Southern Ontario braces for possible major ice storm

A major ice storm swept through southern Ontario overnight and continues to cause hassles today, both to travel and to the province's power grids, as the freezing rain led to numerous traffic accidents, flight delays and cancellations and has left hundreds of thousands without power this morning.

The mix of rain, freezing rain and snow from Friday already gave southern Ontario a messy start to the weekend. However, the messy conditions became even worse starting late Saturday afternoon as the rain across the province changed over to freezing rain and ice began accumulating on every available outdoor surface. Roads quickly became slick and treacherous, and tree branches began gaining weight with alarming speed. Overnight, those heavy tree branches began crashing down to Earth, causing widespread power outages as they took power lines down with them.

As of Sunday morning, Toronto Hydro is reporting that over 250,000 people have been left without power, and Hydro One is reporting over 100,000 customers are without power in other parts of the province. With the number of outages reported, it could be some time before workers can restore power. Toronto Hydro has given an estimate of at least 72 hours, and hopes to have all power restored by Wednesday.

According to Environment Canada, in addition to what's already fallen over southern Ontario, another 10-15 millimetres of freezing rain is expected throughout the day, and freezing rain warnings have been issued throughout the affected areas.

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Of any major winter weather event, a prolonged period of freezing rain has the potential to be the most disruptive and destructive. Ice-covered roads and sidewalks can make venturing outside for any reason a potentially-dangerous situation, and can lead to accidents and falls, but that's just one concern.

Anyone living in eastern Ontario or southern Quebec who's over the age of 20 can likely remember the infamous 1998 Ice Storm. Thick ice buildup over the week-long storm felled millions of trees and crumpled electrical towers, leaving around four million people without power at the peak of the storm. The office buildings of downtown Montreal shed massive chunks of ice that built up over the week, forcing police to cordon off the area until it was safe to return. Over two dozen people died during the storm, mostly from hypothermia. It took weeks and major reconstruction efforts after the storm to restore power to everyone affected.

The storm passing through tonight won't be as bad as 1998, fortunately. That ice storm developed due to several different weather systems passing through in succession over 8 days, delivering layer after layer of freezing rain buildup. This is just the second of two systems and what follows is a week of clear and cold weather. There will still be dangerous icy conditions for anyone venturing outside tonight and Sunday, and there will also be the danger of power outages. Ice building up on tree branches can bring them down onto powerlines, and ice on powerlines themselves can weigh them down enough to snap them from their poles.

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For anyone that needs to venture out today, authorities are advising caution and leaving extra time for the journey. Remember that traffic lights may be out due to the power outages, and those intersections should be treated as a four-way stop. Those with flights into or out of southern Ontario should check the status of their flight before they leave, as there are numerous delays and cancellations at airports across the affected regions.

(Photo courtesy: The Canadian Press)

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