Flights cancelled, schools closed, power demands surge amid extreme cold snap in Calgary

Many travellers in Calgary are facing cancellations, delays and long waits for baggage at the airport as frigid temperatures continue to blanket the province. The cold has also closed some schools and pushed power demand to new highs.

Province's electricity system operator issued grid alert Tuesday, Wednesday due to high demand

Clouds of steam rise from a white airplane positioned on a runway marked with snow.
A de-icing station sprays a WestJet Airlines Boeing 737 jetliner prior to its departure at the Calgary International Airport on Monday. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

A blast of cold weather has Calgarians dealing with flight delays and cancellations, school closures and a surge in power demand that resulted in back-to-back grid alerts.

Alberta's frigid temperatures this week prompted the province's electrical system operator to declare grid alerts on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

The daytime high for Wednesday was forecast to be –32 C in Grande Prairie, –27 C in Edmonton and –28 C in Calgary with overnight wind chills making it feel like –40 C.

The Alberta Electric System Operator recorded a new all-time peak demand Monday, but continued extreme cold, high electricity demand and an unplanned power plant outage resulted in the alerts. 

When alerts are issued, the power system is under stress and AESO prepares to use emergency reserves to meet the demand. As the cold weather continues, it's asking consumers to reduce their electricity use or face the possibility of rolling brownouts.

Calgary and much of the surrounding region remain under an extreme cold warning. 

"Furnaces running harder, equipment running harder, more space heaters — all of that combines to push the demand," said Leif Sollid, AESO spokesman, earlier on Tuesday.

The alerts come after Alberta set a new all-time peak electricity demand record on Monday, with 12,187 megawatts of power demand between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. 

The previous record of just under 12,000 megawatts was set in December 2021.

AESO says the province hit a new all-time peak electricity demand record Monday with 12,187 megawatts of power demand between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. (CBC)

Sollid says power can be drawn through the province's interties with B.C. and Montana when needed. AESO has other contingency plans in place, including taking large industrial customers offline so they don't draw on the system.

Albertans can help conserve energy during peak hours — between 4 and 7 p.m. — by not running large appliances, waiting to charge electric vehicles and turning lights off, Sollid said.

Flight delays, cancellations

Many travellers in Calgary are facing long waits at the Calgary International Airport as it deals with an influx of holiday travellers and extreme cold temperatures.

Dozens of arriving and departing flights had been delayed by late Tuesday, according to the airport's website, with more than 45 cancelled arriving flights and more than 40 cancelled departing flights.

"The weather is absolutely extreme," said Chris Miles, vice-president of operations and infrastructure with the Calgary Airport Authority, in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener Tuesday.

"Couple that with some very challenging weather in Vancouver as well and throughout the province of British Columbia … that just compounds into the delays we're seeing here in Calgary this morning."

Mass cancellations are being reported at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) after a major snowfall.

WestJet says snow in British Columbia and the extreme cold in Alberta have caused hundreds of flight cancellations over the past three days.

The airline says in a release that there were 210 cancellations on Tuesday, mainly due to disruptions in Vancouver and frigid temperatures in Calgary and Edmonton.

It says in a release that there were 146 flight cancellations on Monday and 104 on Sunday.

Cold weather constraints

The cold weather has a significant impact on operations at Calgary's airport, Miles says. Machinery needs longer to warm up and run, planes need to be de-iced, and the airport authority is ensuring staff who work outside are staying safe.

Ground handlers are having to rotate in and out of warm areas, he says.

"That has an impact on baggage delivery."

Then there's the sheer volume of travellers. About 50,000 people travel through the airport each day throughout the holidays. 

"Some of the constraints that we've seen throughout the last couple of days is the airlines trying to get their schedules back to what they've committed to deliver over the holiday season," Miles said.

A board shoes the status of flights.
A list of departures at the Calgary International Airport on Monday shows several flights either delayed or cancelled. (CBC)

In emails, both Air Canada and WestJet said they are appropriately staffed.

WestJet said while the ongoing extreme weather is proving challenging, and the company is trying to stabilize operations while keeping crews safe.

"We recognize this has been an incredibly challenging situation for our guests as we navigate limited re-accommodation availability during peak travel time," the Calgary-based company said in a statement. "Safety is our No. 1 priority."

Miles says anyone flying this week should continue to check with their airline to stay up-to-date on delays or cancellations. For domestic flights, arrive at least two hours early, he says, and three hours for international travel.

WestJet is offering full refunds to passengers choosing to proactively cancel their trips while Air Canada says travellers should rebook online if their flight has been scrubbed.

Things should get back to normal when the weather warms up closer to the weekend.

"I'm looking forward to a really stable operation and certainly a good Christmas period as we head into the new year," said Miles.

Demand at shelters

Calgary's shelters are busier than usual as those experiencing homelessness seek refuge from the cold, but staff say there is still room available to meet demand.

The Alpha House Society has about two to five DOAP teams working throughout the city at any given time. They respond to about 50 to 80 calls each day. (Submitted by Alpha House Society)

Shaunda Bruvall with the Alpha House Society said their mobile teams helped to transport about 50 people to shelters Monday night. She says some people prefer to sleep rough, but they try to persuade them to come indoors.

"Shelters are congregate settings, right? They're not homes," she said.

"It's not always the most comfortable for folks, especially if there's maybe trauma in their past.... We work with folks around some of those concerns or some of their anxiety."

The organization's shelter was over capacity Monday night, with similar numbers expected throughout the deep freeze. If they don't have room for someone, Bruvall says they work with their partners to ensure everyone has access to a warm space. 

Closures across region

On Tuesday, the Calgary Catholic School District announced it would close its schools in Airdrie, Chestermere and Cochrane due to the extreme cold. They are open on Wednesday, however bus service was cancelled.

The district's schools in Calgary remain open. 

All CBE schools are open and will remain open until winter break on Dec. 22, said a spokesperson in an email.

The Calgary Zoo has paused its Zoolights holiday display through Thursday night.

The facility itself remains open, says zoo spokesperson Alison Archambault, and its animal welfare team is always watching to ensure animals are comfortable.

"Some of our animals won't have the option to go outside during these super-cold temperatures," she said in an interview with the The Homestretch.

"Other animals that enjoy this weather a bit more — our moose, our cougars, our wolves — you'll see them out and about enjoying the sunshine, but they'll have extra bedding and extra calories to make sure they're warm while they're doing it."

Lots of people are seen outside at a ski resort on an overcast day.
Some lifts at Lake Louise Ski Resort remain open. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Some ski hills also remain closed due to extreme cold.

WinSport at Canada Olympic Park extended its closure through Thursday. Nakiska Ski Resort is also closed to keep staff and skiers safe, said Matt Mosteller with Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which operates the hill.

"It is unusual, but, you know what, we have extreme cold happen, usually a short duration, each winter," he said. 

Sunshine Village Ski Resort is closed as well, while Mount Norquay and Lake Louise Ski Resort have some lifts open. Specific updates can be found on each hill's website.

With files from Karina Zapata, Rick Donkers, Ellis Choe, Colleen Underwood and The Canadian Press