Record-breaking storm blasts Nunavut, 135 km/h winds rip off stairs and crush cabins

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IQALUIT — Pangnirtung mayor Eric Lawlor couldn't see out his windows on Sunday.

That's when a record-breaking blizzard hit the Baffin Island community of about 1,500, shaking houses and crushing cabins.

Environment and Climate Change Canada says Sunday's storm brought record wind gusts and heavy snow to communities across Nunavut. In Pangnirtung, winds reached 135 km/h that day.

"It was like an all day thing. The wind was so strong," Lawlor said.

Sky Panipak, who also lives in Pangnirtung, posted a photo to Twitter of one resident's home where the front steps were torn clean from the door.

"Many shacks and cabins are gone. Many, many snowmobile windshields are gone. Some injuries we have heard of so far," Panipak said, noting one resident had been medevaced to a southern hospital after being injured in the storm.

Sara Hoffman, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the Dec. 27 storm affected most of the territory. Out of 25 communities, 23 were hit by the same storm, which came up from Quebec.

Hoffman said her team is looking into whether Sunday was a record-breaking day for such a storm in the territory.

"It's pretty unusual for a storm like that this late in December. We don't typically see that," Hoffman said.

Lawlor said much of the storm's damage affected Government of Nunavut housing. Right now, he said the hamlet's priority is to keep the roads clear so people can get out of their homes.

He said it's not unusual for Pangnirtung to see high winds, but they usually hit the community in the summer and fall months when the weather is warmer.

"We're used to getting 70 to 90 km winds. During the summer it's just as bad. A number of years ago we even had a vehicle that was flipped over because of the wind," Lawlor said.

Hoffman explained that open water fuels storms, mixing cold weather with warmth from the water to create winds like the ones Pangnirtung saw Sunday.

"When Hudson Bay has open water, that is a major source of energy for storms ... Parts of those areas stay ice-free longer and longer now," she said.

Hoffman said cold weather from the northwest and warmer weather from the southeast collided to create the weekend blizzard that traveled across most of the territory, which set up the "perfect storm" for especially strong winds.

Pangnirtung set a new record Sunday for the highest recorded temperature in the community on Dec. 27, with a high of 4 C. The last record of -3.5 C was set in 2000.

Hoffman also said Pangnirtung, which is nestled in a fiord and surrounded by mountains, is the ideal place for a blizzard to brew.

"When they get a prevailing wind direction set up just right, the surrounding terrain can actually enhance that," she said.

Hoffman said Coral Harbour, in the north end of Hudson Bay, was also hit hard by the same blizzard, with winds up to 115 km/h. Winds also reached 120 km/h in Kimmirut and 80 km/h in Iqaluit that day.

Two days later, there were still blizzard warnings in effect for Gjoa Haven and Grise Fiord.

"It's much weaker than it was on (Sunday), but we still have alerts out for it because it was such a powerful storm," Hoffman said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Dec. 29, 2020.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press