Nova Scotia

Why a nasty snowstorm following the Halifax Explosion came as a surprise

The day after the explosion, a major snowstorm dumped about 40 centimetres of snow on the levelled city.

Chilly temperatures and lots of snow complicated relief efforts

The aftermath of the Halifax Explosion is shown in this 1917 file photo. (The Canadian Press)

Surviving winter's worst in the Maritimes can be a challenge in the best of times, but being left homeless, blind, in chaos and blanketed by 40 centimetres of snow after the worst pre-nuclear explosion is somewhat unthinkable.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, on a calm morning in the wartime port city of Halifax, an unprecedented explosion shocked the region. The blast almost instantaneously destroyed hundreds of homes, killed nearly 2,000 people and injured about 9,000 others in the Halifax area.

To make matters worse, a storm following the explosion was already in the works — and nobody knew about it.

Based on weather reports from 1917, these are what the estimated snowfall amounts were for Dec. 7, 1917, the day after the Halifax Explosion. (CBC)

On the morning of the disaster, an area of low pressure crossed northern Florida, moving from the Gulf of Mexico into the southwestern Atlantic ocean. As it moved northward, the perfect conditions for a nor'easter developed — which was exactly what happened.

But 100 years ago, there were no satellites, so meteorology relied almost solely on ground observations. The problem was the great post-explosion storm of 1917 tracked far enough away from the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard that there was little warning for Nova Scotia.

On the morning of Dec. 7, snow began to fall on the ruins of Halifax.

A look at 1917's post-explosion snowstorm

5 years ago
Duration 0:58
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1917, snow began to fall on the ruins of Halifax.

By the afternoon, temperatures dropped to –4 C as the winds intensified from the northwest to 55 km/h, with gusts over 90 km/h, producing wind chills of –15 C. A combination of blowing and drifting snow gave blizzard-like conditions, and by the end of day, 40 centimetres of snow had fallen over the city.

Although relief efforts had already gotten underway the day before, thousands were still injured and homeless, trapped under rubble. To complicate things, the jammed relief trains from Boston and Eastern Canada were delayed by snow-covered train tracks near the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border.

Luckily, as is still the case today, storms bring communities together, so even though the post-explosion storm of 1917 was nature's best attempt at kicking a city when it was already down, Halifax pulled together and got right back up.