple: getting the weather word out usually meant sending the latest forecast by telegraph. On receipt, the person in charge would arrange to post, for public inspection, the forecasts in a framed bulletin board outside the local telegraph office, post office, school or railway station. In the United States, besides posting daily forecasts, some communities used flag signals, steam whistles, search lights, and even sirens and bombs to advise people of approaching weather.
Most afternoon newspapers began publishing the telegraphed weather bulletins as soon as they became available. At first, they were only a recitation of the previous day’s highs and lows across the country; later, they offered predictions and weather maps. In large cities where same-day postal delivery was possible, you could receive a mailed forecast in time for tomorrow’s weather. Telephone operators also could recite the day’s forecast for interested parties. For farming communities along rail lines between Windsor and Halifax, an ingenious system was developed in 1884 to get the weather word out. After receiving a morning dispatch from Central Office, railway agents affixed large metal discs (the shape depended on the approaching weather system) to the engine or baggage cars. To farmers working their fields, a full moon chugging by signaled sunny skies, a crescent moon meant showers, and a star meant prolonged rainy periods. Operators at 35 warning stations at ports and harbours along the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Atlantic seaboard used a similar method to warn sailors of approaching gales. The system of cautionary storm signals was quite simple. Central Office sent warnings to the signal stations. Operators at the headlands to the ports or harbours acknowledged the message by return telegraph then raised wicker baskets, cones or drums from a mast or pole representing a different weather pattern. This simple system of storm warnings proved so effective that it was not until the 1950s when the last cautionary storm station with its wicker baskets and signal drums was decommissioned. Although useful, all these early systems were limited by the constraints of time and space and human error. Often forecasts were old news by the time newspapers were published or a ship’s pilot spotted the signal. And too often, workers whose job it was to update the warnings simply never did, or did it too late to make the information worthwhile.
Weather forecasting began spreading across the country. By late 1878, weather forecasts were available for 20 locations in the Maritimes. By 1891, Manitoba and present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta received daily weather reports, southern British Columbia in 1898, and Newfoundland and Labrador in 1910.
Wireless radio breakthrough
In the 1920s, forecasts via telegraph changed with the technological breakthrough of the wireless radio. Like the telegraph 70 years earlier, the radio revolutionized the way weather was delivered to Canadians. Information could be gathered from hundreds of remote weather stations across the country and transmitted to isolated logging camps, island communities, the Arctic and even ships at sea. In 1928, teletype replaced the telegraph for weather communications in Canada.
In the 1930s, weather forecasts for all of Canada except southern British Columbia were issued twice daily by a staff of four meteorologists in Central Office in Toronto at 9:40 a.m. and 9:40 p.m. The forecasts were based on data from over 200 stations across North America and were for the ensuing 36 to 48 hours, and occasionally for as long as 60 hours. In comparison, Environment and Climate Change Canada forecasts are now updated throughout the day and go out in hourly detail for the coming 24 hours and with considerable details as far as 7 days out. In 1935, the weather service provided a daily national weather synopsis and forecast for the 10:35 p.m. Eastern Standard Time broadcasts of the Canadian Radio Commission’s Trans-Canada network - the predecessor of the CBC. From that time on, news and the day’s weather became a central component of radio broadcasts.
During the Second World War, the MSC saw a 30-fold increase in staffing to support training of Allied air crews and the ferrying of aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean to the frontlines. However, government officials banned broadcasting and publishing public weather information over North America, except under exceptional circumstances. For security reasons, mention of fog, visibility, air pressure, wind direction and cloud height were seen as an advantage to the enemy. Even baseball announcers were prohibited from commenting on the weather. One announcer was reputed to have told his audience during a rain delay, “stick your head out the window if you don’t understand the reason for suspension of play.”
Following the war, radio (because reports could be updated so quickly throughout the day) became the natural avenue for disseminating weather information. This continues today as frequent weather broadcasts are made every hour on hundreds of AM or FM radio stations. Starting in 1976, Environment and Climate Change Canada also began transmitting continuous weather broadcasts, which can be received by VHF radios, marine radios, or specific Weatheradio receivers.
From air waves to surfing
Televised weathercasts have remained a popular and effective way of disseminating information about the weather ever since they made their Canadian debut on September 8, 1952 on CBLT-TV in Toronto. In the early days, broadcasters used grease pencils and chalk and puppets as props. Today, most weather segments are illustrated with satellite images, radar loops and computer animation. In 1973, weather information began to be broadcasted on cable television as a public service. But in 1988, the popular and successful The Weather Network and its French language equivalent, MétéoMedia, became Canada’s only channels dedicated to broadcasting weather news, two of just a small number of around-the-clock networks in the world to do so.
Vestiges of the old systems remain, only they’ve been updated and given a modern sheen. Where telephone operators in farming communities in 1900 read morning forecasts to dozens of local residents, Canadians today are much more likely to go online to get their weather. In fact, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Weatheroffice website (Weather.gc.ca) gives anyone in the world computer access to the latest weather readings from across Canada: current forecasts, extended outlooks to seven days, ultraviolet indices, and air quality health risk alerts, among other information. Today, the hugely popular website averages 1.6 million visits per day. It remains the government’s most popular website representing 40% of visits to federal government sites.
Into the 21st century
Throughout its history, the Meteorological Service of Canada has been recognized as one of the most progressive weather services in the world - technologically-advanced, science-based and with real-time service delivery. Its ability to produce high-quality products and services is strongly dependent on the quantity and integrity of the data it is able to acquire by radars, weather balloons, fixed weather stations, buoys in three oceans and on numerous lakes, and even from space where observations from Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation Missions three Earth observation satellites, provides the data needed to produce ice forecasts. Over the past 20 years, the weather service has expanded and twice upgraded its national radar network using state-of-the art Doppler equipment to bring radar coverage for much of Southern Canada and for 98 per cent of the Canadian population. The Canadian lightning detection network, part of a North American-wide system, can detect 200,000 lightning strikes an hour and transmits information to weather centres and clients in real-time. Today’s supercomputer at MSC’s Canadian Centre for Meteorological and Environmental Prediction is among the fastest in the world - 70 million times faster than the Centre’s first supercomputer in the 1970s. Even more eye-popping, the computer’s storage in petabytes would take 15,000 years to download at home.
The need to modernize has never been more important than in disseminating weather information and products. The Meteorological Service of Canada is the official authoritative source of every weather warning in Canada. Each year the Service issues 11,000 severe weather warnings and watches and 1.5 million forecasts. Every meteorologist knows that, no matter how perfect the forecast, if it does not reach the public in time, it has no value to make someone’s life and activity safer, more comfortable, or more profitable. 150 years ago, Canadians had to travel to the post office or some other public building to read the next day’s typed weather forecast posted on a bulletin board. Today, it is a matter of either consulting traditional mass media methods or simply tapping and swiping. Whether you are fishing for lobster in coastal waters off Nova Scotia, commuting on Vancouver’s SkyTrain or Toronto’s subway, or enjoying wilderness camping on the Prairies, the weather forecast and storm warnings come to you in real time with the ease of pressing a button. The explosion of new technology, such as voiced-activated personal assistants that sit on your counter and satellite internet, has provided new opportunities to ensure the public can get weather warnings and information quickly and wherever they might be. With the increased speed of microprocessors, weather enthusiasts can now marshal the same specific tools as practicing meteorologists. Using a laptop, farmers can download the latest radar and satellite images from around the world or check-in with the latest commodity prices. Ship captains in the East can watch as a hurricane is born in the mid-Atlantic and follow its progress as it spirals along the Atlantic seaboard.
Once again, the MSC has been at the forefront ensuring its services are made available through a variety of weather apps, websites and alerting programs. Todays new delivery methods include crawler messages that scroll along the TV screen or weather alarm technology to interrupt automatically radio broadcasts during severe weather. Canada’s new wireless public alerting system features geo-referenced alerts for life threatening conditions. The system worked well on June 2, 2019, surely saving lives, when a tornado outbreak ravaged parts of Ottawa and Gatineau. In 2019, Environment and Climate Change Canada launched WeatherCAN - its first weather app for iPhone and Android mobile phones, providing direct access to weather forecasts and warnings, including a new high-resolution radar animation on a zoomable map background. The free app in both English and French provides current forecasts and alerts for severe weather to users no matter where they are in Canada. MSC’s staff anticipating new technology and future demands are working on new systems for geo-located alerting, interactive databases, and improved map interfaces.
MSC works with its many partners in nearly everything it does. In 1992, Canada was the first country to issue a daily nation-wide ultraviolet (UV) index to warn Canadians about the dangers of over exposure to the sun. In collaboration with Health Canada and the provinces, MSC established the world’s first national Air Quality Health Index, enabling Canadians to learn the health risks associated with current air pollutants and wildfire smoke and to provide protective health advice to reduce the risks. MSC’s meteorologists and hydrologists through the Water Survey of Canada and National Hydrological Service work regularly with local governments and emergency management organizations to ensure communities are prepared for the impacts of severe weather and flooding. In addition, meteorologists and technicians with the Canadian Ice Service, working closely with the Canadian Coast Guard, conduct ice surveillance and forecasting of the Arctic, the Eastern Canadian seaboard, the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. The MSC is also home to Canada’s Hurricane Centre which is part of the Atlantic Storm Prediction Centre in Dartmouth, NS. Meteorologists from MSC also provide specialized meteorological and hydrological services to the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence in Canada and for operational missions overseas around the world.
Today, there is not a single Canadian, whether it be an Indigenous hunter in Igloolik, a hearing-impaired teenager in St. John’s NL or a canola farmer in southern Saskatchewan, who is without access to a weather forecast. Millions of Canadians begin every day by accessing a public weather forecast and acting accordingly.
Reflections on 150 years of weather history
The story of the Meteorological Service of Canada spans a century and half. It is a story about one of the first government-sponsored services and one of the oldest scientific organizations in Canada. It is a story of a Service that has grown into an organization on which Canadians depend for their daily weather forecasts and for other indispensable services in support of economic sectors, health and safety, environmental management and protection, and other crucial activities. The Meteorological Service of Canada is a science-based service delivery organization known the world over for the calibre of its staff and recognized as one of the most progressive weather services in the world.
150 years ago, the orientation of weather services was primarily toward the saving of lives. Today, there are nearly fifteen times the number of Canadians there was in 1871 when the meteorological service began, and today’s demands for more detailed and accurate weather information is continuously increasing. We're still providing storm warnings to shipping on the Great Lakes and the coasts as we did a century and a half ago, but we are doing much, much more! Meteorology has continued to widen its breadth and scope. Today, it plays a central and often decisive role in some of the world's most pressing environmental concerns, such as urban air pollution, ground-level and stratospheric ozone, and anthropogenic climate change.
In such a young country as Canada, it is extremely unusual to find a scientific institution with as much history, purpose, and solid reputation as the Meteorological Service of Canada. We've come a long way since that first weather observation but our underlying mission and motivation continues to be as steadfast as it was in the 1870s.
For a century and a half, our most important resource has been the collective enthusiasm, dedication, and talents of our employees. Much credit should go to the early map plotters, telegraph operators, clerks, technicians, librarians, and to the large support staff over the years that have made an enormous yet often invisible contribution to the Meteorological Service of Canada. Our people are widely recognized as being among the best at what we do; our scientists are among the most innovative in Canada and in the world. Since 1871, Canadian meteorology has progressed from being part of a primitive service with a handful of people using chalk and telegraphs to a world-class service with 1,600 full-time employees, and an absorbing topic for millions. The employees of the Meteorological Service of Canada are proud of their organization and its enduring history. We take great satisfaction in that what we do, and how well we do it matters to every Canadian from coast to coast to coast.
Canadians should be very proud of this grand, old service, celebrating its sesqui-centennial birthday in 2021. The MSC is as vital and relevant today as it was in the beginning, and will continue to evolve to serve Canadians as it always has.
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