TALES FROM THE DUMP: A brief history on weather statistics


The coldest temperature ever recorded in Yellowknife was -51.2 C on January 31, 1947. This was only a few years after Yellowknife was founded and they started to keep weather data.

I assume they were using the old mercury style thermometer and that someone had to go outside to read it, so it might have been even a little colder.

There were of course people in the area long before that, but they weren’t recording the weather statistics, so it is quite possible and even likely that the area had experienced even colder temperatures. This is one of the problems we have in Canada and around the world, our weather records really don’t go back very far.

Years ago, I got talking to two fellows in the Gold Range bar. They had built some low-cost housing units for the federal government. The units had frozen up, so they had come up to prove to the local bureaucrats that the building had been properly built to the specifications the government had asked for and the freeze ups weren’t their fault or responsibility.

Some twit in Ottawa had looked at the weather statistic for Yellowknife and had seen that the average January temperature for Yellowknife was -28 C, so that is what they designed for. No more and no less. Unfortunately, when the first -40 C cold snap hit, the units froze up.

The builders had proved this to the government, so they were off the hook for doing any repairs and were even working on a contract to re-insulate the buildings the next summer to withstand -35 C temperatures, which was the new twits’ specifications. Their thinking was the temperature might dip below that, but it would only be for a few hours at night, right? Obviously, they had never lived in the North.

This is one of the reasons I get a little nervous when we get a good cold snap of 40 or 45 below. I know much of the infrastructure and many of the buildings in town just aren’t built for it and the city teeters on the brink of freezing up. Sewers freeze, water lines freeze, vehicles wont start, furnaces quit because of the strain. It can get ugly.

The moral of the tale is that humans and society tend to build the minimum and not worry too much about the maximum. Also, our weather records don’t go back all that far, a few hundred years at best and that’s not long considering the history of the planet. It wasn’t until humans put up weather satellites in the 1960s that they finally got a good look at global weather patterns and trends.

It was only in the 1850s that they started to take detailed methodical thermometer readings. So, when a record cold or hot spell is recorded it’s usually from that date or in the last 170 years. A lot of the older weather information comes from individual reports, tree ring analysis, ice core samples and looking at sediments and the geologic record. It’s there, but the farther back you go the more problematic it gets.

It appears there was a cooling period between 1300 and 1850 AD with marked cold or mini ice ages around 1650, 1770 and 1850 AD. But, there were warm periods as well like when the Norse settled in Greenland in 1200 and at 5600 BC, they figure the Earth was 5 degrees warmer than now. What all of this indicates is that the Earth’s climate is always changing.

So, when I hear some of the fanatics talk about climate change, I sometimes wonder what planet they are from, because it certainly isn’t this one. Human activity certainly influences our natural surroundings and even the weather and the climate, but to trying to blame it all on fossil fuels and carbon is not only incorrect, but fool hardy. It misses the point of just how complex and complicated the Earth’s climate actually is. For those sick of the cold there’s good news … summer is coming.


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