Wild Canadian Weather
We wear our weather like a badge of honour, especially if it’s extreme. New 5-part series takes us across the country to celebrate the beauty and the majesty of Canadian weather.
Magali Côté walks across a remote frozen lake in the Rocky Mountains with an air of calm confidence. The only sounds are the ice crunching under her cleats and the wind whistling through the valley. When she finds just the right spot, she punches a hole in the ice with hand tools and pulls out a giant ice chunk with a rope. She then turns and free-falls backward into the void, sending a splash of slushy water into the air.
The under-ice free diver, one of only a few in Canada, explores the eerily silent underwater world, getting into what she describes as a life-changing “Zen zone.” Despite the frigid and dangerous conditions, she can spend up to two hours under the ice.
“My mom always pushed me to go outside and play outdoors,” Côté said after the dive. “Even if it was -40 [C], I had to go out. I really believe this is what forged my adulthood.”
Côté’s experience is one of dozens of examples of how people and wildlife enjoy, endure and harness the elements in a new five-part series from The Nature of Things about Canadians’ favourite topic of conversation: the weather.
Wild Canadian Weather takes viewers across the country to witness the dramatic weather events that shape our landscapes and our lives, from the torrential downpours that feed the rainforests on the West Coast to the powerful windstorms that bring people together for storied parties on the East Coast.
Through episodes about cold, rain, wind and sun and the making of the series, we get a first-hand look at how weather can be friend and foe. Underpinning everything is the fact that climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense.
“Cold, rain, wind and sun have huge impacts on people and wildlife,” said series producer Jeff Turner. “Wild Canadian Weather is an intimate and dramatic exploration of life in one of the most intense and challenging climates on the planet. This series gives Canadians even more reason to talk about the weather.”
The all-Canadian conversation starter
Whether you’re getting a haircut, taking a cab or calling a loved one in another part of the country, the weather is a reliable conversation starter.
“Americans have Hollywood, and the Brits have the Royals, but we’ve got weather to keep us entertained and talking,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “We both love it and hate it at the same time.”
Phillips has been educating Canadians about weather and climate for over 50 years, earning him the moniker “Canada’s weatherman.” Over his career, he’s learned that Canadians have an insatiable appetite for information about the weather. In fact, he said, an Environment Canada poll found that more than 90 per cent of Canadians look at a weather forecast every day.
Johanna Wagstaffe, a CBC meteorologist and science reporter based in Vancouver, said the weather is such a hot topic of conversation because it affects us like nothing else. “Weather can not only change our lives in a moment, but it can change our mood in a day,” she said. “It’s the easiest throwaway conversation when you’re passing your neighbour on the street, but it’s also what impacts all of us every day the most.”
Phillips agreed: “Weather is not just idle conversation. It’s meaningful to us from an economic point of view, a safety point of view and a comfort point of view. It could be a 25-cent decision to dress Johnny more warmly to go to school or it could be a life-preserving decision to not strike out under difficult circumstances if you’re a lobster fisherman.”
Phillips thinks our national obsession also stems from the fact that we have some of the wildest weather on the planet and we have all the weather. We have four distinct seasons and experience every extreme weather event under the sun, from ice storms to heat waves and floods to droughts.
“We can sometimes have four seasons in one day,” said Phillips, who has compiled an annual list of Canada’s Top 10 weather stories for the past 25 years. “It is the variety that makes us the weather champions of the world.”
Wagstaffe pointed out that the diversity of the weather across the country adds to the intrigue. “We have such a huge country that taps into a multitude of microclimates, and many of us have family and friends spread out across Canada,” she said. “So we’re always interested in what’s happening in other parts of the country.”
The fact that Canadians experience weather differently depending on where they live leads to some friendly competition. “We love throwing stones at other people’s weather,” said Phillips, adding that we wear our weather like a badge of honour, especially if it’s extreme.
“Taking the worst weather and trying to turn it into a positive is the Canadian way,” he said. “We have an emotional attachment to our weather.”
Harnessing the weather for business and pleasure
Unlike most people who live on the B.C. coast, Benny Marr and Nouria Newman look forward to the rain. Why? Because they’re world-class whitewater kayakers and the rain is necessary to raise the river.
“It’s depressing weather for everyone else, but for us, it’s just playtime,” Newman said, adding that sometimes conditions can be unpredictable. “I have a lot of respect for the river because if it spikes on us while we’re in there, it’s really not good.”
In a nail-biting scene, we watch the daring duo plunge down a 10-metre waterfall near Squamish, B.C., dubbed “50/50,” meaning people have a 50 per cent chance of success and a 50 per cent chance of tumbling into the water.
Other types of weather also inspire daredevils — of both the human and wildlife variety.
Both turkey vultures and paragliders rely on rising currents of sun-heated air called thermals to soar.
“A lot of people describe paragliding in one word, which is freedom,” said Nicole McLearn, Canada’s top female paraglider whom we watch compete in the Canadian paragliding championship in Pemberton, B.C. “You’re high up; you’re with the birds; you’re with the wind. It’s very much like the dreams that people have of flying.”
Chelsea Turner, producer and director of Cold and field producer of Sun, said watching McLearn take flight was awe-inspiring. “It was very cool to see someone doing their sport at the very highest level with such an adventurous spirit and being able to read the weather so clearly,” she said.
Surfing is another weather-dependent sport enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike. In Tofino, B.C., Canada’s first professional female surfer, Catherine Bruhwiler, reads the wind and rides the waves with sea lions.
“I like being part of nature and part of the wind and part of the ocean,” she said. “Without the wind, we wouldn’t have waves. So I love the wind. It does make you feel alive.”
“Recreation helps people to enjoy and embrace the seasons, to celebrate the seasons — not to curse them, but to see how lucky we are,” Phillips said. “I mean, the vast majority of people in the world have never made a snowball.”
The weather also creates opportunities for businesses that are helping us grappling with two of the biggest challenges of our time: feeding everyone in the world and transitioning to clean energy.
In Toronto, gardeners have planted more than 700 green roofs to grow food and help absorb rainwater, which is causing more floods in the city. In the Northwest Territories, the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, the most northerly greenhouse in North America, makes use of the 24 hours of summer sunshine to produce some of the biggest, sweetest produce in the world. And in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, the cold is key to one of the region’s cash crops: frozen grapes for ice wine. While it certainly isn’t necessary to feed the world, it does make life sweeter.
Meanwhile, on Prince Edward Island, the wind blows in food and energy. The province is home to a thriving seaweed-harvesting industry and a wind energy industry.
“We’re wind people — we’re sea people and wind people,” said Garth Jenkins, a seaweed harvester. “It’s all being blown in by the ocean. Mother Nature is kind to us, and we’re taking advantage of her gift.”
Extreme weather inspires extreme action
But the weather isn’t always seen as a gift. In Calgary, which is part of a larger area known as “Hailstone Alley,” a 2020 storm saw hail the size of golf balls and tennis balls pound the city at 100 km/h. The 15-minute storm, which Phillips selected as the top weather story of 2020, resulted in 70,000 insurance claims for damaged homes, vehicles and commercial property to the tune of $1.2 billion.
Chelsea said it was important to show all sides of the weather in the series. “We wanted to show the life-giving power of the weather and how it can be very positive and necessary in driving the life cycles of wildlife and making life fun and interesting for people, but we also wanted to acknowledge — and had a responsibility to acknowledge — that weather is incredibly powerful and can be really destructive and dangerous,” she said.
But despite the risks of extreme weather, some people head straight into the eye of the storm to tackle it.
B.C.’s Smokejumpers are a specialized team of wildland firefighters that are trained to put out new fires — fast. They parachute into remote forest fires to put them out before they get to be the size of a football field, at which point they become extremely difficult to contain. Every degree of rising temperature from climate change results in 12 per cent more lightning strikes over an already dry forest, making the Smokejumpers’ work more critical — and dangerous — than ever.
“There’s a danger in just getting to the fire,” said crew leader Tom Reinholdt. “Once you get there, there’s dangers of the forest. It’s not parachuting for fun; it’s parachuting for fire.”
A passion for the weather fuels another fearless team: the Prairie Storm Chasers. This crew tracks tornadoes in the Dominator, an aerodynamic vehicle that looks as if it belongs to Darth Vader, and issues warnings to the public. Canada has more than 80 tornadoes a year, topped only by the United States. Tornadoes are impossible to see from most satellites because the clouds are too thick, so the only way to issue warnings is to get close enough to see them. As a result, 90 per cent of tornado warnings come from public sightings.
“It grew into almost an obsession,” said Braydon Morisseau, who fell in love with weather at a young age. “I learned how to forecast on my own and started going out and chasing on my own.”
‘Weather does really bring people together’
As Rob Dekany steers his six-metre motorboat along the water outside of Saint John, N.B., he warns his passenger of an upcoming bump. “That’s the top of the five-and-a-half-foot fence,” he said.
Dekany isn’t on the Saint John River — he’s on the only road that connects Darlings Island to the mainland. The road became a river due to intense flooding in 2018 and 2019.
“Uber Rob,” as locals started calling him, felt compelled to help his neighbours get to work, school and medical appointments.
Wagstaffe said she hears heartwarming stories like this whenever she visits a community affected by a disaster — proof that the worst weather often brings out the best in people.
“The number 1 thing people talk about is how their community came together,” she said. “I can get emotional thinking about how at the root of it all is people helping people. We are forced to rely on each other in these extreme weather events. Weather does really bring people together.”
The weather connects people in other ways too. Allen and Grace Niptinatiak invite us into their home in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where they’re teaching their granddaughters the traditional art of making cold-weather clothing.
“We like to try to keep our tradition,” Grace said. “And they enjoy it.”
The family later heads outside, where Allen teaches the kids how to build an igloo, a skill that saved his life when his Ski-Doo broke down and he had to spend the night on the land. “Showing the kids how to make igloos is very important because it’s part of our traditional history and it does come in handy sometimes,” he said.
Chelsea said the Niptinatiak family story had a big impact on her.
“It felt like such a privilege to get a very authentic look into some intimate and lovely family moments and film activities that were really genuine,” she said. “Being able to see Grace and Allen pass on those skills and transfer that knowledge to their grandkids was quite special.”
Another tradition involves using the weather as an excuse to have a party in Cape Breton, N.S., where the strongest winds in the country make it impossible to do anything outside. Called les Suêtes, the winds have been recorded at more than 200 km/h and can blow for days, causing people to be picky about their party guest list.
“You have to make sure that you only invite people you really like because there’s a possibility they might stay for a few days,” local Robert Deveaux said with a laugh.
From coast to coast to coast, Chelsea said she witnessed incredible feats of weather-related endurance, ingenuity and kindness. “Working on this series has made me much more excited about getting outside in all kinds of weather,” she said. “I hope that people get to enjoy and celebrate the beauty that different weather brings at different times of year in whatever way works for them. No matter where you are, there is so much beauty to be enjoyed outdoors.”
Jeff added: “In the cold, in the sun, in the wind and in the rain, wherever we went in this great country, we learned that all life shares a powerful connection to our incredible wild Canadian weather.”