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Western prof compiling Canada's climate history

Carl Hnatyshyn

By Carl Hnatyshyn, Postmedia Network

Western University history professor Alan MacEachern spoke to Lambton Wildlife about 889 boxes of national daily climate observations he discovered in Environment Canada's Downsview facility and how he is using the information to track the nation's climate history. Carl Hnatyshyn/Postmedia Network

Western University history professor Alan MacEachern spoke to Lambton Wildlife about 889 boxes of national daily climate observations he discovered in Environment Canada's Downsview facility and how he is using the information to track the nation's climate history. Carl Hnatyshyn/Postmedia Network

Western University history professor Alan MacEachern took a tour of Environment Canada's Downsview library, located in the heart of Toronto, in 2008.

The facility was where the federal agency kept its historical records.

After touring the upstairs portion of the library, MacEachern went into the library's basement. What he saw left him speechless: row after row of filing cabinets and boxes filled with handwritten meteorological records – many written with dip pens – from 18,000 weather stations located across the country, records that dated back to the 1840s.

“It was a little like the scene at the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he laughed.

Not only did the records contain quantitative information, such as the temperature and levels of precipitation in communities from Vancouver Island to above the Arctic Circle to St. John's, Newfoundland (not part of Canada until 1949) from the 1840s to the 1960s, but each weather-recording form contained a box entitled 'remarks', where observers could place additional information about the weather.

MacEachern said the 'remarks' box was often left blank. In other instances, people used terms such as 'sunny', 'clear', 'plain' and 'cloudy' to describe local weather. But occasionally someone within small army of mostly volunteer weather observers would add their own opinion, providing a detailed snapshot regarding the region's climate.

One observer who lived in Canmore, Alberta in the 1930s spoke about the dust storms enveloping the province. Another observer at the Kilmahumaig weather station in P.E.I. noted the date when the wild geese migrated back in 1884. Yet another observer in Hillside, Ont. in 1888 noted when the first lawnmower was used – a sure-fire sign of spring.

After browsing over some of this qualitative information, MacEachern realized he had stumbled upon a gold mine of information that could potentially provide greater insight into Canada's climate history. The problem was that nobody really wanted these 120 years worth of weather records. Not Environment Canada, nor the national archives.

MacEachern suggested that Western take it off their hands, so that he, his colleagues and students could delve into the material. After some negotiation, the collection of 889 boxes of meteorological records made its way into Western's archives in 2014 as part of a long-term loan.

“Some folks at Environment Canada thought it was priceless, some thought it was worthless,” he said during a recent presentation to Lambton Wildlife members. “Everybody eventually decided it would be better at Western.”

MacEachern said the qualitative parts of the records are key pieces in the puzzle of figuring out how Canada's climate has changed over the past 120 years.

“One thing you can get from the data is information about the changing of the seasons, things like ice breakup or when flowers are blooming or when a bird arrives in the spring,” he said. “So those are kind of hints as to where our climate was 150, 120, 100 years ago.”

Whether observers were noting when the frogs started croaking in Lucknow, Ont., documenting the arrival of birds, caterpillars and trilliums in Lakefield, Ont., or cataloguing when the crops dried out in Oak Lake, Man., all of that information gathered over a long period of time paints a picture of climate change history in Canada, he added.

Beyond that, though, the information also provides an insight into how Canadians over the years have perceived the weather and the natural world that surrounds them.

“The other thing you can get is simply how people thought about and observed nature,” he said. “I think people had different ideas back then – there was a lot more interest in farming in places that you wouldn't think would be interested in farming, like in downtown London, you know, people there would be talking about what farmers were experiencing. I don't think you'd see that today in the same way.”

And occasionally the records also reveal some fascinating aspects of Canada's social history, MacEachern said, something he didn't necessarily expect.

“One of the things I found out, and I didn't know this, certainly up to 1900 people did look for an animal's shadow on Feb. 2. They did not, however, look for a groundhog, they looked for a bear. That was pretty much a nationwide thing because it turns out the whole Feb. 2 thing came from Europe and it evolved differently in different places. In the U.S., Punxsutawney Phil came quite early, then spread across the States, but it didn't arrive in Canada until much later.

“In the early 20th century, you'd see that Canadians started talking about Groundhog Day, but they'd say 'It's Groundhog Day, I wonder if the bear will see its shadow'. And it seems so strange to me,” he said, smiling. “Probably by the Thirties, it became clear that the bear lost and the groundhog won.”

With approximately 42 per cent of the observations already transcribed, MacEachern initially planned to set up a website that would let the public take a look at this immense wealth of historical weather observations. But somewhat ironically, Environment Canada recently informed MacEachern they wanted to start digitizing the material.

Regardless of what happens with the collection, MacEachern said he was struck by how much humanity he discovered by simply reading through weather observations.

“One observation that comes to my mind is there's a woman who had been keeping records for years and at one point she wrote 'we're sick of this, we're sick of farming' – and they were in Saskatchewan – and that was their last observation,” he said. “It was kind of like a Grapes of Wrath story during the Thirties.

“So you definitely see that these observations are being written by real people. That's one of the things I like about the words – you can have a million people writing down numbers and you won't get much of a sense of them, but once you start reading their words, you do get this real sense of who they are.”