Toronto-area residents warned against 'non-essential travel' as thundersnow reported in city

Cars drive during a snow storm in Toronto on Friday. Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning for much of southern Ontario.  (Arlyn McAdorey/Canadian Press - image credit)
Cars drive during a snow storm in Toronto on Friday. Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning for much of southern Ontario. (Arlyn McAdorey/Canadian Press - image credit)

Toronto residents heard thunder and saw bolts of lightning on Friday night as an intense snowstorm swept through the city.

According to weather experts, it's a relatively rare phenomenon called thundersnow.

"It's definitely happening," David Rodgers, meteorologist for Environment Canada, said in an interview on Friday night.

"We've seen a few strikes in our office here. It is pretty rare for a winter storm to have lightning in it."

Rodgers said people saw lightning in the storm across southwestern Ontario, from Windsor and Sarnia to London through Kitchener to Toronto.

"It's a novelty. It's something neat to watch. But it's the heavy snow that is coming along with it that is the main concern."

'Dangerous travel conditions'

In its winter storm warning that was still in place for Toronto at 10 p.m., Environment Canada said the snow is expected to reduce visibility significantly and between 20 and 30 centimetres is expected on Friday into early Saturday. The snow could fall at a rate of five to eight centimetres per hour, leading to possible isolated power outages.

"Significant winter storm with dangerous travel conditions expected tonight," reads the winter storm warning for Toronto.

The snow is expected to end on Saturday morning.

The federal weather agency said it was discouraging "non-essential travel" due to the heavy and blowing snow and the most dangerous time to travel was between 9 p.m. and midnight.

Colette Kennedy, CBC News meteorologist, said thundersnow can be dangerous.

"One of the dangers is that the snow actually dulls, or muffles the sound.  So though you may see it from farther afield, if you hear it, you are likely within a few hundred metres of it," she said.

Robert Krbavac/CBC
Robert Krbavac/CBC

Crashes reported across GTA

The Ontario Provincial Police, meanwhile, said its collision reporting centres were busy on Friday night.

Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, spokesperson for the OPP's Highway Safety Division, said there have been "crashes coming in across the region."

Schmidt urged residents not to drive if they don't have to do so. If they must drive in the next 12 hours, do it with "extreme care and caution," he said.

Toronto police said they were also encouraging motorists to drive to the conditions and slow down.

WestJet cancels flights out of Pearson Airport

The storm prompted a number of cancellations.

In a tweet on Friday, WestJet said it was cancelling all flights arriving and departing from Pearson International Airport as of 8 p.m. ET due to the storm.

The cancellations will continue until Saturday morning, depending on conditions, the airline added.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), meanwhile, urged travellers to check their flights before leaving for the airport, saying they should expect delays and cancellations.

"GTAA staff at Toronto Pearson are focused on making sure we have appropriate staffing for our areas of responsibility, which includes snow clearing, operation of the airport's baggage infrastructure and in-terminal support staff," it said in a statement.

In a tweet later, it added: "Delays are possible as our ground crews work hard in these challenging conditions to ensure the safety of passengers."

Patrick Morrell/CBC
Patrick Morrell/CBC

Steven Flisfeder, meteorologist for Environment Canada, said about travel on Friday night: "If you can delay until tomorrow, that is advised. If you have the opportunity to get somewhere sooner before those hours, that's also advised. And if you don't have to be out, stay home."

Library branches now closed

The Toronto Public Library closed all of its branches at 6 p.m. on Friday. The branches will be closed on Saturday as well.

The City of Toronto said on Saturday it will:

  • Close all of its community recreation centres.

  • Close all 10 Toronto History museums.

  • Close all four cultural centres.

  • Cancel all permits and programs.

The city's museums, along with the Cedar Ridge Cultural Centre and the Clark Centre for the Arts, will reopen on Sunday.

TTC cancels subway closure, adds buses

The TTC said it is cancelling a planned weekend subway closure on Line 3 and adding 50 buses on Friday and Saturday on 11 routes that see many riders on weekends.

The routes are primarily in Scarborough, the west end of Toronto and North York. Corridors include Jane Street, Finch Avenue West, Dufferin Street, Lawrence Avenue East and West, and Markham Road.

The TTC said it took 41 bus stops out of service Friday afternoon. A full list is available here.

Shuttle buses are now running on Line 3,  Scarborough SRT.

The TTC is also doing the following:

  • Anti-icing and snow clearing protocols are in place in all bus, streetcar and subway divisions.

  • Some subway trains will be stored in tunnels along the main lines to avoid issues getting out of the yards

  • The streetcar overhead network and vehicles have been treated with an anti-icing application.

  • Private contractor tow trucks are ready to assist with any trapped vehicles and the TTC's fleet of snow-clearing equipment will be deployed if needed.

Crews on standby to clear roads, city says

Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said Friday morning the city is ready to keep its some 5,700 kilometres of roadways clear of snow.

But as a precaution, residents are encouraged to take public transit if possible and avoid parking on major streets to make it easier for staff to use snow clearing equipment.

"City crews are on standby, ready to clear roads and sidewalks across the city to keep residents safe," she said.

Crews already applied liquid salt brine to expressways and priority locations like bridges, steep hills and priority intersections to prevent ice from forming, she added. The city says it will start salting as soon as the snow starts to stick to the ground.

The plows will start operating if the snow reaches:

  • 2.5 centimetres on expressways.

  • Five centimetres on major roads, transit routes and streets with hills.

  • Eight centimetres on residential streets.

Sidewalk and separated bike lane clearing will begin when the snow reaches two centimetres.

And after the snow stops, the city says it'll move to snow collection and removal — a rare operation, but one that is warranted when there's simply too much left on sidewalks and roads after a storm.

"Anticipate that this is gonna be a multi-day event," said Vince Sferrazza, director of operations and maintenance.

"We ask all our residents please be patient, to please wait until they can submit a request to 311 to bring to our attention any particular issue."

The city will open three warming centres on Friday at 7 p.m., namely Scarborough Civic Centre, Mitchell Field Community Centre and Cecil Community Centre.

The city's fourth warming centre, at Metro Hall, is currently open and daytime drop-in programs are available, the city says.