Weather warning system revamped

Every winter, an average of 80 Canadians die from exposure, severe frostbite, or hypothermia—more than the total who die from floods, tornadoes, or lightning.
But now, residents of Northern Ontario are less likely to be surprised by violent and potentially-dangerous weather in the future thanks to a new service being offered by Environment Canada.
The government sent two specialists to the north this week to bring the public and the media up to date on the latest research and forecasting facilities now available.
Geoff Coulson, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, is currently touring the northwest. He stopped by the Fort Frances Times office on Monday to explain what he is doing.
“Environment Canada felt it was important to have both their weather preparedness meteorologists visit Northern Ontario just before the worst of the winter was here to talk about the types of weather statements Environment Canada issues,” Coulson explained.
“I intend to come back in the spring to talk about severe summer weather,” he added.
On his current tour, Coulson is focusing on such things as the windchill index. The government, he said, has revised its method of calculating windchill factors to make them more relevant and comprehensible to the average person.
The province has been divided into three sections, with different criteria for each. In southwestern and south-central Ontario, for instance, Environment Canada will issue a windchill warning when the index reaches minus-30 C or lower.
For eastern and Northern Ontario (including Rainy River and Kenora districts), the threshold is minus-40 C. For the far north, it is minus-45 C or below.
In addition, winter weather warnings are issued for threats of heavy snow, snow squalls, high winds, freezing rain, heavy rain, flash freezing, cold waves, and winter storms.
It’s an example of where knowledge is power—and now that power is being packaged in a more comprehensive and convenient way. To accomplish that, Environment Canada is enlisting the help of the media to get information to the people who need it.
“It’s a partnership between Environment Canada and the broadcast media for the dissemination of watches and warnings,” Coulson remarked.
Weather watches, he explained, usually are issued 12-24 hours in advance of a system that is of concern. These watches generally cover a wide area and are an alert to potential severe weather.
Weather warnings, however, are issued over a shorter time span (typically three-18 hours), are more localized in nature, and give notice of an imminent threat to safety.
These are broadcast over regional and local radio and TV stations as well as Environment Canada’s Weatheradio.
Coulson said there also is an important role for the print media to play.
“We thought it was equally important to involve the print media as well because that’s one of our best means to educate the public—to provide more detail,” he remarked.
This was particularly effective this past summer in southern Ontario, when newspapers were enlisted to explain in detail the events surrounding two tornadoes that did considerable damage near St. Marys over the Victoria Day weekend.
“The papers provided more content, more background,” Coulson said.
The program began in the Prairies in 1997 and since then has expanded to include the entire country. It first started in Ontario in April and now is integrated into the national program.
The country is divided into five sections that now share information freely.
There are a number of useful online sources, as well. Coulson said anyone can access the latest conditions and forecasts for any part of the country by going to http://weatheroffice.ec.gc.ca
From here, there are a number of links that show current and forecast conditions from coast to coast. There even is an e-warning system, where weather warnings are available at any time.
There is no charge to access this service.
There also is a one-on-one phone line that enables you to talk directly with a weather expert at Environment Canada. This service is available 24 hours a day at a cost of $2.99/minute.
The number there is 1-900-565-5555.
But if you have a need to stay constantly on top of things, Environment Canada provides a 24-hour weatheradio service.
This is a network of VHF transmitters (plus two that operate in the FM band) that runs from coast to coast and provides up-to-the-minute information regarding the area in which the transmitters are located.
The recorded message transmits 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is updated hourly. Coulson said the system even works in the United States.
The transmitters operate on the following frequencies: 162.4, 162.425, 162.45, 162.475, 162.5, 162.525, and 162.55 megahertz. The broadcast range is roughly 60 km.
Weatheradio receivers can be purchased for less than $100 at virtually any electronics store.
Environment Canada also recently set up a partnership with the OPP to help predict hazardous driving conditions.
“It’s a sharing of information,” Coulson noted. “They [the OPP] give immediate reports from the ground while we give them specific information for their area.”
In addition to current and anticipated weather, Environment Canada also now provides monthly weather summaries. These, too, can be accessed from the website.

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