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Six kinds of freaky winter weather

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, March 2, 2014, 8:52 PM -

If you asked them, most Canadians might tell you this winter has been cooler and snowier than most.

We won't know how this season stacks up until it's over, but there's certainly been no shortage of frigid temperatures and snowstorms.

And along with those seasonal staples, from time to time, winter will throw a few curve balls - some dangerous and destructive, others just bizarre-looking.

Here are six kinds of freaky winter weather.


This one sounds very specific, but it has a few different incarnations, with varying degrees of scariness.

The one below, for example, is actually quite pretty, viewed at a safe distance.

That footage was captured in December last year on Lake Superior. It seemed around 20 of them formed over time, shimmering in and out of tangibility.

Lake-dwellers in Canada and the United States alike are familiar with waterspouts, but it’s very rare to see one that late, and it's the wintery conditions that give the appearance of a vortex of snow.

The explanation isn’t too out-of-this world. In fact, they form just like regular waterspouts (if not as often): Cool (in this case, bitterly cold) air passes over the comparatively warmer lakes. Add a bit of wind shear to the rising air, and voila: Rotation.

It’s much rarer to see such things on land, but they do happen. In fact, on November 23, 2013 – VERY late in the season – a tornado rated EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale was reported near Prescott, Ont., in a driving blizzard and sub-zero temperatures.

Then there’s the snowy equivalent of dust devils, sometimes called snow devils, like this one encountered on a ski lift near Revelstoke, B.C. in early 2010:

That one seemed to have happened in broad daylight and bright sunshine, nowhere near a large body of water. Another one, in the region of Buryatia, in eastern Russia, also took place in seemingly calm conditions:

Those ones are even rarer, but still have rational explanations, and the bright sun in a good clue. It beats down on darker surfaces like rocks, causing a slightly warmer updraft of air. 

With a strong enough crosswind, rotation happens, and you have yourself a snowy twister. 

We've never heard of anyone being injured or killed by one, but still, rule of thumb when you encounter a violent-looking weather phenomenon you've never seen before: Keep a safe distance.

Frost quakes

Here’s something probably almost no one had ever heard of before December’s ice storm and numbing deep freeze in eastern Canada: Frost quakes.

Emergency lines and social media lit up with reports of loud bangs deep in the night. Were they car crashes? Earthquakes? Nobody knew, not because frost quakes aren’t possible or are a new phenomenon, but because they’re super rare and require a very specific set of circumstances.

Specifically, there needs to be moisture seeped into the ground, either in the form of groundwater or water from rain or freezing rain, followed by a sharp decrease in temperatures from above zero, to well, well below it.

The result – as happened across southern Ontario and parts of the northern United States in December – is a cryoseism, the splitting of earth or rock by expanding underground water ice.

They’d been known to happen in the past, but probably not as widespread as in December 2013. 

Much to the relief of people who heard them, they’re not at all like “regular” earthquakes, which involve the sometimes catastrophically destructive movement of tectonic plates. So they won’t swallow your house, but it seems they can fracture asphalt:

The guy in that report doesn't sound super happy about the damage to his road, but he can take comfort in frost quakes' rarity, and the fact it could be much, MUCH worse.

Ice shoves

It’s almost bizarre to hear this tsunami of ice tinkling like a tangled mass of displaced wind chimes as it pushes its way slowly, but unstoppably, onto the shore.

Odd that something that moves so slowly could be so scary, but even just looking at it, you know there’s serious power behind that frozen flow, shot last spring on the shores of Minnesota’s Mille Lacs lake.

Onlookers are more likely to call them ice tsunamis than by their meteorological term: “Ice shoves.” They’re caused when strong winds push large chunks of lake ice toward the shore. The larger pieces bump up against smaller pieces, a knock-on effect whose inertia can force these ice shelfs well onto land – around 25 m in the Minnesota case.

The folks in the video above got off lightly. Aside from some living room damage, and a few wrecked boathouses, damage was light. Not so for residents of the small Manitoba community of Ochre Lake:

You can see in a few shots in the video above how high that ice shove got, tall enough engulf whole houses, spilling over roofs and pushing through rooms. 

No one was hurt, but 13 homes were destroyed, and 27 damaged, many of them the dream cottages of owners dumbfounded as to how this destructive event could happen. Many had only just cleaned up the damage from flooding in 2011.

It’s not clear how common ice shoves are, but people whose property has been wrecked by one would certainly say they’re way too common as it is.

NEXT PAGE: Boulder-sized snow doughnuts

Ice Balls

Here’s another nickname for the Great Lakes: God’s cereal bowl. At least, that’s what it looked like when this video was uploaded to YouTube and started making the rounds on the Internet:

Called “ice boulders,” they happen when small chunks of ice break off from main floes on the Great Lakes in freezing water. The motion of the wind and waves causes them to turn gently over, with a fresh coating of ice every time. 

The layers just keep piling on, one after the other, until you’re left with those balls of ice in the video up above. They can grow to be larger than a basketball, and weigh more than 35 kg.

According to people in Michigan, where the ones above were filmed, they’re not at all rare, and they’re certainly a hit with photographers and dog walkers:

The reason they went viral this past winter was, when the top video was shot, it was early January and the eastern United States and Canada were in the grip of frigid Arctic air, and it seemed to everyone that mother nature had taken a really weird turn.

In fact, those ice balls, larger than the normal variety, were the most benign of the deep freeze’s effects. Between closed businesses, stay-at-homes, energy costs, along with the effect on river traffic of frozen waterways, the economic damage of January’s extreme cold was estimated at around $5 billion in the United States alone.

Snow rollers

From icy cereal to snowy doughnuts, images of these curious confection-like constructions popped up all over the Internet in the first frigid weeks of 2014.

And unlike the ice boulders up above, “snow rollers” are quite uncommon, since they need a highly specific set of circumstances for them to form. Basically: You need a few centimetres of snow to fall on otherwise icy ground, or a layer of crusty snow. 

Then you need strong winds to scoop out a small chunk, and then stay strong enough to roll it over and over, accumulating more layers along the way.

Unlike snowballs, which are more spherical due to the irregular way we humans roll them, snow rollers are cylindrical, with outer layers being thicker than inner layers, such that eventually the inside will crumble away, or be blown out, giving that doughnut shape.

They can get really big, too. Highway maintenance workers in Washington State spotted one that was 60 cm across, twice the length of your average ruler, with a hole around 20 cm, but they can theoretically get even larger than that, though they seem to range between bowling ball to baseball-sized.

Like those snow boulders, the rollers' appearance in the public mind was due to ongoing coverage of the freezing and stormy weather across the United States, with reports of sightings in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

They made headlines internationally, but of course, those conditions aren’t limited to the United States. Here’s a shot of some rollers in Dawson Creek, B.C., sent in by viewer Ryan MacLeod:

Image: Ryan MacLeod.

Image: Ryan MacLeod.

As far as signs of the snowpocalypse go, they’re certainly the more playful variety.

GOT A COOL SHOT? Send it to us by logging onto our website, and browse the best of viewer submitted photos here.

Niagara Falls stops flowing

You might have heard the story, and it was cold enough that most people would have been happy to believe it: In January, the temperature plunged so low that the iconic Niagara Falls froze over completely.

It wasn’t true – the falls had only partly frozen, as they often do in the wintertime, when ice builds up on the edges and banks and an "ice bridge" forms in the river below. 

It would take civilization-ending levels of cold to cause the falls to actually freeze solid: The American side sees half-a-million litres of water flow over every second, and more than 2.2 million litres on the Canadian side.

But as it happens, cold weather did once cause the falls to run dry, just not because they froze solid.

In late March 1848, the gargantuan flow of water subsided to a near-trickle for around 30 hours, thanks to a massive ice jam up-river.

People actually ventured out onto the rocky riverbed to recover items lost to the waters over the years, before a huge wall of water roared down the channel and restored the falls to their glory.

Braver than us for sure, and personally, we wouldn’t really have been able ot enjoy ourselves on such a jaunt. We’d have been too weighed-under by the crushing sense of foreboding that, any minute now, millions of litres of water would come racing down the channel and sweep us into scenic oblivion.

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