Forecasting Storm Strength: Stormageddon and the Snowpocalypse

How many times in the past few years have you heard news reports about the oncoming storm that will shut down all roads and highways, and keep everyone inside until the plows can finally dig you out? How many times has the promise of a day home from work and school been left unfulfilled, with only some light snow in place?

These days, the news reports gleefully foretell the oncoming Snowpocalypse, or a weather front about to bring Stormageddon unto us all. It seems all the weather channels want to talk about, and it carries over to radio morning shows. In some areas of North America, this is sometimes taken to ludicrous lengths:


Obviously, media coverage isn't a sure sign of snow, just as the lack of this coverage isn't necessarily a sign that it isn't coming. So what's the best way to decide if it's really worth going out on the roads, or if it's time to batten the hatches and stay at home? There are a few good resources that can help you judge for yourself.

  1. Try looking outside at the street. If you live on a side street which isn't yet plowed, it may not indicate what the major roads are like, but if it looks like your car isn't getting down the street, it's best to stay put.
  2. Radar maps. This shows what kind of snowfall is currently happening in your region. Most weather sites provide a forecast, where the track of the storm is extrapolated, so you can see where the storm is likely to hit. What kind of intensity is it? Light, steady snow for hours and hours, or a short but intense dumping over just a few hours? Is it a widespread system, or narrow?
  3. Twitter. Hashtags such as #onstorm can give general information on the storm, but it's likely that people you follow are also talking about it. They may provide useful advice as to current road conditions. Local news and traffic radio stations also post information regarding accidents and road closures.
  4. Remember that it's not just snow to be concerned about. Extreme icy conditions can occur without vast quantities of snow.

If you are out and about in dangerous road conditions, try slowing down a bit. It's extremely likely that all those cars in ditches weren't taking the conditions into account with their driving. Give yourself lots of space to stop.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go clear the snow from my driveway. Again.

Socialist Snowplows and the Minimum Standards of Capitalism

There have been a few amusing images circling on the internet, with captions along the lines of "A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?" Or "Evil socialism at work".

Evil Socialism at Work

The idea is cute, and the phrase "socialist snowplows" is certainly memorable. But while this cheekily aimed at "small government" supporters, most snow removal services are very much an example of contract services with more of a focus on the bottom line, rather than the public good.

In Ontario, different levels of government are responsible for different levels of roads, and different minimum standards apply. Provincial highways are handled by the provincial government, while municipal roads are handled by the municipalities. While some cities and municipalities may own and run their own fleet, other areas, including many provincial areas are contracted out to third party contractors.

A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?

There are primarily two ways in which snow removal contracts can be negotiated.

  1. Variable cost, where the contractor would issue an invoice for every time the roads receive maintenance.
  2. Fixed cost contract, where the contractor performs all maintenance necessary.

In reality, there may be some mixture of the two. It's a means of assigning the risk associated with winter weather. On a snowy year, the fixed cost contracts protect the governing body from excess costs, at the expense of the contractor. In a relatively snow-free year, a fixed cost contract provides a bonus to the contractor, while the budget of the governing body remains fixed in advance.

While this can control costs, it does affect service. Only when road conditions are to a certain point, usually defined by snow depth, will the snow plows need to be sent out. The ministry of Transportation has posted their MTO Winter Maintenance plans, which shows that there are different time standards to each bare pavement.

MTO sets performance targets for snow and ice control to achieve the bare pavement standard after the end of the storm. The bare pavement standard for each class of highway is:

  1. Eight hours for freeways and multi-lane highways, e.g. Highway 401, Queen Elizabeth Way, Highway 11 and four-lane sections (Class 1).
  2. Sixteen hours for high traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 17 Trans-Canada (Class 2).
  3. Twenty-four hours for medium traffic volume, two-lane highways, eg. Highway 35 (Class 3).
  4. Twenty-four hours to centre bare for low volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 516 (Class 4).
  5. Some highways with low traffic remain snow packed for most of the winter (Class 5). On Class 5 highways, excess snow is plowed off and sand is applied to improve friction.

The North Bay Nippissing News talks about these bare minimum standards as well. talking specifically about the frequency that the roads are plowed during a snow event. They quote a Ministry of Transportation source as follows:

The circuit time for a Class 3 highway is 3.3 hours; therefore, once the contractor commences plowing upon the accumulation of two centimetres of snow, the plow continuously services its defined plow route every 3.3 hours until the winter event ends and roads conditions have been restored.

Note that it doesn't matter at what rate the snow is falling. While the snow event continues, those plows are on a 3.3 hour rotation. If the snow event continues for many hours, there can be significant snow accumulation on the roads until the next plow goes through. But if that's what the regulations state is required, that's what those roads will get. As the North Bay Nippissing News says:

A 60 km stretch of provincial highway gets plowed once every three-and-a-half hours – that’s the standard. Not the patrol yard will decide how to respond to weather conditions or the ministry expects every effort will be made to make sure there doesn’t become more than two inches of snow on the road or that actual road conditions have any connection to response. In other words, it’s not about safety. It’s about minimum standards – bare minimum standards.

When the road contracts are awarded to companies based outside of the community, on a for-profit basis, why should we assume that these companies would go beyond the minimum standards set out in the contracts? With no ties to the community, but with a real impact on their bottom line, there is no real incentive to maintain the roads to a higher standard.

So while you may joke about the socialist snowplows from the comfort of your home or office, for those who need to travel during adverse conditions, public safety plays second fiddle to economics. So while those snow plows are provided for the benefit of the public, paid for by public tax dollars, even here, capitalist economics is very much at play.


Last Wednesday was supposedly going to be a really big snowstorm, if you believed the weather reports. It was one of the top stories throughout southern Ontario. It probably hit somewhere hard, because when it finally arrived in Waterloo Region, it was a light dusting. The most annoying thing about the snowfall was the duration. A tiny dusting spread over what seemed like 18 hours eventually adds up to something worthwhile, and it also tended to cause snow removal efforts to stall, as the snowplows continued up and down the major routes. All the other roads in the region were slippery and icy. As Shakespeare writes in Henry the Fourth, Part 1: "The better part of valor is discretion" (V.4.118-119). I followed Falstaff's example, and counterfeited being at the office. That is, I decided it would be best to work from home. The VPN is a technological marvel.

Yesterday was a different matter. While I was aware that there might be snow, the weather reports I remember only expected around 1cm. So I was a little surprised to look out the window and see that around 10cm had already fallen, with another 5 to follow before it finished. Perhaps the difference was that this new snowfall occurred on a weekend, or maybe the forecasters didn't want to create a panic again. Either way, there didn't seem to be much coverage of the event until well after the snow had started. Really, it's all just part of winter. Neither event seemed out of the ordinary. Now we seem to have about the average snowfall for this area.

This snow fell in a much shorter period of time, and was considerably thicker and heavier than that which fell earlier in the week. Today, I was out clearing the snow, just like earlier in the week. On my stretch of street, five of the neighbours were also out with snowblowers or shovels, clearing everything off. Alas, it was not a snow event day in Kitchener, so someone was parked on the street when the plow came by, leaving a mess on the road.

I'm reminded of how awesome it is to have a wide lot, as well as a snowblower. All of my excess snow can be shot twenty feet into my yard. My snowbanks are three feet high, while some neighbours with narrower lots have banks seven feet high, threatening collapse onto their driveways.

I also took some extra time to remove all the snow the plow piled on top of the fire hydrant. Not only is it a legal requirement to keep it cleared, but it's also good sense. You really don't want there to be any extra difficulties should the fire department ever need to use them. Sadly, from a drive through the neighbourhood early this afternoon, I'm one of the few people who have done so.