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Six devastating ice storms from Idaho to the U.K.

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Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, December 22, 2013, 7:40 PM -

The ice storm currently ravaging Eastern Canada is one of the worst seen in fifteen years, with hundreds of thousands of people out of power and ice accretions of more than 40 mm reported in parts of southern Ontario and Quebec.


STORM WATCH: Tune into The Weather Network on TV for continued updates on this storm.


When ice storms like this happen, they can be deadly, devastating events that define a generation.

Here are six of the worst on record.

1951: Tennessee Nashville

We imagine the southern United States as a relatively balmy place compared to Canada, but that part of the country has been the scene of some catastrophic ice storms over the decades.

Older folks in Nashville, Tennessee probably still tell stories about the one that struck the city in January and February of 1951.

Image: Government of Tennessee

Image: Government of Tennessee

Several inches of sleet was already on the ground by the time the snows came, and when the temperatures began to plummet (as low as -25C), the daily freeze-thaw just became one big deep freeze, with a total of 25 cm of ice and snow covering the city’s streets and sidewalks.

Around 16,000 homes and 80,000 people were in the dark – and people in new electric-only homes were forced to take refuge elsewhere as electric stove tops and furnaces became useless. It took ten days for the city’s power and communications infrastructure to be useable again.

Image: Government of Tennesseee.

Image: Government of Tennesseee.

Nashville was the hardest hit, but that ice storm and blizzard covered several states from Louisiana to West Virginia. It caused 25 deaths, more than 500 injuries and around $100 million in damages, unadjusted for inflation.

1961: Idaho

If this shot of Idaho’s Palouse region is anything to go by, the western state is certain to be scenic in the wintertime.

Image: Charmar/WC

Image: Charmar/WC

If the records about the ice storm that slammed the region Jan 1 to 3 in 1961 are true, those hills might have been even more sparkly in the sun, thanks to reported accumulations of 25 cm of ice. That’s not a mixture, that’s just ice.

That kind of ice must have caused major damage to power infrastructure. We don’t have total numbers of outages, but this source says power companies in the state were forced to redesign future generators to guard against this kind of weather.

Although the total ice accumulation figures are definitely impressive, this source isn’t super keen on it, pointing out a good chunk of the ice would have coalesced due to days of fog and sub-zero temperatures, rather than coming from the storm itself.

1998: Quebec and Ontario

For people in Canada, this is THE ice storm – one of the worst in North American history.

Over six days, dozens of millimetres of freezing rain fell from Georgian Bay to the Maritimes – 80 hours’ worth in hardest-hit eastern Ontario and Quebec, where Montreal received 100 mm and Ottawa got 85, with maximum reported ice accumulations of 12 cm.

Image: Environment Canada

Image: Environment Canada

The sheer amount of ice – twice as much as previous records set for the area – demolished the power infrastructure of Canada’s most populous provinces. 1,000 transmission towers and 30,000 utility poles toppled beneath the weight of the ice.

And the human cost? At least 25 deaths, many due to hypothermia. A million households in the two provinces were without power, some for weeks later. 100,000 people were forced into shelters.

Image: Deb/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Deb/Wikimedia Commons

To this day, it remains a catastrophic weather event permanently etched into Canada’s cultural memory.

2008: Northeastern United States

Although accumulations in this storm were much less, the timing and location were crucial.

First starting on Dec 12, this storm struck New England and Upstate New York, a densely populated series of states, right when the Christmas rush season was just getting underway.

Image: Julian Colton/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Julian Colton/Wikimedia Commons

Four people were killed, and more than a million people were in the dark as ice-laden power lines snapped, and transportation was shut down as roadways and rail tracks were coated in ice and obscured by fallen branches – all this at a time when businesses were in dire need of ways to get their goods to the burgeoning holiday market.

A rapid warm-up pushed temperatures up well past the zero-degree mark, but even so, four days later there were still hundreds of thousands of power, and it took more than a week to restore full service to New Hampshire, which was the hardest-hit.

Image: Daniel Case/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Daniel Case/Wikimedia Commons

And as bad as it seemed, there was worse yet to come.

2009: Southern United States

The New England storm just a few weeks prior must have seemed like the worst that could happen, until just a few weeks later.

Several southern and midwestern states shivered in an ice storm that left 55 people dead nationwide.

Kentucky was the worst hit, with an estimated death toll of 25, along with 700,000 people without power. Even several days later, 300,000 remained in the dark, and rural areas had to wait weeks for full restoration.

Total reported outages were 1.3 million in multiple states. In Arkansas, 30,000 power poles were reported downed, while in Missouri, the number of power lines that were snapped totaled around 100 km.

Image: Amanelle/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Amanelle/Wikimedia Commons

It has a pretty good claim at being the United States’ worst ice storm in the 21st Century, in terms of death toll.

2009-2010: United Kingdom and Europe

Later in 2009, it was the U.K.’s turn.

A massive deep freeze brought freezing rain and snow to the British Isles – the coldest temperature recorded was -23C, with the deepest snow accumulation 57 cm.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Britain is much smaller than the U.S., but it is also much more densely populated, so in that relatively small area, substantial amounts of ice, coupled with the snow, nearly crippled the country. Trains and roadways were shut down, tens of thousands of air travelers were delayed and 12,000 schools were shut.

Aside from the death toll – an estimated 25 people, with the conditions possibly contributing to tens of thousands more that winter – the economic damage was enormous. This source estimated an estimated $3.5 billion total economic impact, not just from transportation being so difficult but also due to work absenteeism. This source estimated around 2,000 businesses might not have failed due to the weather conditions.

On the continent, it was just as bad. Transportation chaos was near-universal northern and central Europe, with hundreds dead, mostly homeless people who had nowhere to get in out of the cold.

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