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July 19, 2011

GUEST POST: Local storm chaser Kyle Smith breaks down Sunday's violent storm

Today's guest post is from Kyle Smith, an Ottawa television producer and severe weather watcher. He's been in the weather industry for over seven years, including work at the Weather Network, and he's seen it all -- from winter blasts to super cell storms.

Here's his take on the storm that hit the Ottawa area on Sunday and knocked over the stage at Bluesfest:

Overlooking a cluster of apartment buildings at Richmond Road and Woodroffe Avenue as the cell passes through Ottawa. The rain looks like a sandstorm on the horizon. (All photos by Kyle Smith.)

More sandstorm-like scenery on the horizon looking west, and a beautiful wall cloud as the cell moves over the Ottawa River.

Looking west as the rain moves across the horizon.

Dark skies, dark water. This is right before the wind gusts hit.

I knew some serious weather was on the way. At around 1:30pm cells were popping up just west of Timmins, as these cells travelled south east they grew in intensity and rapidly picked up speed. By 5:30pm the cells had travelled nearly 300 kilometers (about half the distance between Ottawa and Timmins).

By 6:09pm, Environment Canada issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the City of Ottawa and surrounding areas. At this point the cell had made its way into the areas of Pembroke stretching back to Deep River and all the way up to Manawaki and Saguenay. This cell was HUGE, over 400km-wide.

Between the hours of 6:00pm and 7:00pm the storm had travelled all the way from Pembroke to basically where I am along the Ottawa River in Westboro. That’s just over 100km. Do the math and you start to realize this storm was travelling at over 100km/h. During this travel time it got closer and closer to Ottawa, so Environment Canada issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the City of Ottawa at 6:35pm.

There is a fair bit of confusion between watches and warnings, let me give a really quick summary of the differences. Watches are issued well in advance of any severe weather potential, if meteorologists think conditions might be favorable for severe weather to form, or if they feel existing cells might cause trouble. A watch basically mean ‘keep an eye out the window, but no promises”.

Warnings on the other hand means that a few factors might be at play, usually if they have a rock solid forecast based on immediate radar activity and know for sure that a cell might become severe; they issue a warning. If winds are pushing a severe cell into ‘City X’ and it doesn’t look like the cell will die along the way, a warning will be issued. Warnings mean “it’s on its way, take cover and step away from the window”.

This is why you’ll see a watch pop up first, they want to make sure you know that the threat is there but that it might dissipate before it gets there or that it might change direction, it’s the safe way of saying it might or not happen. Once they become more sure of the forecast, study the radar and have a better idea of how it will all play out they will issue warnings, if need be, for the areas affected.

Because weather can change so quickly and it isn’t quite the perfected science yet, warnings are usually posted with short notice. They try and give as much advance notice as possible, but warnings can only come so quickly.


All the weather lingo aside, a few people’s response to the storm last night was more than mind-blowing for me, including the actions of who was in charge of shutting down the show at Bluesfest.

This storm could be seen for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers and ANYONE who has ever watched the evening news or checked the weather forecast knows how to look at a radar map. The fact that I heard organizers say “we had no idea it was coming” and “it came from nowhere” disgusts me. 
Yes, I’ve worked in weather broadcasting and yes I have a radar map open on the computer, but I’m just one person sitting in front of a computer looking at a radar map. There’s nothing special here… I saw it coming.  I could have made the call to shut down the show and potentially save lives. Why didn't the organizers make the same decision?

People for some reason seem to underestimate the power of weather.  Lives could have been lost. The fact that so few injuries turned up was nothing short of a miracle. 

See also: Ottawa Weather Guide
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