S(no)w idea: Why Environment Canada doesn't track snowfall in Windsor

When a snowfall record was (probably) broken Monday in Windsor, Ont., social media comments on CBC's story came in a flurry.

Reports ranged from 15 to 25 centimetres but CBC was unable to verify the city broke the record of 10.4 set in 1984 because Environment Canada no longer tracks snowfall amounts in the region.

"Didn't you know Ontario ends at London," and "This is why I watch Detroit news," were frequent statements from our audience.

So CBC Windsor dug deeper to get the whole story — which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Environment Canada's senior climatologist Dave Phillips, who grew up in Windsor, has been around long enough to know how things have changed. 

"It's a sad point ... I'm always proud of Windsor-Essex County," said Phillips. "The Windsor station, a full observing program, was open since 1940."

Phillips said in the last few years, due to budget cutbacks, many airport monitoring stations across Canada aren't maintained by people anymore, but by automated systems.

Lillian Dajas

Nav Canada has provided weather data on a contract to Environment Canada for years, but changed its Windsor service in November 2018. That site was a 'Contract Weather Office' and has been replaced with an 'Automated Weather Observation System' (AWOS).

As of January, 92 airports in Canada use an automated system.

Robert Hastings-Trew was an observer at the Windsor observation station, employed by ETS Services out of Ottawa, contracted to Nav Canada. When it started to snow, he would record the time it began and then take observation measurements every hour. He sent his report to Nav Canada who then sold that data to Environment Canada.

"We would go out and physically measure the snow with a yardstick," said Hastings-Trew, who, along with three others, lost his job last fall.

Hastings-Trew said it's aggravating and annoying to not have accurate data from Windsor anymore.

"Without that information, you don't have the keeping of records ... the comparative value of keeping records is diminished," said Hastings-Trew. "Is it a record or not?"

According to Nav Canada, the AWOS in Windsor provides the water equivalent of total precipitation, measuring every six hours.

"We don't have a good measure of the amount of snow," said Phillips, adding that the Riverside neighbourhood weather station does monitor snowfall, but it takes about 48 hours to get that data to Environment Canada.

'The problem with snow'

Phillips said it's much trickier to get an accurate figure for snow compared to rain, because of what happens to it when it falls.

"In my preference, I wish they took observations," said Phillips. "That's the problem with snow. By the time you get to measure it, a lot can happen to it ... but we get kind of a ballpark figure," he said.

He said it's "a bit sad" that we don't know how much snow is actually falling.

"It's a disappointment to me, but we understand there is a cost to have human observers," said Phillips. "We have to be aware of that and try to make due."

About the November snow storm

"You got a lot for it being the first storm of the winter," said Phillips. "I would say we got close to 20 centimetres ... in Leamington there was 14 centimetres. One of the snowiest parts of Ontario was the Windsor area."

Phillips got his Windsor data from the CoCoRaHS system, a network of citizen volunteers who measure weather data. Their data won't make it into the official archives and records, something Phillips hopes will change in the future.

A cold record was officially broken for Nov. 13. The low of –15.8 C breaks the previous record from 1986 of –9.9 C.

The record high of 19.2 C set in 1989 was not in danger.