Blog Posts
Introducing DRAW Members: Jazmine Aldrich
Meet the Meteorologists: Montreal
Interview with a Scientist: Operational Meteorologist Dov Bensimon
Disinfecting with Ozone in Pandemics
Weather and Poetry: E. Pauline Johnson
Montreal as an Island
Meet the Meteorologists: Quebec City
Introducing DRAW Members: Drew Bush
Heatwaves: Blasts from the Past
Measuring Humidity: A Long and Difficult Process
Rare Weather Phenomena - Part 2
Rare Weather Phenomena - Part 1
Crafting the Weather
Don't Miss Our New Educator's Corner, Years in the Making...
Superb Super-Users: Thank you!
A Day in the Archives
Calling All Weather Enthusiasts - We Challenge You!
Rainbow Wonderland
The Flood of 1886
Weather Forecasting: Vennor's Bulletin
Introducing DRAW Members: Robert Smith
DRAW February Funnies
On This Day: Winter Carnival 1883
DRAW and Student Projects: ENVR 401
On This Day
Weather Symbols in Real Life: Part 2
Introducing DRAW Members: Gordon Burr
Observing During the Wars
Weather in the History of Science
BOOK REVIEW: Climate in the Age of Empire
DRAWn into Education
Introducing DRAW Members: Rachel Black
Introducing DRAW Members: Renée Sieber
Horizontal and Vertical Montréal
Handwriting Help
Guest Post: Air Quality in Montréal
Weather Symbols in Real Life
Who Were the Observers?
Communicating Weather: Storm Warnings and Telegraphs
Introducing DRAW Members: Vicky Slonosky
Marginalia in the Ledgers
International Communication: Weather Symbols
Clouds, Cloud Types and Abbreviations


Exploring weather and all it entails

Welcome to the DRAW Blog! Our focus here is to introduce topics related to DRAW and weather. This could be background information about parts of the project (such as symbols), discussion on weather issues (such as climate change), or may simply be a way to get to know the DRAW team further. Check in every other week for new posts!


by Victoria Slonosky       on October 28th 2020

In many ways, rain is both one of the simplest and one of the most difficult of the meteorological elements to measure and record. It is simple to record as all it takes is a rainfall gathering and measuring device – a graduated tube- and rainfall measurements are thousands of years old.

Jang Yeong-sil Science Garden-Rain Gauges 13-11789 Busan, South Korea 03

Rainfall measurements are difficult because “rain” covers everything from a gentle drizzle with hardly any accumulation to torrential downpours unleashing floods in a matter of minutes. Strong winds can send falling water sideways, making it miss any measuring container. If the rain isn’t recorded immediately after it fell, heat, sun and wind can evaporate water quickly, leaving less water in a catchment device than actually fell. Trees, fences or buildings, to say nothing of larger landscape features such as Mount Royal, can shield or funnel rainfall to a particular place.

Even worse, a slow change in the environment, such as trees growing over decades, can gradually alter a recording environment to bring nearly imperceptible changes to the measurements that are not due to a change in the weather regime or climate, but which can add up over decades or centuries. These are called inhomogeneities. There is considerable debate on whether and how these measurements should be adjusted; on the one hand, they do reflect the actual, original measurements, but on the other, we know at least some of the long-term trends they contain may be influenced by factors other than climate variability, such as trees gradually growing to shield the catchment area.

mcgill campus ca.1874

If you have visited McGill's downtown campus recently, you will notice a the striking differences seen in this image from ca. 1874(so much open space!) ['McGill University campus with view of observatory', McCord Museum, MP35179/McGill University Archives, PR023224]

In comparing the original working documents from a hundred years ago to the publicly available data available today from websites, we see some interesting differences. While Canada has an amazing amount of open, freely available and up to the minute weather data, (with huge thanks to our colleagues in Environment and Climate Change Canada who make this happen), there is not often space on the form for “extra” information such as the amount of rain that fell from a specific event or storm. When looking at the original registers, however, we can often see how the observers made notes on specific rainfall events or storms, writing down precisely how much rain fell and when. In fact, the historical observers trying to associate rainfall amounts with particular observation times is the source of one of our biggest difficulties in trying to transcribe the observations into neat boxes – the observers often used brackets to indicate that rain continued over several observation times, or else scribbled in a note to say exactly when the rain fell to add in extra precision. There are things we’ve gained with modern technology, but things we’ve lost as well.

rain amount over time

An example of rain amount measured over several observation times.

thunderstorm observations over time

In-dept observation of a thunderstorm outside regular observation times.

 snowfall observations

Observations of snowfall, not adding up to measurable amounts.

With measuring tools such as radar and satellites able to sense water vapour or precipitation in clouds even before any rain actually falls, we also have new ways to measure cloud humidity and predict rainfall. Methods developed at the current McGill Radar Observatory use radar and models to predict rain, snow or the transition from rain to snow over periods of up to three hours

Rain will always remain one of the fundamental elements of any weather report, both because of its obvious importance as a key element of the weather we experience and because of the simplicity of measurement gauges. Still, rain, like the clouds that generate it, also remains a complex and elusive phenomenon.

Introducing DRAW Members: Jazmine Aldrich

by Rachel Black       on October 14th 2020



Jazmine Aldrich

                      jazmine aldrich


Eastern Townships, Quebec

Role at DRAW:

Research Assistant

Favourite part of DRAW?

The Team

Favourite Season?


Favourite Weather Symbol?



Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

Cumulus, because they're fluffy!


Coolest thing you’ve learned while participating in DRAW?

How to decipher complex weather observations that combine words and symbols.

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?


Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Wars

Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?


Favourite place in Montreal?


Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

Meet the Meteorologists: Montreal

by Victoria Slonosky       on September 30th 2020

Welcome back to Meet the Meteorologists where we look at the individuals around the world who helped to contribute to the creation of meteorology as a field of study and who helped inform the practice here in Montreal.

These individuals were often interested in weather as how it connected to their day jobs. They were often intellectuals, religious figures, engineers, doctors or businessmen in communities and helped contribute to our understanding of weather in the St. Lawrence basin where Montreal resides. All individuals mentioned in this series were taken from Climate in the Age of Empire by Dr. Victoria Slonosky.

This week let’s take a look at those influential individuals from Montreal!

Thomas McCord (1750-1824)

McCord was a Protestant Irish businessman and public office holder. Thomas McCord’s father, John McCord, settled in Quebec in 1764 and engaged in trade. Thomas McCord became a businessman in 1770 and was a citizen of some importance by the 1790s. He left for Ireland in 1796 for business purposes on what was intended to be a brief visit, but political unrest and rebellion prolonged his stay until 1805 when he returned to Montreal as a general merchant. He was a member of the elected assembly, justice of the peace, and police magistrate and was a political force behind the establishment of a regular paid police force in 1818. Starting in 1813, McCord worked with his young son John Samuel to record temperatures in Montreal (Senior 1987).

Learn more:

Alexander Skakel (1776-1846) and William Skakel (unknown-1863)

A Scottish educator who taught at the Classical and Mathematical School and later at the Royal Grammar School, Alexander Skakel was one of Montreal’s principal educators in the early nineteenth century. Skakel taught John Samuel McCord and Archibald Hall as well as many other citizens of Montreal in the late nineteenth century. He was a founding member of the Montreal Natural History Society. Skakel is likely to have started keeping meteorological observations with his brother William in the early 1820s. Fragments (probably copies) of the observations survive for 1842-1852 and 1862-1868 (Frost 1988). William was Alexander Skakel’s brother, who is presumed to have continued Alexander’s meteorological record after Alexander’s death in 1846.

Learn more:

Robert Cleghorn (1778-1841)

Cleghorn was a Scottish botanist who operated Montreal’s first commercial nursery, Blink Bonny Gardens, north of the city. Fragments of his records, including daily temperatures, survive for the period 1829 to 1833 (McGuire 2010).

Learn more:

John Bethune (1791-1872)

Bethune was an Anglican clergyman, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a refugee from the American revolution. He was educated by Bishop Strachen in Upper Canada and was influenced by Strachan to become an Anglican, rather than a Presbyterian, clergyman: the first to be educated and ordained in Canada. Bethune was assigned to be a minister of Christ Church and rector of the Anglican parish in Montreal in 1818. He was the principal of McGill College from 1835 to 1846, a contentious period during which he came into conflict with other educational authorities in Montreal. Bethune succeeded nonetheless in starting the construction of the McGill University campus. He remained at Christ Church Anglican parish for the rest of his life, becoming dean in 1854. He kept a meteorological diary, noting the minimum and maximum temperature, barometric pressure, wind, and weather from 1838 to 1860 (Cooper 1972).

Learn more:

John Samuel McCord (1801-1865)

One of the most prominent meteorologists of the first half of the nineteenth century, John Samuel McCord was considered by Smallwood to be the “Pioneer of Canadian Meteorology” (Smallwood 1860, p.309). As a child and young man, John Samuel contributed to and may even have been the instigator, under the influence of his teacher Alexander Skakel, of the meteorological journal kept with his father from 1813 to 1826. He studied law and was a member of the Montreal Militia. He was deeply involved in the Natural History Society of Montreal (NHS), acting as secretary in the 1830s and 1840s. McCord instigated the first bihourly weather observations kept by the military on Saint Helen’s Island from 1839 to 1841. His involvement in the government’s military action to quell the Rebellions of 1837-1838 may have led to his semi-exile from Montreal by means of his appointment as a district court judge, which involved considerable travel and significantly curtailed his scientific activities (Young 2014). In his quest to determine whether the climate had changed, and whether humans were responsible for any changes in climate, McCord collected and analysed numerous historical records of weather and climate. These were conserved among his scientific pages by his son, David Ross McCord, and are housed in the archives of the McCord Museum of Canadian History. McCord’s own observations, along with those he collected from other observers, now form the core of the documents used in modern studies of the climatic history of the Saint Lawrence valley region.

Archibald Hall (1812-1868)

A native Montrealer, Hall studied under Skakel as a child and as a young man became one of Skakel’s natural philosophy demonstrators during Skakel’s evening classes and public lectures for adults. Hall studied medicine at McGill before completing his medical degree in Edinburgh. He was appointed to the McGill Medical Faculty in 1835, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was also associated with the Montreal General Hospital. He had an interest in zoology and was awarded the Natural History Society’s silver medal for his memoir on the mammals and birds of Montreal. He edited two medical journals, the British American Journal of Medical and Physical Science and later the British American Journal. Hall kept detailed meteorological records that he published in these journals, which he also sent to Joseph Henry as part of the Smithsonian volunteer weather observing network (Canada Medical Journal 1868; Bensley 1976).

Learn more:

Charles Smallwood (1812-1873)

Born and educated in Birmingham, Charles Smallwood studied medicine in England at the University College of London, graduated with an MD and emigrated to Canada in 1833. In 1834, he settled in Saint Martin on Ile Jesus in the Saint Lawrence River, just to the north of Montreal (present-day Laval), where he “acquired one of the largest medical practices in the Country” (Smallwood 1861). He built his own observatory where he kept not only detailed meteorological records but also observations on terrestrial magnetism, atmospheric electricity, and ozone. Smallwood developed various self-recording instruments. He received some government support for his observatory, and in 1862 moved the observatory to McGill University, where he was appointed honorary professor of meteorology. Astronomical observations for timekeeping also made McGill Observatory the principal centre in Canada for the determination of time and longitude. Smallwood was also a member of the Natural History Society of Montreal and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Marshall 1972; Marshall and Bignell 1969).

Learn more:

William Sutherland (Sunderland) (1815-1875)

Sutherland graduated from McGill Medical School in 1836 and spent several years on the Niagara frontier before returning to Montreal in the early 1840s. Sutherland participated in a bilingual medical school, giving lectures once in French and once in English as well as operating a free dispensary for poorer patients. Sutherland also edited a medical journal with Francis Badgely. Sutherland was appointed to the McGill Medical Faculty in 1849. William Sutherland’s meteorological and personal diary for 1844-1848 is conserved in the McGill University Archives (Canada Medical Record 1875; Canada Medical and Surgical Journal 1875; Roland and Bernier 2000).

Clement Henry McLeod (c.1850-1917)

One of the first engineering graduates of McGill in 1874, as an undergraduate McLeod had been allowed to live in the main college building so as to be able to take readings at the McGill Observatory. After Smallwood’s death in November of 1873, McLeod was given charge of the observatory. He trained briefly under George Kingston in Toronto. McLeod was eventually appointed supervisor of the observatory as well as professor of the Department of Civil Engineering and vice dean of the Faculty of Science at McGill. He and his students undertook important observations in the telegraphic determination of longitude in 1883, which resulted in more accurate measurements for the entire continent (Bignell 1962).

Learn more:

Interview with a Scientist: Operational Meteorologist Dov Bensimon

by Rachel Black       on September 23rd 2020

Welcome to this special edition of the DRAW Blog on Science Literacy Week 2020!

In honour of Science Literacy Week, DRAW has interviewed Dov Bensimon, Operational Meteorologist in the Environmental Emergency Response Section at the Canadian Centre for Meteorological and Environmental Prediction (CCMEP) and Manager of the Montreal Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC).

Dov Bensimon

Dov Bensimon, Summer 2020

We met with Dov to discuss his work and career and of course, to ask some silly questions :)

Conventional Questions

  1. What was your career path like? Did you always know you wanted to work in this field?

  2. Dov Bensimon has always known what he wanted to do since he was a child. He notes that around grade 4 he was at school one day when a thunderstorm rolled overhead, causing the classroom to get so dark that lights were needed in the middle of the day in May. “It really made an impression on me… that nature is incredibly powerful,” he stated, noting that the experience fascinated him and made him want to know more. From that moment on it was “crystal clear” what he wanted to do in the future. Most meteorologists Bensimon’s spoken to since didn’t have this experience of certainty: “I discovered to my surprise that I am one of only a few meteorologists in Canada who knew that they wanted to do this ever since I was a kid.”

    As a result, Bensimon focused on courses in high school that consisted of higher level maths and sciences and in CEGEP pursued an applied science program, knowing that both were needed to continue his pursuit towards meteorology and becoming a weather forecaster.

    For university, wanting to stay in the city, his choice was easy: McGill had the only undergraduate degree in meteorology through the Department of Meteorology (now the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences). At the time McGill asked for your top three choices for your program of study and he notes that he “remember[s] putting meteorology first and then I couldn’t come up with a number two or three. [I] had no interest in anything else, it was either that or nothing at all.”

    When he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Meteorology in 1994, his original plan was to work as a forecaster and specifically with the Canadian government but the economy wasn’t great at the time. “It was a choice of either looking for work in the field outside of Montreal or Canada or continuing [my] studies.” After consideration, he pursued a Masters in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill, and once he graduated he started working at the Weather Network as an operational meteorologist. He would remain in this position for three years before shifting to work with Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada, ECCC) in 1999.

    Since then he has worked in various roles for ECCC as an operational meteorologist at the Canadian Meteorological Centre (now called the Canadian Centre for Meteorological and Environment Prediction, CCMEP). This includes working in the Implementation and Operational Services Section, the Analysis and Prognosis Section, and since 2009 Bensimon has been with the Environmental Emergency Response Section, which is tasked with responding to a number of different kinds of emergencies in the environment. As part of this work he has been the manager of the Montreal Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) since 2013.

  3. What originally got you interested in your current field of work?

  4. While as a forecaster, he notes that “in the years that I did it I really enjoyed analyzing what was going on in the weather and then figuring out what would happen and then be able to deliver that information to people.”

    This background flowed nicely into working with the Analysis and Prognosis Section, where he put what he enjoyed most as a forecaster to work. When asked about whether he likes finding the information and tracking environmental events or informing those concerned most, he states that it’s the latter: “[It’s a] sense of how can I help other people in my job, knowing that through the tools I have, the knowledge I have...I can basically warn pilots of where not to fly - that is by far the most rewarding part of what I do…[There are a] lot of people behind the scenes to make sure a plane files and is safe and being part of a team that ensures that, helping people get to Point A to Point B in the safest way possible is the icing on the cake.”

    In regards to becoming Manager of the VAAC, Bensimon notes that it was serendipity. He was on a day off when he received a call to come in as a volcano erupted in Alaska and it looked like the ash was heading into Canadain airspace. He was “new to the section, didn’t know much about the program [and] went in to help and just learned on the fly how to do that kind of forecast”. Following this event he was asked “how he did the forecast [and] one thing leads to another and the next time there was a volcanic ash event, people remembered...I worked the last one [and was] called to work the next.”

    When shift work started to take its toll he went to work in the Environmental Emergency Response Section, which was also involved in running the VAAC, and through his previous experience and picking up other duties along the way, was the most knowledgeable when his colleague running the VAAC retired. He has held the position of VAAC Manager ever since.

  5. Can you tell us more about the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Montreal?

  6. The Montreal Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) is situated in Dorval out of the CCMEP office but Bensimon notes that it “can be run from anywhere… [all you need is] just a laptop and a good internet connection. Because part of our work is responding to emergencies….we have been able to work remotely for years. Actually when the pandemic hit, it was easy for me and my colleagues to work from home [as] we were already prepared.”

    The VAAC has a team of roughly 20 people, with about 15 operational meteorologists and 5 who are not on shift but are trained responders and meteorologists who can help with environmental emergencies. “In a nutshell there are nine centres around the world whose job it is to monitor the atmosphere for volcanic ash,” he states, noting that airplanes and ash don’t mix and that their job is to ensure there continues to be no fatalities due to volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

    Most of his time is dedicated to the VAAC, but the section he works in, the Environmental Emergency Response Section, is tasked with responding to a number of different kinds of emergencies in the environment, of which volcanic ash is only one event. “For example, if there is a fire that breaks out in a chemical factory. Firefighters arrive on scene, they see that there are toxic gases coming out of the factory. [They] have to make a decision - do we evacuate people who live in the neighbourhood? How far is the evacuation order that we issue? Do we tell people to stay inside?

    Essentially we have models that can simulate the release of pollutants in the environment, mostly air but also water as well. Simulations allow us to track the expected trajectory [and we can] provide that information to the people in the field to allow them to make decisions of what to do.”

  7. What does a typical day look like for you?

  8. A typical day depends on the event; if specifically an event occurs due to volcanic ash, Bensimon’s day would include looking at satellite images to see where it is, and “once we know where it is we will do simulations of whatever volcano it came out of so we…[can] put out products, forecasts to see where it is next going to be, in the next 18 hours”.

    Events are rare though, and instead of responding, work focuses on improving response time and modelling simulations.

    “A lot of times the work we do in our section when we are not in emergencies, a lot of it is doing legwork to make sure we are prepared to do it. That can take many forms, can take the form of trying to improve models that we have, that represent processes that go on when there is an environmental event. It can be coordinating with other centers to make sure they are doing things the same way. Part of it is also participating in exercises and tests we do on our own or with other centres… To respond to something when it’s real, means you have to practice a lot.”

  9. What is the most challenging part of your job or day?

  10. Bensimon agrees that during the emergency times, when an event is occurring and a response is needed, it is challenging as the team needs to get the product of their models to those who need it, ensuring that the data they’ve contributed to the model in the end helps improve the output.

    “In terms of the science, getting enough information about what is going on initially so that you know that your forecast that you’re developing is solid enough to deliver to someone - that is the biggest challenge. With any model we have a saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’ - if you don’t put good quality data into the model you’re not going to get good information out of the model.”

    In addition, he remarks on the stress, stating a “certain amount of stress and learning how to deal with that when you get called. We have time constraints too and we can’t just say we will put out a product tomorrow - we have deadlines - that adds stress to the job. It [does make] it interesting at the same time.”

  11. What is your favourite part of the workday?

  12. Rather than a favourite part of the workday, Bensimon has a favourite part of his job:

    “The favourite part of my job is being able to deliver good quality and useful information to people who are going to make decisions based on it. Whether it is a weather forecast to plan out a family activity or a volcanic ash forecast to give airlines the best information I can to try to help plan where to fly their planes, that feeling of satisfaction that I am delivering useful information at the end of the day, [that’s] the most rewarding part of the job.”

  13. Can you tell us anything about some of the projects you are currently working on?

  14. “Details are still being worked out, but the forecasts that we do for volcanic ash are qualitative. So basically when we come up with these forecasts we delineate areas where we believe volcanic ash will be present and we just tell airlines, at this time here is where we expect volcanic ash to be. But we don’t say anything about how much ash will be there. What we’re trying to do worldwide now is to come up with a quantitative forecast of volcanic ash. It’s an easy concept but details and saying how can we do this in a consistent way across the world and deliver high quality product to our clients, is not so easy.”

  15. Any advice for budding climate scientists/meteorologists?

  16. Bensimon recommends in regards to academics to take as many maths and physics courses as you can when pursuing a future in meteorology. In CEGEP, a pure applied science program is what you would follow and then once in university enrolling in an undergraduate degree in atmospheric sciences. “It’s only [when you’re working in the field] or [in] graduate studies you look at specializing in sub-domains”, he states.

    He also notes that it’s important to be aware of the working conditions when working as a meteorologist. Working in shifts is a large part of the work schedule and “people coming out of school need to be aware and won’t necessarily know how they handle shift work.” While there isn’t any internship program in meteorology that he is currently aware of, it would be a good idea to get a sense of the job through volunteering or an internship if you are able to find an opportunity to do so.

    And above all, Bensimon states,

    “Follow your dreams. If you are really interested in meteorology and climatology then pursue it. No matter what you end up doing as a career or a job if you don’t enjoy it you’re going to find the time very long, you know. It’s really important for people to pursue what they’re interested in. If it's a passion you are going to enjoy it.”

    Unconventional Questions

  17. Favourite Season?

  18. “I like the fall. Not too hot, not too cold. It’s the sweet spot in between.”

  19. Favourite Cloud Type?
  20. cumulus clouds

    “Cumulus clouds. So those are the ones that have flat bases that are fluffy - they look like pieces of popcorn or cauliflower. I like them because I mean, they’re nice clouds, they’re attractive clouds to look at, but they also tell a lot about how the atmosphere works. They form because the sun starts to heat the surface of the earth and as it heats the air closest to the surface of the earth, that air becomes less dense as it's heated and begins to rise. While it’s rising it's also cooling because it's surrounded by air that’s gradually colder… so as it’s cooling you start to get condensation happening and so the water vapor that’s in the air that is invisible starts to condense and forms the cloud. Just the form of the cloud tells you about what level you reach condensation at (the base) but then the fact that the top of the cloud is a puffy mound indicates that the air is rising. So when I look at that I always think of the mechanics behind how they form and, of course, they are pretty to look at and make all sorts of interesting shapes.”

  21. If you could have a super power, what would it be?

  22. “To be able to recall or remember anything at any point in my life would be very helpful.”

  23. If you could go back to anytime in history, where would you go?

  24. “I am a fan of history and born and raised in Montreal and the history of Montreal particularly interests me, and one thing I’ve been always interested and curious about would be to go back to pre-European times and see what did the island of Montreal looked like 500, 600 years ago...Really, really interested to know what the island of Montreal looked like before a lot of people came along and we started changing what it looks like.”

  25. Sweet or Savoury?

  26. “Sweet, for sure. I don’t have just one sweet tooth, it's a whole mouth full.”

  27. Cats or Dogs

  28. “I don’t have either and I‘ve never had pets really, but I like all animals so I like both equally.”

  29. Star Trek or Star Wars?

  30. “Star Wars for sure. For Star Wars movies, I really like the original three [and while] the three in the 2000s I didn’t get into at all... the last three made in the past few years, I think were even better than the originals.”

  31. Favourite Animal?

  32. “I don’t know why, but as a kid I really liked hippopotamuses.”

  33. If you could be a mythical creature (unicorn, phoenix, etc.) which one would you be?

  34. “You know, so I read that question, I didn’t know how to answer it and so I had a conversation with my twelve year old daughter about it. ‘What should I answer?’ and she said ‘a banana’. I said, ‘a banana is not a mythical creature’ and she goes, ‘well it could be!’ I said to her: ‘OK, I’ll give it as an answer but I don't know what sort of mythical creature a banana would be’.”

Interested in learning more about what was discussed during this interview? Check out the following links!

Disinfecting with Ozone in Pandemics: A 19th-century Idea comes back for Covid-19

by Vicky Slonosky       on September 16th 2020

I read an article the other day suggesting the use of low levels of ozone to disinfect airborne coronavirus particles. A search suggests a Saskatchewan company was already producing ozone decontamination units back in Mayand research articles investigating ozone as a surface disinfectant for viruses go back at least a decade (Tseng, Chun-Chieh & Li, Chihshan. (2008). Inactivation of surface viruses by gaseous Ozone. Journal of environmental health. 70. 56-62. ). There may be some technical difficulties - balancing a sufficiently high concentration of ozone to be lethal to the virus without it becoming toxic to humans - but this revival of a 19th century medical preoccupation caught my interest.

Ozone is an allotrope of oxygen, usually found in the stratosphere where it protects us from much of the Sun’s UV radiation. An allotrope, you may vaguely remember from Grade 10 chemistry, is an alternate form of a chemical molecule. Oxygen gas, the kind we usually breathe in from the atmosphere around us, is almost always formed of two oxygen molecules bound together; ozone is a rarer form of oxygen gas formed when three oxygen molecules bind together. Anyone who’s ever done any photocopying - another vanishing technology - will recognize the smell of ozone from that sharp, slightly acrid smell that arises from running a photocopier machine.

Ozone was first described by Christian Schönbein in 1839. As I described in Climate in the Age of Empire, even before its chemical properties were fully discovered, it was recognized as an antioxidant, a bleaching agent and thus a disinfectant. It was this disinfectant potential that made ozone interesting to Dr Charles Smallwood, founder of the McGill Observatory. The connection between atmospheric ozone and prevalent diseases became one of his main topics of investigation.

Pandemics were rife throughout the highly interconnected 19th century world, cholera being the most deadly and most feared, with typhus not far behind. Before Louis Pasteur isolated microbial pathogens and developed germ theory towards the end of the 19th century, the transmission agents of these pandemic diseases were not clearly understood, through the pioneering geomedical work of Dr John Snow in 1854 made cholera understood as a disease transmitted through water, not miasma or “bad air” (“malaria”) as was commonly thought at the time.

Smallwood thought ozone could be a key to fighting the pandemics, and measured ozone not only as a part of his routine daily meteorological observations but also in a variety of settings: in sickrooms, in gardens, over drains (ozone has been used in wastewater and sewage treatment for several decades), at ground level, 80 feet in the feet, next to diseased plants and around decaying animal and vegetable matter. He measured ozone levels using strips of paper or calico coated with a starch and potassium iodide solution, which turned blue in the presence of ozone: the darker the blue, the higher the concentration of ozone. He placed his strips among potato plants during an episode of potato blight, and tracked atmospheric ozone levels during typhus and cholera outbreaks. Smallwood’s measurements showed the levels of ozone in Montreal were exceptionally low during the 1854 cholera epidemic. Cautious scientist that he was, Smallwood noted that it was also a dry year, so it wasn’t possible to conclusively point to the low levels of ozone as a sole atmospheric determinant of disease, and more observations, preferably global ones, were needed. Again, words we’re still repeating a century and a half later.

 Dr. Smallwood's ozone table

“On Ozone”, Charles Smallwood. Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1858

Ozone concentrations were seen to be higher near the sea, one reason why many hospitals and health stations were built near the seaside during the 19th century. Today there are still in some countries specialized hospital towns in coastal regions.


Institut Calot, Berck-sur-Mer, France. Notice the wide windows and balconies facing the sea. Photo credit: Isabelle Hacot

Berck-sur-Mer is a seaside hospital town in northern France, the setting of the book and film le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

Today, facing another global pandemic over a century and a half later, we’re once again looking into the disinfectant properties of ozone. But our Victorian forebears got there first.

Weather and Poetry: E. Pauline Johnson

by Rachel Black       on September 2nd 2020

Welcome to DRAW's latest series: Weather and Poetry! Here we will explore poets who touch on weather in their works. This week we are looking at Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson.

E. Pauline Johnson

E. Pauline Johnson, c. 1885–1895

This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-085125 and under the MIKAN ID number 3194762.

Emily Pauline Johnson (March 10 1861-March 7 1913) was a Canadian poet, author and performer who was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry from Brantford, Ontario and her mother was an English immigrant.

She was stylized as E. Pauline Johnson and was also known as Tekahionwake (pronounced dageh-eeon-wageh meaning “double-life”). Johnson was notable for her poems, short stories and performances that celebrated her mixed-race heritage drawing from both Indigenous and English influences.

Check out the following to learn more about E. Pauline Johnson:

Here are a selection of books by or about E. Pauline Johnson:


Shown here are poems from Flint and Feather (1912) that touch on weather, particularly wind, rain, storms, mist, sunsets and clouds.

The Song my Paddle Sings

West wind, blow from your prairie nest
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too;
O! wind of the west, we wait for you.
Blow, blow!
I have wooed you so,
But never a favour you bestow.
You rock your cradle the hills between,
But scorn to notice by white lateen.

I stow the sail, unship the mast:
I wooed you long but my wooing’s past;
My paddle will lull you into rest.
O! drowsy wind of the drowsy west,
Sleep, sleep,
By your mountain steep,
Or down where the prairie grasses sweep!
Now fold in slumber your laggard wings,
For soft is the song my paddle sings.

August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Drift, drift,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.

The river rolls in its rocky bed;
My paddle is plying its way ahead;
Dip, dip,
While the waters flip
In foam as over their breast we slip.

And oh, the river runs swifter now;
The eddies circle about my bow.
Swirl, swirl!
How the ripples curl
In many a dangerous pool awhirl!

And forward far the rapids roar,
Fretting their margin for evermore.
Dash, dash,
With a mighty crash,
They seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash.

Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!
The reckless waves you must plunge into.
Reel, reel.
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel.

We’ve raced the rapid, we’re far ahead!
The river slips through its silent bed.
Sway, sway,
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.

And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Swings, swings,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.

Erie Waters

A dash of yellow sand,
Wind-scattered and sun-tanned;
Some waves that curl and cream along the margin of the strand;
And, creeping close to these
Long shores that lounge at ease,
Old Erie rocks and ripples to a fresh sou’-western breeze.

A sky of blue and grey;
Some stormy clouds that play
At scurrying up with ragged edge, then laughing blow away,
Just leaving in their trail
Some snatches of a gale;
To whistling summer winds we lift a single daring sail.

O! wind so sweet and swift
O! danger-freighted gift
Bestowed on Erie with her waves that foam and fall and lift,
We laugh in your wild face,
And break into a race
With flying clouds and tossing gulls that weave and interlace.


From out the west, where darkling storm-clouds float,
The ‘waking wind pipes soft its rising note.

From out the west, o’erhung with fringes grey,
The wind preludes with sighs its roundelay.

Then blowing, singing, piping, laughing loud,
It scurries on before the grey storm-cloud;

Across the hollow and along the hill
It whips and whirls among the maples, till

With bough upbeat, and green of leaves blown wide,
The silver shines upon their underside.

A gusty freshening of humid air,
With showers laden, and with fragrance rare;

And now a little sprinkle, with a dash
Of great cool drops that fall with sudden splash;

Then over field and hollow, grass and grain,
The loud, crisp whiteness of the nearing rain.

At Sunset

To-night the west o’er-brims with warmest dyes;
Its chalice overflows
With pools of purple colouring the skies,
Flood with gold and rose;
And some hot soul seems throbbing close to mine,
As sinks the sun within that world of wine.

I seem to hear a bar of music float
And swoon into the west;
My ear can scarcely catch the whispered note,
But something in my breast
Blends with that strain, till both accord in one,
As cloud and colour blend at set of sun.

And twilight comes with grey and restful eyes,
As ashes follow flame.
But O! I heard a voice from those rich skies
Call tenderly my name;
It was as if some priestly fingers stole
In benedictions o’er my lonely soul.

I know now why, but all my being longed
And leapt at that sweet call;
My heart outreached its arms, all passion thronged
And beat against Fate’s wall,
Crying in utter homesickness to be
Near to a heart that loves and leans to me.

The Sleeping Giant (Thunder Bay, Lake Superior)

When did you sink to your dreamless sleep
Out there in your thunder bed?
Where the tempests sweep,
And the waters leap,
And the storms rage overhead.

Were you lying there on your couch alone
Ere Egypt and Rome were born?
Ere the Age of Stone,
Or the world had known
The Man with the Crown of Thorn.

The winds screech down from the open west,
And the thunders beat and break
On the amethyst
Of your rugged breast, -
But you never arise or wake.

You have locked your past, and you keep the key
In your heart ‘neath the westing sun,
Where the mighty sea
And its shores will be
Storm-swept till the world is done.

Lady Icicle

Little Lady Icicle is dreaming in the north-land
And gleaming in the north-land, her pillow all a-glow
For the frost has come and found her
With an ermine robe around her
Where little Lady Icicle lies dreaming in the snow.

Little Lady Icicle is waking in the north-land,
And shaking in the north-land her pillow to and fro;
And the hurricane a-skirling
Sends the feathers all a-whirling
Where little Lady Icicle is waking in the snow.

Little Lady Icicle is laughing in the north-land,
And quaffing in the north-land her wines that over-flow;
All the lakes and rivers crusting
That her finger-tips are dusting,
Where little Lady Icicle is laughing in the snow.

Little Lady Icicle is singing in the north-land,
And bringing from the north-land a music wild and low;
And the fairies watch and listen
Where her silver slippers glisten,
As little Lady Icicle goes singing through the snow.

Little Lady Icicle is coming from the north-land,
Benumbing all the north-land where’er her feet may go;
With a fringe of frost before her
And a crystal garment o’er her,
Little Lady Icicle is coming with the snow.

The Lifting of the Mist

All the long day the vapours played
At blindfold in the city streets,
Their elfin fingers caught and stayed
The sunbeams, as they wound their sheets
Into a filmy barricade
‘Twixt earth and where the sunlight beats.

A vagrant band of mischiefs these,
With wings of grey and cobweb gown;
They live along the edge of seas,
And creeping out on foot of down,
They chase and frolic, frisk and tease
At blind-man’s buff with all the town.

And when at eventide the sun
Breaks with a glory through their grey,
The vapour-fairies, one by one,
Outspread their wings and float away
In clouds of colouring, that run
Wine-like along the rim of day.

Athwart the beauty and the breast
Of purpling airs they twirl and twist,
Then float way to some far rest,
Leaving the skies all colour-kiss’t -
A glorious and a golden West
That greets the Lifting of the Mist.

Be sure to keep a lookout for the next Weather and Poetry instalment and if you have any suggestions let us know!

Montreal as an Island

by Vicky Slonosky       on August 19th 2020

The spring ice break up season was always a tricky time for Montrealers. Unless you live off-island, we tend not to think too much about the practical geographical fact of the city Montreal as an island in the St Lawrence River these days. When the dire condition of the old Champlain bridge was realized and plans for the building of the new bridge were being drawn up, there was a fair amount of grumbling opinion along the lines of “I never leave the island; why should my taxes pay for all those suburbanites coming into the city?” The Champlain bridge is a vital piece of Canadian infrastructure linking the Atlantic provinces, Eastern Canada and the US to central Canada, and the most heavily travelled bridge in the country. As Montreal is an island, it has always needed goods and supplies brought in across the river. Electricity too: for those who remember the 1998 ice storm, they might also remember that at one point only one of the power lines supplying the city across the water was still functioning.

Until the Victoria railway bridge was opened in 1859, there was no permanent link across the St Lawrence to Montreal, and it wasn’t until the Jacques-Cartier bridge was opened in 1934 that there was a permanent crossing for pedestrians and carts or cars. In summer, boats and ferries supplied the city, from as near as Longueuil or as far away as Europe.

 Montreal from Saint-Helen's Island

View of Montreal from St Helen’s Island c.1830. Steam boats and sail boats ferry passengers across the Saint Lawrence. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2837606)

In winter, ice roads across the frozen river went to Longueuil, St Lambert and LaPrairie. Some years there were disputes as to which town was responsible for maintaining the ice road (which seemed to devolve into complaints about who had shovelled the most snow).

 On the Saint Lawrence River

Transporting blocks of ice cut from the River for summer cooling, 1866 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2897892)

 St. Lambert's Road

St. Lambert's Road, Montreal, QC, about 1870 (Alexander Henderson about 1870, 19th century MP-0000.1452.59, McCord Museum)

The worst times were during the freeze up and break-up of river ice. During the early winter and spring the river was too dangerous to cross and Montreal was cut-off from the rest of the continent. People either pushed the limits of boats amid the currents and ice floes or of their sleds on melting ice, risking their lives on the deceptively solid surface. Every few years, there were tragedies; on Dec 4, 1831 John Samuel McCord recorded that “Captain Perry, late of Waterloo, drowned crossing from Longueuil to Montreal.” Weather Journal of J.S.McCord, McCord Museum Archives.

 On the Saint Lawrence River

Breaking Up of the Ice in the St. Lawrence at Montreal. 1864 (Library and Archives Canada, 2838636)

It’s no wonder that Montrealers, including our weather observers, anxiously watched the state of the river. Not only was the river critical to the transport of goods and people, the annual spring break up also often led to catastrophic flooding, something still familiar to us in the 21st century. But there’s enough about flooding to be the topic of another blog post (or ten).

flooding southwest montreal

Flooding on the southwestern shore of Montreal, Spring 2018 (V. Slonosky)

Meet the Meteorologists: Quebec City

by Vicky Slonosky       on August 5th 2020

Today we are kicking off a new series on the blog: Meet the Meteorologists! Our aim is to look at the individuals around the world who helped to contribute to the creation of meteorology as a field of study and who helped inform the practice here in Montreal.

These individuals were often interested in weather as how it connected to their day jobs. They were often the intellectuals, religious figures, engineers, doctors or businessmen in communities and helped contribute to our understanding of weather in the St. Lawrence basin where Montreal resides. All individuals mentioned in this series were taken from Climate in the Age of Empire by Dr. Victoria Slonosky.

So let’s kick things off with New France and the people who called Quebec City home.

Jean-François Gaultier (1706-1756)

Gaultier was born in Rouen, Normandy, in northern France and educated in medicine in Paris, where he came into contact with some of the most renowned botanists and natural philosophers of his day at the Jardin du Roi, where medical students were instructed in the therapeutic uses of plants. These connections, notably to the Jussieu brothers and Duhamel Dumonceau, helped him obtain the prestigious appointment of royal physician in Quebec City from 1742 to 1756. He was the first person to keep systematic instrumental meteorological observations in Canada. Detailed records were sent every year to his correspondents at the Academie Royale des Sciences. Gaultier’s temperature observations, especially of the cold winter temperatures in Canada, were of crucial importance to the development of thermometers in the eighteenth century (Boivin 1974).

Learn more:

James Thompson (1733-1830)

Thompson studied civil engineering at some point in this youth. He participated in the siege of Louisberg and the capture of Quebec in 1759/ He supervised repairs and dealt with military and government construction for all of the British colony of Canada until 1825. During the 1770s and 1780s, he kept a diary in which he noted down the weather and how it affected his civil engineering works (Rioux 2003, Chapman and McCulloch 2010).

Learn more:

Alexander Spark (1762-1819)

Spark was a Scottish clergyman who founded the first Presbyterian Church in Canada: St. Andrew’s in Quebec City. A product of the Scottish Enlightenment, Spark did much to promote education in Canada. He kept meteorological records from 1789 to 1819 (Campbell 1887, Lambert 1983, 1984).

Learn more:

Louis-Édouard Glackmeyer (1793-1881)

Glackmeyer was a notary in the Quebec City region whose records cover the 1844 to 1859 period. His father had been a bandmaster from Germany who settled in Quebec in 1776. Glackmeyer was politically active and did much to reform the profession of notaries. He was interested in music and botany as well as meteorology (Vachon 1982).

Learn more:

William Ward, Royal Engineers (unknown-1867)

William Cuthbert Ward served in the Napoleonic Wars. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1837, to colonel in 1851, and to major general in 1858. Ward was the senior engineering officer in York (Toronto) during the construction of the Toronto Observatory and later was the senior officer in charge of meteorological observations in Quebec City (Royal Engineers 2016).

This wraps up our first look at meteorologists which helped to shape the field of meteorology and the creation of our own ledgers. Tune in next time for a look at the individuals who called Montreal home!

Introducing DRAW Members: Drew Bush

by Rachel Black       on July 22nd 2020



Drew Bush


Lyndonville, Vermont

Role at DRAW:

Education Team Member

Favourite part of DRAW?

Educator’s Corner

Favourite Season?

All of them (as long as I get to be outdoors)

Favourite Weather Symbol?



Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

Cirrus, the wispiness is cool

                      cirrus clouds during sunset

Coolest thing you’ve learned while participating in DRAW?

About Charles Smallwood, the founder of the McGill Observatory

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?


Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?


Favourite place in Montreal?

Chinatown/Place des Arts

Learn more about Drew here:

  • Personal Website
  • SALTISE Profile
  • McGill Academia Profile
  • Research Gate Profile
  • Linked In Profile
  • Twitter

  • Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

    Heatwaves: Blasts from the Past

    by Vicky Slonosky       on July 8th 2020

    Heatwaves and cold snaps have always been a feature of Montreal and Quebec weather. Jean-François Gaultier (1708-1756), who was royal physician in Quebec City from 1742 to 1756, left vivid descriptions of heatwaves and hot summers in the mid-18th century, mentioning “les chaleurs excessives presque continuelles” (“the nearly continual excessive heat”; July 1746).

    Answering questions like ‘Which was the hottest day or warmest summer on record?’ is not always straightforward when dealing with complicated historical data. Both mean temperature and maximum temperature need to be considered to provide a complete view of historical summer weather and heat waves.

    The summers of 1807 and 1808 were extremely warm in Quebec City, for example, with the warmest summer known so far in the Saint Lawrence Valley region at an estimated mean temperature of 23.5°C occurring in 1808. It’s possible that 1807 was even warmer than 1808, but many observations are missing for the months of June and early July, when Alexander Spark, the Presbyterian clergyman who kept the weather diary for those years, moved house. For comparison, 1955 was the 4th warmest summer at 22.4 °C and 2018 the 7th warmest at 22.0 °C (all mean temperatures).

    Mean Temperatures

    Looking at maximum temperatures for the months of June, July and August only, 1800 comes in at a scorching 29.3°C, 1808 at 28.4°C, 1955 in 7th place at 27.4°C and 2018 in 9th place at 27.04°C. The numbers from the early 1800s do have to be taken with a large pinch of salt, however; although some adjustments have been made to account for the different way the instruments were exposed, the observers were almost all men with other jobs. As a result, they weren’t often home during the day, so afternoon observations which were closest to maximum temperatures tend to be missing more often than the morning temperatures which were closest to the daily minimum. Looking at the more reliable daily minimum temperatures, the warmest summers were 1807 at 18.8°C followed by 1808 at 18.5°C, with 1955 in 5th place at 17.4°C and 2018 in 7th place at 16.9°C.

    Max Temperatures

    But what about heat waves during ‘normal’ summers?

    In 1820 there were six separate heatwave events. For context, a ‘heat-wave’ is defined by consecutive days above 30°C. The first, lasting from June 23 to June 30 was preceded by three separate days (June 18, 19, and 23) at 30°C. Two heat waves hit from July 3-5, with readings of 36.7°C (98°F) at 1pm on July 3, and from July 7-9. The longest however was during the nine days lasting from July 23 to July 31. Although the afternoon temperatures weren’t extraordinarily warm, ranging a degree or two above 30°C, it didn’t seem to cool off at night with estimated minimum temperatures staying above 18°C. There were still a further two heatwaves that season (August 9-12 and September 7-11). On September 11 1820 the temperature hit 34.4°C (94°F). By September 21 the heatwaves were over and there was frost in the early morning.

    And although 1868 doesn’t stand out in the statistical data as a very hot summer, it does have a surprising number of days with smoke recorded by John Bethune, an Anglican clergyman who kept a meteorological diary from 1838 to 1860, and two separate recorded heat waves. Going by Bethune’s weather records, the first lasted from July 1-4 and the second from July 9-14, although the temperature hovered around the 30°C mark until July 20th. The maximum temperatures recorded by Bethune for July 15 and July 18 came short of the official heat wave definition, clocking in at 29.4°C.

    A look through the Montreal Gazette archives shows that the official definitions don’t always capture the whole story though. The summer of 1868 was hot and dry with forest fires burning throughout the region. Throughout the month of July, Gazette reporters kept a commentary on the heat and its effect on Montrealers. On July 14th, the city “seemed converted into a huge Turkish bath”. On July 16th, seven people were reported as having died of sunstroke or from the heat, and one person drowned. “The heat is not only fatal to man and beast but the trees and grass show signs of the terrible ordeal they are going through. The grass is crisp and brown and the trees.. are fast turning a sickly yellow”. On July 21, the lack of rain was causing cattle to suffer on farms, and the hay crop was feared to be in danger of being short.

    The heatwaves of the 19th century mostly had to be endured before much of the public infrastructure we take for granted was developed: not only no electricity, but no running water, water fountains or public swimming pools. Efforts were made to keep the streets cool by sprinkling water on them but “so hot are the streets that the water sprinkled on them… at one end is dried up before the carts reach the other”. The Sanitary Association and a Dr. Carpenter opened up a free bathing place by having boards put up on the Lachine canal for “decency”, the Gazette reported approvingly on July 20, though “the sooner the bathers extract the broken bottles the better”. A thousand people a day were using the canal to cool off by the 23rd, when plans to open up a second free bathing spot in the eastern end of the city by the harbour was announced.

    Photograph | Swimmers at the beach on St. Helen's Island, Montreal, QC, about 1936 | M2011.

    July 23rd, a welcome relief: “ALMOST COOL. Last night was the coolest night… for some time. When the expression coolest is used it means the beds were not as hot as pancakes, just fired, and the atmosphere not like a baker’s oven”. The last heat wave of 1868 broke by the 24th, but the trials of Montrealers were not over. Just as the heat broke, the city was engulfed in smoke from “numerous fires in the woods in the neighborhood”. Smoke from forest fires had been reported as surrounding Quebec City as early as July 20. “Great fires” were also reported to have been “raging for weeks” in the Ottawa region.

    Print | On the beach in front of the Cartierville Boating Club, Montreal vicinity, QC, about 1910 | MP-0000.897.6

    As the century progressed, public health authorities worked to open parks and pools to Montrealers, especially those of the work class who didn’t have easy access to running water or clean, private pools or lakes. Like Montrealers today, many visited parks to keep cool. Unlike today, residents were sometimes given permission to sleep in the parks at night to escape their “hot as pancakes” beds. As well as sleeping in parks, the Quebec Chronicle recorded residents sleeping on balconies, rooftops and in doorsteps. Wealthy citizens could leave the city for the country, which could mean Mount Royal in the early to mid 19th century, the West Island in the late 19th century and 20th century, or all the way to the lower Saint Lawrence for the upper classes.

    What do you think of the heatwaves of yester years compared to those we are experiencing today? Could you survive without air conditioning, refrigeration and readily available swimming spaces? Let us know!

    Measuring Humidity: A Long and Difficult Process

    by Vicky Slonosky       on June 24th 2020

    Why is it that some days it feels hotter than others? Or that we have difficulty breathing? It's all thanks to humidity, or water vapor in the air. This week let's dive into how humidity is measured.

    Humidity has long been one of the most difficult atmospheric variables to measure objectively. Indeed, it took some time to recognize exactly what the role of water vapour was in the precipitation cycle, and it was in attempting to quantify just how precisely water vapour, humidity, clouds and precipitation were all related that John Dalton, a passionate meteorologist, became the discovery of atomic theory through his gas law of partial pressures and revolutionized chemistry.

    For humidity, the measurement we really want to get at is the amount of water vapour contained in the air. However, because the amount of water vapour the air can contain is strongly dependent on temperature, another indicator we might find useful is how close the air is to saturation. When the air is completely saturated, it can’t contain any more water vapour and water starts to precipitate out in droplets, forming fog. Air which is very cold can contain very little water vapour and yet be close to saturation, and conversely warm air can contain a lot of water vapour and be nowhere near saturation. Relative humidity is a measure of how much water vapour the air actually contains compared to how much it could contain, given its temperature. The dew point is the temperature to which the air would have to be cooled in order for fog to start to form. Confused yet?

    Early hygrometers attempted to measure the humidity directly by finding some material which responded to humidity and calibrating it. Hygrometers were made from anything from cotton to hair to metals, but making them reliable and, more importantly, inter-comparable from one instrument to another, was nearly impossible. Measuring the amount of water vapour in the air directly involves much time-consuming and complicated chemical manipulation.

    18th century hygrometer

    18th century hygrometer made of hemp fibre. From d’Alencé, Traittez des Barométres, Thermométres et Notiométres, 1707

    One way of trying to get at the humidity of the air is through the dry and wet bulb thermometer. The dry bulb thermometer is just a regular air thermometer, but the wet bulb thermometer has a piece of cloth, usually cotton or linen, soaked in water and wrapped around the bulb of the thermometer. The thermometer is then whirled around until the temperature registered by the wet bulb thermometer stops falling. The principle behind this similar to the beads of water that form on the glass of a cold drink on a humid day: that the water in the cloth will evaporate into the surrounding air until the air surrounding the thermometer is saturated; it can’t hold any more water vapour.

    Meanwhile, the amount of heat needed to evaporate the water from the cloth surrounding the wet bulb thermometer is recorded by the drop in temperature noted by the wet bulb thermometer compared to the dry bulb thermometer. Not all of the water from the cloth needs to be evaporated, just as much as the surrounding air can take in. If the surrounding air is already 100% saturated, and there is fog, no extra water can be evaporated from the wet bulb thermometer and the wet bulb and dry bulb thermometers will record the same temperatures. Look-up tables were used to find the values of the relative humidity and dew point from the wet and dry bulb thermometer readings.

    Of course, a problem in Canada is what to do when the temperature is below freezing, and the water surrounding the wet bulb is frozen. According to the instructions sent out to all Canadian observers in 1878, a thin film of water on the wet bulb thermometer should be brushed onto the cloth to form as thin a film of ice as possible, while taking care that not too much ice should accumulate on the bulb of the thermometer.

    Wet-bulb thermometers. From Instructions to Observers in the Canadian Meteorological Service, 1931.

    Part of the behind-the-scenes work we’ve done here at DRAW is to match the transcription environment (the pop-up bar which floats on top of the image of the weather register sheet) to the data on the page, so that when you type in the data, you should have a matching box with a title in the transcription bar that matches the printed sheet. (If you find something that doesn’t match up, please let us know through email or the “Report a problem” sheet). Every time there’s a change in the layout of how the data appears on the page, we flag this as a new “register type” and set up a new transcription environment to match.

    I hear you asking, “What does this have to do with humidity?” Well, in the 1910s, the humidity measurements changed layout five times in 18 months, as the observers experimented with hygrometers, wet and dry bulb thermometers, and other ways of capturing the humidity, sometimes adding in extra observations to the printed forms.

    To this day, water vapour remains one of the most important, but most elusive, variables needed to understand weather and climate.

    Rare Weather Phenomena - Part 2

    by Rachel Black       on June 10th 2020

    As promised, today's blog post is a followup from last week. We'll be delving into rare weather phenomena connected to clouds and snow.

    While snow and clouds are a common feature of our days, especially if you reside within Canada, the following phenomena are not often experienced by the everyday individual. The snow and cloud based rare weather seen in today's post need specific conditions to exist!

    Kelvin-Helmholtz Clouds


    Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, named for Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, resemble a series of rolling waves in the sky. They often form on windy days when two adjacent layers of atmospheric air are moving at different speeds. This phenomenon is a good indicator of atmospheric instability and turbulence for aircraft. Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds are relatively short-lived but it is believed that this phenomenon is the inspiration behind Van Gogh's famous painting Starry Night.

    For more information:

    Hail Glaciers

    Hail glaciers are large accumulations of hail that can stay frozen for some time after a storm. In New Mexico in 2004 a 15ft ice glacier formed along riverbanks following a summer hail storm and remained for nearly a month. Most recently this was documented in Mexico in June 2019, when six feet of ice buried the city, luckily causing no injuries to residents.

    For more information:

    Fallstreak Holes


    Fallstreak holes, or hole-punch clouds, are elliptical holes that can appear in cirrocumulus or alto cumulus clouds. This phenomenon is caused when the water temperature of the clouds are below freezing, but the water has in fact not frozen yet. When ice crystals are introduced, the water quickly freeze and start to fall. It is thought that a plane flying through the clouds could trigger fallstreak holes, introducing ice crystals.

    For more information:

    Snow Doughnuts

    Snow doughnuts, or snow rollers, are a completely natural rare meteorological spectacle that occurs under very specific weather conditions. When conditions are right (including a thin surface layer of snow, an under layer that is ice or powder snow, a wind that is strong enough to push but not destroy, and gravity) large cylindrical snowballs are formed. They can be super small, like a snowball made by you or me, or they could be as large (or larger!) as a car. This phenomenon can be experienced mostly in the open prairies of North America or some remote regions of Northern Europe.

    For more information:

    Morning Glory


    Morning Glory clouds are occasionally observed in different locations around the world, but often form in the gulf of Carpentaria region of northeastern Australia and resemble elongated roll clouds. They often occur in series or wave succession and are typically spotted during the morning when atmospheric conditions are relatively stable.

    For more information:


    An extremely rare weather event, thundersnow, which can also be referred to as a winter thunderstorm or a thundersnowstorm, is a thunderstorm which occurs in frigid-weather and produces snow rather than rain. So rare in fact, you may never realize that you are experiencing a thundersnowstorm unless you are right beneath it as snow acts a muffler to the thunder. While rare, it is more common in lake-effect snow areas around the Great Lakes area in Canada and the US. An occurrence of thunder snow likely means more heavy snowfalls, with a 80% chance that a minimum of 6ft of snow will fall within a radius of seventy miles of the lightning flash.

    For more information:

    Lenticular Clouds

    Lenticular Cloud over Harold's Cross Dublin Ireland 30-6-15

    Lenticular clouds, often described as looking like UFOs or a stack of pancakes, are lens-shaped clouds that form typically where stable moist air flows over a mountain or a range of mountains. There are three types (altocumulus standing lenticular, stratocumulus standing lenticular, and cirrocumulus standing lenticular) and unlike other clouds, they remain stationary in the sky. Aircraft avoid these clouds as they can cause heavy turbulence.

    For more information:

    And, one more interesting rare weather phenomenon for the road:

    Atmospheric Blocking

    Atmospheric blocking is quite possibly one of the rarest weather events on the earth and one of the most dangerous. This phenomenon occurs when a high pressure system gets 'stuck' and isn't able to continue moging through the jet stream. As a result, it can lead to events such as flooding or extremely hot and dry conditions leading to heatwaves and droughts. For example, in 2003 an atmospheric blocking event caused the European heatwave which killed 700,000 people. In 2004, atmospheric blocking caused extremely high temperatures in Alaska, causing the glaciers in the area to melt and large forest fires to begin.

    For more information:

    Rare Weather Phenomena - Part 1

    by Rachel Black       on May 27th 2020

    This week on the DRAW Blog: Rare Weather Phenomena!

    With this week’s forecast in Montreal looking intense (30C-33C, humidex 35C-38C, chance of thunder) we at DRAW thought it would be apt to delve into some rare weather phenomena. This will be a two part series, with this week looking at rare weather connected to storms!

    Storms are a common occurrence and I imagine many of our readers have experienced a storm or two themselves. Storms are often characterized by low barometric pressure, cloud cover, precipitation, strong winds, and possibly lightning and thunder. I personally have found that August tends to be the worst month for storms in central Ontario and Quebec. For example, in August 2009 a series of severe thunderstorms spawned numerous tornadoes in Southwestern Ontario, Central Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with 19 touching down. Montreal got hit with an intense summer storm in August 2017, which left many without power and several 100-year-old trees toppled.

    Here are a few interesting rare weather phenomena associated with storms for your perusing pleasure:


    Derecho are a “line of intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorms and sometimes thunderstorms that moves across a great distance and is characterized by damaging winds”. Caused by intense heat combined with ripples in the jet stream, this phenomenon is very rare across the mid-Atlantic and only occurs roughly every four years. The first named Derecho was identified in July 1877 and named for its straight rather than spiralling winds. The last recorded Derecho event occurred at the beginning of May 2020 near Nashville, Tennessee.

    For more information:

    St. Elmo's Fire

    Elmo's fire-2.jpg
    By Elmo's_fire.jpg: Unknown derivative work: Saibo (Δ) - Elmo's_fire.jpg, Public Domain, Link

    Most often occurring during thunderstorms at sea, St. Elmo’s Fire is an eerie burst of ionized air that glows blue and can cause tall structures to appear to be on fire. At sea, this would commonly appear on the top of ships masts, but it can also be seen on at the top of Church steeples on land. Named after the patron saint of sailors St. Erasmus of Formia, it was possibly considered a good omen by those who witnessed it. This phenomenon occurs from an imbalance in electrical charge that causes molecules to rip apart.

    For more information:

    Twin Tornadoes

    A single tornado can leave immense destruction and loss of life in its wake, but what about two tornadoes at the same time? Unfortunately Pilger, Nebraska found out in 2014, when twin tornadoes levelled the town. While multiple tornadoes touching down from the same parent storm are not rare, the fact that the tornadoes seen in Pilger were only apart by less than two kilometres and were equal to each other in strength, made these unique. Meteorologists are divided on what causes twin tornadoes, as they can manifest in several different ways. The NOAA Storm Prediction Centre states that twin tornadoes like these only occur roughly every 10-15 years.

    For more information:

    Ball Lightning

    Ball lightning.jpg
    By The original uploader was Srbauer at German Wikipedia. -, Public Domain, Link

    This phenomenon is rare but occurs during or after thunderstorms and is characterized by white, yellow, orange, red or blue orbs appearing in the sky. Moving slowly and erratically and leaving behind smoke trails, ball lightning can shine as bright as a 100-watt light bulb. They’ve been well documented over the years but only about 5% of the world’s population has witnessed ball lightning.

    For more information:


    You’ve heard of the Sharknado, but have you heard of the Gustnado? Classified as thunderstorm wind events, Gustnadoes are created by rain and cold air coming down from inside a storm and hitting the ground hard, creating a gust of wind. Separate from storms and not as strong as tornadoes, Gustnadoes last only minutes but are capable of inflicting some serious damage on their surroundings with wind speeds up to 60-80mph.

    For more information:


    Public Domain, Link

    Microbursts are a type of downburst, which are columns of sinking air and high speed winds associated with thunderstorms. Similar to a tornado, they can cause significant damage to buildings and landscapes but also to airplanes as they can cause a sudden change in wind direction or speed. Microbursts can be wet, dry or a hybrid of the two. Personally, I’ve seen the result of a microburst, where a grove of trees had been chopped in half after an intense thunderstorm.

    For more information:


    Mediterranean hurricanes, or ‘Medicanes’, are tiny and form when a non-tropical storm comes into contact with the warmer temperatures in the Mediterranean. Extremely rare, fewer than 100 have been noted between 1948 and 2011, and no definite trend has been detected in this period as to how and why they form. One such Medicane occurred in the Mediterranean in October 2019 hitting Egypt and Israel.

    For more information:

    And, one more interesting rare weather phenomena for the road:


    Moonbow, Kula, Hawaii..jpg
    By Arne-kaiser - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

    Moonbows, or lunar rainbows or white rainbows, are a neat phenomenon where moonlight produces a rainbow rather than sunlight. The colours seen are very light in comparison to rainbows. It is an extremely rare phenomenon as the conditions have to be just right for them to be observed. To see a moonbow, the moon has to be full, low in the sky, and the sky must be extremely dark without the presence of light pollution, with water droplets in the air and opposite of the moon. Particular, right!

    So, have you seen any of these rare weather phenomena before? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook!

    Crafting the Weather

    by Rachel Black       on May 13th 2020

    Today on the blog let's take a look at an alternative way of recording observations about the weather!

    The creative macramé community has come up with a neat way of tracking and logging weather observations. The two that I am aware of are Sky Scarves and Temperature Scarves. They are considered conceptual knitting or crafting, where projects go beyond the pattern to “become a small act of performance, community outreach or experimentation”. We’ll briefly go over each project below, with examples, and some suggestions for further exploration.

    First seen via Leafcutter Designs in 2012, the Sky Scarf encourages those who knit and crochet to watch the weather each day, wherever they are, and create a stripe in colours that match that day’s sky. The scarf is usually undertaken for one calendar year, and you can either complete the project using Leafcutter Design’s Kit or you could raid a local craft store and put together the colours and supplies on your own. Some crafters have even added in beads to represent rain that occurred during their documentation!

    Temperature Scarves are a very similar idea; a stripe is created to represent the temperature at a given time, wherever you are, for a calendar year. This trend also emerged in 2012, but has been gaining awareness, with The Weather Network putting an article out on the activity in February of this year, and hashtags like #WeatherScarf and #temperaturescarf being used to document progress. Numerous patterns exist online for discovery, with some users suggesting to average out temperatures over a day, but you can always once again raid your local craft store and create a table of colours and their associated temperatures for yourself.

    While most of the focus has been on knitting and crochet, I imagine that this project could also translate to other macramé projects like weaving. Imagine: a weather blanket or wall hanging! What a beautiful way to document your observations of the weather!

    Here are some examples of both Sky Scarves and Temperature Scarves that have been seen around social media:

    Another cool project that does something similar is the Tempestry Project, an ongoing collaborative fibre arts project started in 2017 that aims to showcase climate change through knitted and crocheted items. Participants are given weather data for a specific date and area of the world and then their pieces are shown side by side with others from the same area in order to show changes, specifically in temperature. The project relies more on existing, already recorded data, rather than daily observations by the individuals. It is a super neat project and you can find out more here: The Tempestry Project.

    Have you ever thought of creative ways to document trends or patterns like those that can be found in temperatures and the sky? Please let us know if you have!

    For more information checkout:

    Don't Miss Our New Educator's Corner, Years in the Making...

    by Drew Bush       on May 5th 2020

    You may have noticed a new tab on our website meant just for teachers and educators who want to bring Canada’s history and citizen science into their classrooms. With classes now occurring online for the foreseeable future, we hope you will add the Data Rescue: Archives and Weather (DRAW) project by asking your students to help with real scientific research that concerns their own heritage.

    You can explore the resources in our educator’s corner today and we’ll continue to add new ways to engage your students. Our new “Thematic Guide” offers primary sources on your student’s own cultural history that you can pair with any work you might assign them to examine weather and climate at specific times in the DRAW record. Or try using our curricula to guide your teaching.

    For now, we offer a downloadable three-week curriculum PDF developed for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP) students. It includes a daily course plan, lab handouts, quizzes, final exam questions, and a final assignment that involves students in meteorological data transcription and historical archival research. We’ll soon add slide decks to spice up your online lectures for use with this curriculum, and online interactive teacher training.

    Plans are also in the works for a shorter CEGEP curricula and a half-day workshop class for high school students. All of this work was made possible by generous support from the Supporting Active Learning & Technological Innovation in Studies of Education (SALTISE) community in the form of a Fall 2018 Mini Grant. As part of this work, we have studied the impacts of our curricula and expect to soon be able to share our peer reviewed research papers in our educator’s corner as well.

    Superb Super-Users: Thank you!

    by DRAW Team       on April 29th 2020

    We want to say a super thank-you today to our super-users. We have four transcribers who have each transcribed over 100 pages: Josée, Kathy, Jean-Paul and Louis. Together, these four transcribers have contributed 83% of our transcriptions! In a strange coincidence, this is the same percentage that the 10% of the contributors dubbed superusers were found to make in Online Citizen Science and the Widening of Academia. Another 15 users have completed over ten pages each, and we’re nearly at the half a million mark for the number of data points transcribed- 452 575 and counting! We still have a long way to go, though. Will we get there?

    Not only have our users, and especially our super users, contributed by transcribing data, but in the process of transcribing and examining the documents, they have also become the experts on these records. While transcribing over 500 pages Josée has examined the documents closely and has become more expert on the McGill records than many on the DRAW team. We on the DRAW team at McGill tend to look at one area of expertise, such as coding, database management or page quality and legibility. While we look at behind the scenes issues, our citizen science transcribers are the ones on the front lines who are closely engaged with the actual observations.

    Our users are the first ones to alert us to discoveries in the data, such as new words used in the observations or new observation types, some of which can lead to new ways of looking at the observations and data.

    Some issues that crop up are relatively easy to address. Our transcribers often find new words in weather descriptions, such as the use of “calm” as a wind direction, as well the traditional 8 cardinal points of north, northeast, east, all the way round the compass to northwest. Adding in a new option, such as a ninth wind “direction” for ”calm”, for transcribers to select is easy thanks to the software design.

    Other issues they've discovered are more complicated, such as some of the second pages having no observation times on them, as it never occurred to the early 20th century observers that the pages would be seen apart from each other. We’re in the process of working behind the scenes to resolve the issue but some of our more dedicated transcribers have developed work arounds, finding the corresponding pages, writing down the observation times from the first page and then using them to enter them onto the second page. This dedication is amazing and we are so grateful for the time and effort that was expended!

    Our users’ time and effort is our most precious resource. Without your help, this data would remain locked inaccessibly in paper format. Thank you to all of our users, and Josée, Kathy, Jean-Paul and Louis, for your continuing contributions to DRAW. We greatly appreciate your efforts!

    A Day in the Archives

    by Brittany Nolan       on April 15th 2020

    For this week’s blog, we wanted to give you a behind the scenes look of some of the archival research we have been doing here at DRAW. This week we were looking at the Dawson-Harrington Fonds that is held at the McGill University Archives.

    Most of the research conducted was centred around Anna Dawson Harrington. Anna was the daughter of John William Dawson, who was a principal at McGill in the 19th century. Anna married  Bernard James Harrington in 1876. Together they had 9 children: Eric, Edith, William, Bernard, Ruth, Clare, Constance, Conrad and Lois. Later in the post, we will get a chance to see some letters written by Anna’s daughter Ruth.

     Anna Dawson Harrington, 1865

    Miss Anna Lois Dawson, William Notman 1865, 19th century I-18160.1, McCord Museum

    Anna was usually writing in Montreal or Little Metis, however, she received letters from different parts of Canada and England from her brothers, father and husband. These letters have provided a glimpse into how weather events were written about in the 19th century. Sometimes the mention of the weather was quite brief, but other times we are able to see how the weather impacted the lives of the Dawson-Harringtons. 

    Letter to Anna from Mrs. Harrington on June 26, 1868:

     letter to Anna Dawson, 1868

    From the Dawson-Harrington Fonds held at McGill University Archives: MG1022_c.61_003

    In this letter, Mrs. Harrington complains that the hot weather had been making her lazy. This is an example of a more passing mention of the weather. However, it was one of several letters sent in the summer of 1868 that Mrs. Harrington complained about the extreme heat. 

    Letter to Anna from Mrs. Harrington on July 19, 1868:

     letter to Anna Dawson, 1868

    From the Dawson-Harrington Fonds held at McGill University Archives: MG1022_c.61_003

    This letter shows the more extreme consequences of high summer temperatures. In this letter, Mrs. Harrington states that both men, women and horses were dying in the streets due to the heat. The letter potentially shows the impact of hot summers in the mid-19th century. It also highlights the usefulness of using historic documents to explore the social impacts of the weather. 

    Anna’s daughter, Ruth, wrote about the weather in a much more light-hearted way. For example, in a letter from November 1894 to her mother, Ruth writes about wanting to go skating. In her next letter, she mentions skating again, declaring that the skating rink would open that week.

    Letter to Anna from her daughter Ruth on December 9, 1894: 

     letter to Anna Dawson, 1894

    From the Dawson-Harrington Fonds held at McGill University Archives: MG1022_c62_029

    During the 19th century, many Montrealers took advantage of the winter weather to participate in other winter activities as well such as tobogganing, snowshoeing and sleighing. You can learn more about winter in Montreal by checking out some of our previous blog posts (Like this one for example!)

     Winter Souvenir of Montreal, 1900

    Winter Souvenir of Montreal. Montreal: Valentine, 1900. Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library

    To end off this week, here are some tips and tricks for undertaking archival research:

    1. The archivist(s) are your best friends! Always be sure to contact the archive before your first day of research. This is important for a number of reasons, including ensuring the documents you want to look at are accessible. And often archivists can recommend other fonds that may be relevant to your research.
    2. Enquire about copyright restrictions. Are you able to take photographs of the documents, can they be scanned, and what use restrictions (if any) do the documents have.
    3. If you are able to take your own images: take an image of the file number of the folder to keep track of where subsequent images are from or keep detailed notes! It will save you time later when you need to create references.
    4. Eat and drink before your visit. Food and drinks are not allowed in archives and special collections as they could accidentally be spilled and ruin unique documents.
    5. Have fun!

    While archival institutions may be practicing social distancing like the rest of us, don't hesitate to reach out if you are interested in doing some research - they may have a ton of resources available online that you could access! For example McGill has a cool exhibit on at the moment, 'Food Riddles and Riddling Ways', which takes material from the Rare Books and Special Collections Department! Check out other cool citizen science projects on our discover page if you're looking to connect further!

    Calling All Weather Enthusiasts - We Challenge You!

    by DRAW Team       on April 8th 2020

    Looking for something to do while you’re self-isolating and social-distancing? Would you like to contribute to weather, climate science, and history? Come help us transcribe weather records from the past on DRAW:

    DRAW (Data Rescue: Archives and Weather) is a project to digitize the most complete historical record of Canadian weather. In these handwritten logbooks, students at McGill University from a century ago recorded temperature, cloud cover, weather symbols, and many other types of weather observations several times a day.

     McLeod with his students

    McLeod with surveying students

    We need to make these millions of meteorological observations digitally available for scientific analysis. These logbooks also allow us to preserve the social history of daily life battling Canadian weather.

     McGill Observatory Logbook

    McGill Observatory Logbooks

    Here’s where we need your help! You can join a community of citizen scientists who are contributing to the understanding of historical weather patterns and building better knowledge of our climate. All you need to do is sign up at and begin transcribing handwritten weather observations into computer-crunchable data. The more involvement we have from individuals like you, the sooner this important data can be used by scientists. For example, we want to see how the number and severity of snowstorms, floods or heat waves are changing; your contributions can help us do that.

    Follow our social media to learn more about our project. Tweet us about your progress and you just might appear on our feed as a featured transcriber! You can also check out our website to find out more about Montreal, Quebec’s and Canada’s past weather, climate history and incredible scientific heritage.
    Facebook: DRAW McGill
    Twitter: @DRAWMcGill #DRAWMcGill #CanadaTranscribes
    Instagram: @draw_mcgill

    Rainbow Wonderland

    by Rachel Black       on April 1st 2020

    Good Morning Readers! While we tried very hard to discover a cool weather themed April Fool’s Day hoax to discuss, there’s surprisingly very few weather themed hoaxes out there! Instead we are going to chip in with spreading some hope and talk about Rainbows!

    Windows, landmarks and social media accounts across Quebec and Montreal have been blowing up with images of Rainbows. Children and adults are participating to show that while the world may be a little uncertain at the moment, we are full of hope and good will towards each other. Landmarks such as the Champlain Bridge, the Montreal Tower, and the Montreal International Airport have all been participating, giving off this beacon of light to residents.

    The use of the rainbow as a symbol of hope isn’t all that surprising in fact! Throughout many cultures they are seen as having positive connotations. In Greco-Roman tradition they were a path made by a messenger between Earth and Heaven, while the Irish saw the rainbow as leading to the leprechaun’s secret hiding place for his pot of gold. In Christian tradition, the rainbow was placed in the sky as a sign of God’s promise that He would never again destroy the earth with flood, as we see with Noah and the Ark. The Norse saw it as the Bifrost, the bridge which connected Asgard and the Midgard.

    Often rainbows are colourful symbols of peace and are featured in music, film and art. They feature heavily in religious art and in modern art where they emphasize joy and celebration. When it comes to music, first to mind for me is the famous song, Over the Rainbow from the movie Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy sings of a wonderful place where dreams come true. In addition, rainbow flags have represented LGBT social movements since the 1970s. You can see a representation in Montreal during the summer with the art installation ’18 Shades of Gay’ which covers a one kilometre long stretch in the Gay Village.

    But what of rainbows as weather phenomena? Rainbows are caused by the reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets. Light enters the water droplet and refracts from white light to coloured light, reflects off of the back of the droplet and then refracts once more upon leaving the droplet. What appears to us then is the beautiful multicoloured circular arc. If one is lucky, you can even see a double rainbow, or a full circular rainbow.


    In our ledgers, the rainbow has been assigned its own symbol, but it does not appear all that frequently.


    While with DRAW I have yet to encounter one in our ledgers! While this is speculation, this could be due to the location of where we took our readings (where the current Leacock Building is) or due to the time of day when we took readings. Rainbows exist all over, but where and how you are viewing the refraction of light will determine if you perceive the rainbow.

    So this is our challenge to you, readers: Help us transcribe our ledgers in search for the elusive rainbows and let us know on Twitter when you find a rainbow!

    Have an excellent rest of your week and stay happy and healthy!

    The Flood of 1886

    by Brittany Nolan       on March 18th 2020

    This week on DRAW learn more about the flood of 1886, brought to us by one of our archival students, Brittany Nolan!

    In the 19th century, the coming of spring was often accompanied by floods in Montreal. The floods of 1886 were particularly bad; some parts of the city were covered by over 4 feet of water!

    The flooding began on Saturday, April 17th. At first, only cellars had a few inches but it quickly worsened. The flood was so bad that the Grand Trunk Railway yards were filled with water and had to be closed. Two days later the Gazette wrote an article claiming that these were the worst floods yet and that the Saint Lawrence River was at an all-time high.

    But, what caused the flood in the spring of 1886 to be the worst one yet? That year the St. Lawrence had larger than usual ice floes which were lodged close to where the Jacques Cartier bridge is currently. An ice floe is a floating sheet of ice and the lodged ice floes caused the St. Lawrence river banks to overflow with both ice and water.

     Flood at Bonaventure, 1886

    Flood, Bonaventure Depot, Montreal, QC, 1886; photographer: George Charles Arless; MP-0000.236.2

    Although the flood was clearly devastating, some people with an entrepreneurial spirit started charging others fifty-cents for boat rides. As you can see in the above image of Bonaventure Station, the road and railways of Montreal became temporary waterways. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that there were no trains coming or going from Bonaventure Station that day!

     Rising water in Griffintown, 1873

    Montreal - The Spring Floods - The Rising Water, a Sketch in Griffintown, 1873; photographer Edward Jump; M985.230.5356

    One thing you may not have expected is for fires to break out on account of the flooding. Two blocks were burnt to the ground in Griffintown on account of the floods! The floods greatly affected Griffintown inhabitants. During the 19th century, Griffintown was a working-class neighbourhood with a large Irish population. The above image is a caricature that depicted the Irish population during the 1886 flood. The image not only displays the displaced inhabitants but also shows us some of the stereotypes that were imposed on the Irish population during the 19th century. Despite this, the inhabitants of Griffintown tried to make light of their situation. People allegedly had surprise parties, and young women were singing and playing concertinas on their rafts.

     Rising water in Griffintown, 1873

    Flood, Chaboillez Square, Montreal, QC, 1886; photographer Henry Herbert Lyman; MP-0000.411.2N

    The floods of 1886 were devastating - but they did push the city to come up with better flood prevention plans. In May 1886 a royal commission was launched to determine the cause of the flooding, and form a solution to combat the yearly floods. The result of this commission was a flood wall that measured just over 1500 feet that was completed just before the turn of the century in 1899. Now with the coming of spring, we can rest a little bit easier than our 1886 counterparts!

    Weather Forecasting: Vennor's Bulletin

    by Rachel Black       on March 4th 2020

    This week in the blog: weather forecasting at the height of our ledger creation!

    It’s likely not surprising to our readers that humans have been trying to forecast the weather, for a variety of reasons, for a long time. It’s not too different from what we do today in fact, as ancient weather forecasting methods usually relied on observing events and seeing the patterns that came from them (called pattern recognition). These events could be cloud patterns, for example. A very well-known type of pattern recognition would be ‘old wives’ tales’, such as ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s take warning’ which predicts sunny, fair and clear weather. Weather predictions like these are often area-specific, but variations can occur (New Zealand has a similar one but it predicts the strength of wind rather than a sunny day!).

    Some common methods of predicting the weather include:

    • Persistence – What the weather is today to determine the weather tomorrow
    • Barometer – Has the pressure suddenly changed? Might be rain or clear skies!
    • Sky Observations – Certain clouds can indicate rain is coming
    • Analog Technique – A complex prediction where a previous weather event is compared to an upcoming similar event to explain what might happen. This often happens for storms

    While many of these methods are useful and often quite accurate, not all predictions during this early weather forecasting period were reliable or would stand up to rigorous testing. As we all likely know well, the weather can be unpredictable at times despite our best efforts.

    The Milestone weather forecasting stone - - 1708774

    These days, communicating the weather to the public is a large part of weather predictions. It’s part of our daily lives as it is found in newspapers, the radio, online, or even when we simply open up our phones. Checking what the weather is up to is part of our daily routines as often the weather will dictate travel plans, clothing and even what we need to pack in our bags for the day. But what was weather forecasting and communicating these predictions to the public like when our ledgers were being completed?

    Luckily there are amazing resources out there that can tell us exactly this. Let’s look at Vennor’s Weather Bulletin for example!


    Vennor’s Weather Bulletin was a Quebec publication that ran from 1882 until 1883 in Montreal. Composed of roughly 16 pages, it was sent by post monthly and was “a paper devoted exclusively to the weather and allied topics”. This meant that it didn’t just look at discussing or predicting the weather but also advertised products and services within its pages. It aimed to put weather in a way that the ordinary reader could understand and endeavoured to “present in a readable and simple form, occasionally with a diagram, what have been the more marked features of the closing month, and endeavour to sketch out the probable outline of the weather for that just entering”.

    The bulletin ultimately was to be a source for weather inquiries for all across North America. Vennor wished to avoid vague descriptions and whenever possible tried to go for detailed descriptions of weather events. It described the ‘character’ of the months (February being ‘fickle’), looked at weather milestones like heaviest snows, looked at the range of temperatures for the seasons, and included correspondence from other locations, such as an article on winter in Japan. The bulletin also provided concrete information like an entire article on how to hang a Barometer in the January 1882 edition. In addition, there were letters to the editor, reports, and even a ‘Queries and Answers’ section in which some answers were of a more joking tone.

    While this bulletin is short lived, it provides a wealth of information about Montreal, Quebec and the weather predictions which were occurring for this area and for North America at large. If you’re interested in learning more about Vennor’s Bulletin, it is available online here through McGill.

    Introducing DRAW Members: Robert Smith

    by Rachel Black       on February 19th 2020



    Robert Smith


    L’anse au Loup, Labrador

    Role at DRAW:

    Creator and maintainer of the DRAW’s archival data rescue web application.

    Favourite Part of DRAW?

    My favourite part is working together to solve tough challenges as a team.

    Favourite Season?


    Favourite Weather Symbol?

    Lunar Halo


    Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

    Cirrus because they are made up of ice crystals far up above the others and look really beautiful during sunsets.

                          cirrus clouds during sunset

    Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

    I learned how to build a Ruby on Rails web application. I started developing this software as my independent study project at McGill during my final semester before graduation, and have been continuously designing and developing the software with the rest of the DRAW team ever since! Working on the software has led me to pursue an exciting career in software development and continues to be a source of creative expression to this day.

    And of Course:

    Sweet or Salty?


    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Star Trek

    Cats or Dogs?


    Favourite Animal?

    Mantis Shrimp

    Favourite place in Montreal?

    Mont Royal

    Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

    DRAW February Funnies

    by Rachel Black       on February 5th 2020

    To help alleviate any February blues, this week on DRAW we are going to liven things up with some weather themed jokes! Let us know which one is your favourite or tell us your favourite weather themed joke/pun/story on Facebook or Twitter!

    How do you prevent a Summer cold?

    What do you call a month's worth of rain?

    What do you call dangerous precipitation?

    What do you call a wet bear?

    Why does Snoop Dogg need an umbrella?

    What did the thermometer say to the other thermometer?

    You make my temperature rise!

    What happens when fog lifts in California?


    What's the difference between weather and climate?

    You can't weather a tree but you can climate!

    What do you call it when it rains chickens and ducks?

    Fowl weather!

    What do you call a cold ghost?


    What day of the week has the most powerful gusts of wind?


    Why do hurricanes travel so fast?

    Because if they travelled slowly we'd have to call them slow-i-canes!

    What are the hottest days during the summer?


    What game do tornadoes like to play?


    What do freezing rain and cake icing have in common?

    Both are a glaze!

    Why is the sky not happy on clear days?

    It has the blues!

    What is the opposite of a cold front?

    A warm back!

    What do lightning bolts do when they laugh?

    They crack up!

    How do meterologists say hi?

    With a heat wave!

    Who is it that everybody listens to but nobody believes?

    The weatherman!

    On This Day: Winter Carnival 1883

    by Rachel Black       on January 22nd 2020

    Did you know this Friday, January 24th, is the 137th anniversary of the first winter carnival held in Montreal? In honour of this anniversary, let’s take a look at what the weather in Montreal was like that day.

    The Montreal Winter Carnivals were week long events focusing on local social and recreational activities. The Carnivals, which were held in 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887 and 1889, were held annually at the end of January, and hoped to showcase the unique Montreal winter activities as a way to foster a Canadian National Identity and of course benefit the local economy. Like the summer festivals held today in Montreal, the Winter Carnivals established the city as the winter wonderland spot in the nineteenth century.

    1884 Montreal Winter Carnival program cover.jpg
    By, PD-US, Link

    The planning for a carnival would begin the previous September and would include a beautiful program that detailed a schedule of events. Pictured below is the cover of the 1887 Montreal Winter Carnival program. A typical carnival included activities like curling, skating, hockey, snowshoeing, tobogganing and one year there was even lacrosse! Brr! The first hockey tournaments held at the Carnivals were the predecessor to the championship leagues later on. The highlight of the carnival though would be the ice palaces which would be created in Dominion Square and which would be the site of a great mock battle which would close the Carnival week with fireworks and a snowshoe walk up Mont Royal.

     Ice Palace photo 1884

    Ice palace, Winter Carnival, Montreal, QC, 1884 (Alexander Henderson 1884, 19th century MP-1975.19, McCord Museum)

    In our ledgers, January 24th 1883 was a Wednesday and it was cold. The first observation of the day, 3:13am showed that a lunar corona was observed. A lunar corona is a weather phenomena when rings appear around the moon and are caused by moonlight passing through thin clouds of ice crystals. The old wives tale about lunar coronas is that if you see one, prepare for snow or rain! In our case, this lunar corona did in fact predict snow and rain as later on in the day, snow was observed!

     lunar corona symbol

    The minimum temperature observed at 7am and 11pm were the same - -18 degrees celsius. The maximum temperature wasn’t much better at -11.5 degrees celsius. With it being a snowy and windy day, it was a day you’d rather bundle up inside than go out and explore a winter carnival!

    Let us know if you have attended any Winter Carnivals and if so, what your favourite events were and what the weather was like!

    DRAW and Student Projects: ENVR 401

    by Rachel Black       on January 8th 2020

    Welcome to our first blog post of the new year! Everyone at DRAW hopes you had a happy end to 2019 and we are looking forward to bringing you more interesting and engaging content in the new year!

    ENVR 401: Environmental Research is an undergraduate course offered by McGill’s School of Environment. Offered in the Fall Semester, the course has students “work in an interdisciplinary team on a real-world research project involving problem definition, methodology development, social, ethical and environmental impact assessment, execution of the study, and dissemination of results to the research community and to the people affected.” (Course Description)

    Since 2015, a student team from the ENVR 401 course have been formulating research projects around citizen science, weather and more specifically the DRAW project. Past projects focused on:

    • How training can reduce errors in citizen science projects (2015)
    • How to improve the process of citizen science engagement (2016)
    • Testing validity concerns surrounding the transcription of citizen scientists vs. professionals (2017)
    • Testing if the transcribed data to date is fit for use (2018)

    This latest Fall Semester, the ENVR 401 team chose to look at how to extract value from historical weather data. How is the data we are transcribing actually useful in analysis? Can it tell us anything about the environment and weather and how it has changed?

    The students developed a method to detect and classify winter storm events from historical weather records in Montreal, allowing comparisons between winter weather in historic and modern time periods. To do so, they developed a method to detect winter storms using frequently recorded modern data and adapted the Local Winter Storm Scale (LWSS) into a Daily Winter Severity Index (DWSI), which gave a daily score between zero and six based on the amount of snow, freezing rain, and wind in a 24 hour timeframe. In addition, they examined reports in the media to find evidence of the social impact of winter storms.

    Based on this media coverage analysis, they determined a numerical threshold level for the DWSI value to detect the start and end of a storm event. When there were multiple consecutive days with a DWSI value above this threshold level, the team considered this to be one winter storm event. Then, a model was created to aggregate the separate elements to account for the total impact of the storm and rank the entire event using a numerical scale, the Storm Severity Index (SSI).

    After developing this model, it was run for 6 Januaries between 1879 and 1884, using historical data available through the DRAW Project here in Montreal, as well as 6 Januaries between 2014 and 2019, using data collected at the Pierre-Elliot-Trudeau International Airport in Montreal by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). When looking at their results, statistical analysis shows that there was no significant difference in frequency, intensity, or distribution of storms between the old weather data and modern data collected!

     Storm Chart showing SSI and the 12 Januaries

    This year’s ENVR 401 Project was a neat look into whether or not claims that the weather is getting worse are justified. The students were able to create a method to detect and classify winter storms in Montreal that can be applied in the future, specifically to other Januaries in DRAW data, or even likely in other datasets around the world.

    If you are interested in hearing more about the ENVR 401 classes, let us know! All of the past ENVR 401 Project abstracts are available here. We are also looking towards adding the final papers from each of the DRAW specific projects to our website in the near future - so keep an eye out!

    On This Day

    by Rachel Black       on December 18th 2019

     McGill Campus, Arts Building, Dec. 18 2019

    For this week’s blog we are going to look at the weather this time 100 years ago: December 18th 1919. We won’t have time to fully immerse ourselves in what was happening 100 years ago, but to set the scene:

    • The First World War has been over for a year, with Canada signing the Treaty of Versailles over the summer to make it official
    • Influenza is running rampant and Alberta experiences an epidemic
    • In May, the Winnipeg General Strike begins
    • The Canadian National Railway is formed
    • Pierre Elliott Trudeau is born, and William Osler passes away
    • The Unionist Party is in charge federally and the Liberals are the official opposition
    • On the global scale, Russia is in the midst of a civil war
    • The United States officially bans alcohol beginning Prohibition
    • And the League of Nations is founded in January

    In terms of weather, in our historic ledgers on this day three observations were taken at 7:45am, 3:00pm, and 7:45pm. To note is that the temperatures recorded in 1919 are likely in Fahrenheit as the switch to Celsius did not occur until the 1960s.

    Thursday December 18th 1919 was cold and clear, with blue cloudless skies and a maximum temperature of -10.5 (-23.6 C) in the morning and 2.2 (-16.5 C) in the evening. The minimum temperature on the other hand for morning and evening was -12.0 (-24.4 C) and -11.8 (-24.3) respectively. The wind was South/South-West and while our ledgers do not record the unit of measurement, 16-18 was the recorded value. What is particularly interesting to note is that there is a column for ‘Sleighing’ and it was noted on this day that it was ‘0 - none’. My assumption is that this means there was very little to no snow on the ground and therefore sleighing was not in fact possible.

    When comparing modern day weather, 100 years ago was definitely a colder December. Wednesday December 18th 2019 dawned with -4 C (24.8 F) feeling like -8 C (17.6 F), South-West winds and snow flurries. The sky is definitely not blue and clear as 100 years ago, but in fact overcast. This afternoon’s predictions are -3 C (26.6 F) feeling like -7 C (19.4 F) and scattered flurries (I assume more overcast skies as a result). This evening, around a similar 7:45pm observation time, is expected to be -8 C (17.6 F) feeling like -18 C (-0.4 F) with light snow. Already we have a few centimetres of snow on the ground and if we were recording our values in similar ledgers today, I think our likelihood of sleighing would be a 1 or 2 (bad or good), depending on if our snow continues to amass and stick around.

    In the future, we will compare a single day over multiple years and see what sort of pattern emerges. A similar project has been completed with the McGill ENV 401 class who explored and compared storms in January 1879-1884 and January 2014-2019, using analysis to not only find instances of storms but to also compare whether there has been an increase or decrease in storm activity. Check back in January 2020 for a post on this topic!

    And finally, we at DRAW wish you a happy and safe holiday, whatever you celebrate, and we will see you back for more interesting and informative content in January 2020!

    Weather Symbols in Real Life: Part 2

    by Rachel Black       on December 4th 2019

    Weather symbols are important to the transcribing of weather data as they explain without words weather phenomena that is being experienced. We have dedicated a section of our website to exploring the different weather symbols we use in our transcription interface (Meteorological Observations) and a couple months ago looked at the history of weather symbols on this very blog (International Communication: Weather Symbols). But do we really know what the symbols mean when they are defined as ‘hoar frost’ or a ‘solar corona’?

    This series will explore real life images of the weather symbols - taken by our own team!

    Glazed Frost

    Captured by team member Rachel

     Symbol for Glazed Frost

     Glazed frost in real life

    "Ugly" Threatening Appearance

    Captured by team member Rachel


     Ugly threatening appearance in real life

    Flurries of Snow

    Captured by team member Rachel>/p>

     Symbol for Flurries of Snow

     Snow Flurries in real life


    Captured by team member Rachel

     Symbol for Thunderstorm

     Thunderstorm in real life

    Show us your own examples of weather symbols in real life on Facebook or Twitter!

    Introducing DRAW Members: Gordon Burr

    by Rachel Black       on November 20th 2019



    Gordon Burr



    Role at DRAW:

    Outreach and Workshop Coordinator

    Favourite Part of DRAW?

    Outreach, working with students, giving presentations - connecting with our users primarily

    Favourite Season?


    Favourite Weather Symbol?



    Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

    Cumulus - I like the fluffiness of them

                          cumulus clouds

    Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

    That weather data models are only based on the data from the last 15 years - which means what we do is really important

    And of Course:

    Sweet or Salty?


    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Star Trek

    Cats or Dogs?


    Favourite Animal?


    Favourite place in Montreal?

    Bishop Street, with its variety of restaurants

    Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

    Observing During the Wars

    by Victoria Slonosky       on November 11th 2019

    In commemoration of November 11, Vicky Slonosky talks a little bit today about the effect war has on meteorology.

    Meteorology is an important aspect of war, and during the two World Wars in the 20th century, weather observing was affected in a number of ways. Weather forecasts and reports had military strategic value, and the international exchange of weather observations, so laboriously and slowly organized over the course of the 19th century, was stopped during the world wars.

    The effect of the First World War on weather recording in Canada was mainly in the reduced number of observers, as so many students and young men having enlisted to fight overseas. This can be seen in the McGill records, where the records are in some confusion: observing times are a bit more inconsistent. Not usually by more than five minutes, but on some occasions observing times vary by up to 30 minutes.

    For example, the photo below shows an inconsistency in our own ledgers. This is from the end of February/early March 1916 and shows that observations could be off 30-40 minutes or not recorded at all.

     inconsistent observations

    Aviation became important towards the end of the First World War, and pilots discovered many of the upper air currents that determine large scale weather patterns. Norwegian meteorologists led by Vilhelm Bjerknes developed the weather front theory which led to a breakthrough in weather forecasting. Their thinking was inspired in part by the system of trenches that defined the Western Fronts stretching from Switzerland through France to Belgium in the First World War.

    Aviation was a much more important component of the Second World War, and weather forecasting was critically important for aircraft to take off, fly and land safely. This led to an expansion across Canada of training grounds for Allied pilots, and associated weather forecasting for these new airports. Morley Thomas described this period in Canada in his memoir “Metmen in Wartime: Meteorology in Canada 1939-1945.” Despite the title, some women were trained as meteorologists. Meteorologists were deemed so crucial to the war effort that they were forbidden from enlisting as soldiers, to the disgruntlement of some.

    Despite this increase in observations, the effect of the wars can be seen in the reduced number of world wide weather observations for the duration of the wars, most notably for the Second World War for sea surface temperatures. After the wars, however, data exchange resumed and after the Second World War especially, the number of stations increased dramatically.

    If you are interested in further reading about this topic, check out the following links:

    Weather in the History of Science

    by Victoria Slonosky       on November 6th 2019

    Today we will be taking a quick look at the intersection between the history of science and weather observations/meteorology.

    The movie The Aeronauts was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last month, dramatizing the lengths meteorologist James Glaisher went to in his exploration of the atmosphere, taking instruments such as thermometers and barometers up in hot-air balloons. The first balloon ascents with meteorological interests in mind were made in 1784 by Dr John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard. In 1804 French scientists Joseph Gay-Lussac and Jean-Baptiste Biot ascended above Paris with their barometers and thermometers to investigate the behaviour of the atmosphere, atmospheric gases, and the magnetic field at high altitudes. They later became renowned for their work in chemistry and physics, Gay-Lussac especially for his work on the gases laws and chemical composition.

                          Gay-Lussac and Biot in a hot air balloon

    A collecting card from The United States Library of Congress Prints and Pictures division depicting Gay-Lussac and Biot in an hot air balloon.

    At a museum on the history of science in Philadelphia, John Dalton, Biot, and Gay-Lussac were all presented as chemists, and indeed much of their work and legacy are in the fields of chemistry or physics. Most of us know Dalton through our high school chemistry class’ introduction to gas laws and as the proponent of atomic theory. But it’s not generally known that Dalton arrived at his atomic theory partly through his lifelong interest in meteorology. His first biographer, William Charles Henry, wrote that “Dalton grappled in his early years with several fundamental problems in the philosophy of heat and meteorology”. Dalton published the first edition of his Meteorological Observations and Essays in 1793, before his work on atomic theory. It was Dalton’s lifelong fascination with the processes of precipitation, evaporation and water vapour which led to his work on gases, which led in turn to his atomic theory and ground-breaking work in the field of chemistry, for which is is revered today by chemists as a founder of their field. But he was also a meteorologist, and he kept daily weather records his entire life.

    In fact, it has been suggested that Blaise Pascal launched the modern scientific age when in 1648, he set up with his brother-in law Florin Perier a quantitative scientific experiment for parallel measurements of the atmosphere with two barometers, one ascending a mountain (the Puy-du Dome in Clermont, France), and one stationary at the bottom of the mountain. By recording that the barometer which ascended the barometer dropped while the one which stayed at the bottom remained constant, the experiment established the existence of the atmosphere, and the fact that it was finite. The dawn of the scientific age began with the establishment of the atmosphere, and the units we measure pressure in today are named after Pascal.

    There are other examples of major scientific breakthroughs that came about as part of studying the weather, and which led to fruitful discoveries in other fields: Edward Lorenz and chaos theory comes to mind. One lesson this history seems to show is that the reason weather forecasting and climate prediction are still not perfect is not because smart people aren’t working on the problem, or because the weather is boring and people aren’t interested in researching it, but because weather and climate prediction are really, really hard. Weather and climate are complicated, non-linear systems, which are affected by many things and on many time scales, and climate especially ultimately involves almost all the branches of science in one way or another, from astronomy to microbiology. Nevertheless, incredible strides have been made in weather forecasting, and every bit of data we can put towards understanding past weather and climate helps us improve that understanding.

    If you're interested in learning more, check out:

    BOOK REVIEW: Climate in the Age of Empire

    by Rachel Black       on October 23rd 2019

    In today’s edition of the DRAW Blog we will be looking at the book Climate in the Age of Empire: Weather Observers in Colonial Canada. This book, written by our own Victoria Slonosky, looks at the history of weather observations in Canada between the mid 18th century and the early 20th century. This examination as a result also traces the development of meteorology (a branch of science concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere as a means to forecast the weather) and climatology (the scientific study of climate). It also inadvertently traces the history of Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto during this time, showing another facet of the history of Canada.

                          Climate in the age of empire

    Slonosky’s book aims to provide not a complete history of meteorology or climatology in Canada or a detailed analysis of the climate of the past few centuries but instead aims to look at the people involved and their motivations, ideas of weather, and their record-keeping practices. And this goal really shines through as she focuses on the individuals who drove forward meteorology and climatology to what they are today: John Samuel McCord, John Bethune, Jean-Francois Gaultier, Alexander and William Skakel, Charles Smallwood, John Henry Lefroy, and John Herschel to name a few.

    The book is structured thematically and chronologically, looking at specific topics, such as the impact which the military and medical practices/ideas at the time had on weather observations, and tying them into the timeline. Slonosky finds great pleasure in highlighting how the practice of taking weather observations was not taken in a vacuum. The individuals spoken about in this book kept up a healthy correspondence with others who were interested in taking observations, whatever their motivations may be.

    This means that we get a good look at how colonial expansion, war, and religion affect the taking of observations and how individuals were influenced by ideas emerging in France, England, the United States of America, and parts of Canada at the time. This can be traced through the letters and equipment exchanged across the atlantic, but also in the attendance at conferences were individuals, such as Charles Smallwood, presented to their contemporaries on topics of interest. Smallwood, for example, presented in 1857 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on ozone and its potential influence on disease as a disinfectant. It was always a delight when Slonosky would mention a new person who was influential to the story only to tie them to others we had already had the pleasure of meeting, showing how interconnected this network really was.

    As mentioned, motivations were differing among the individuals taking the observations. Some were part of the colonial machine, reporting their observations to their mother country to help with the understanding of the new world they encountered, such as Jean-Francois Gaultier. This included the idea that by clearing the land the settlers would change the climate for the better. Others were clergy with a private interest in understanding another aspect of God in nature, such as John Bethune. Physicians were also interested in weather, as it was the belief that the weather impacted disease, like malaria, and there were efforts to determine whether this could be true.

    You might think that observing the weather and jotting it down would be a relatively easy practice but in fact it was highly complex and contentious. War could stop the observations completely or the communication of observations to other parts of the world; there was much debate about when the observations should be taken, where they should be taken; funding was often scarce when derived from private sources or tied up in the colonial expansion and thus the military structures of the time; and the observations themselves were not standalone facts of figures – they were often used to try and prove (or disprove) theories of the time, like the storm controversy which was at its heigh in early 19th century USA. Slonosky weaves these elements into discussions on the individuals effortlessly.

    Overall, Slonosky’s book is a good look at this often forgotten part of our history. She takes great effort in describing the individuals, networks, equipment and ideas which existed at the time. This includes a discussion and analysis in the last two chapters of whether climate change, the ability to change the environment to better change the climate, was in fact occurring at the time as observers believed. It was interesting to note that climate change as a theory is in fact not a new concept and had been around in Canada for almost four centuries! My only criticism would be how jam-packed this book is with information, which is wonderful, but hard to get through at times. It is definitely more suitable as a textbook that you read a chapter or two as needed, rather than as a pleasure novel you read from cover to cover. This is mostly due to the jumping we do in the timeline as a new theme is introduced. What is beneficial though is a detailed biographical index at the end, allowing readers to quickly reference who the new (or not so new!) name that is being referenced is.

    In conclusion, Slonosky’s book is an excellent addition to the history of Canada and sheds light on a topic that is not often (if at all) taught in formal history classes today. I would highly recommend seeking out a copy and learning more about the history of weather observations, meteorology and climatology in Canada.

    Check out the Goodreads for the book here or find the book on Amazon.

    DRAWn into Education

    by Rachel Black       on October 9th 2019

    Bad puns aside, we’ve focused so far on historical weather, our ledgers and our members as well as the transcription process on the Blog so today we will explore other aspects of the DRAW project - namely fostering education and awareness.

    DRAW, as you know, is a project dedicated to making the data from the old McGill Observatory ledgers available widely to the scientific community. We decided to do this by digitizing the pages of the ledgers and then making a platform in which the public (you!) can transcribe the data into datasets for further analysis. As part of this, we field questions about the process, troubleshoot any issues, and try to keep our users informed/interested in various topics through this Blog site. In addition, DRAW works with educators to inform students about not only the project, but to use the project as a case study in order to help students learn about not only weather but also the scientific process.

    One such example is DRAW’s work with the Montreal CGEP Dawson College. As part of our efforts towards improving science literacy, DRAW has created a three week CGEP Course Module, where students utilize data transcription in DRAW to learn about citizen science, historical meteorology, and climate/weather research. You may remember a bit of our work with Dawson College discussed previously in Geoffrey Pearce’s guest post on Air Quality in July, as Pearce is the teacher for this module we developed.

    To date there have been two iterations of this course, with the first in 2018 focusing more on social science research methods and the latter on environmental science and energy usage (2019). The students work in groups to utilize archival resources (i.e. historical newspaper archives, BANQ, first-hand published accounts) to match a specific day in history with the historical meteorological record from DRAW. This course helps to foster further interest in the sciences and helps us assess our transcription platform and processes to improve the site for our users.

    DRAW is also focused on education at the post-secondary level. We will hear about it further in the coming weeks, but DRAW works with the School of Environment in the ENVR 401 Environmental Research Class as a topic for their interdisciplinary research project. Last year’s ENVR 401 group, for example, focused on determining how fit for use the DRAW archive data was based on both year and the columns within the ledgers.

    This is just a peek at the work DRAW does in terms of helping improve scientific literacy and educational projects we are involved in. If you or your organization is interested in collaborating with DRAW please do not hesitate to get in touch!

    Introducing DRAW Members: Rachel Black

    by Rachel Black       on September 25th 2019



    Rachel Black



    Role at DRAW:

    Records Management, Social Media, Outreach - Jack of all trades!

    Favourite Part of DRAW?

    The interdisciplinary nature! Its awesome to interact with several different disciplines and explore new ways to look at projects.

    Favourite Season? Why?

    Autumn - I love the colours, the smell and the crisp air.

    Favourite Weather Symbol? Why?

    As much as I hate dealing with it in reality, I love the Snow symbol.


    Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

    I really love Cirrocumulus - I was told by my grandfather as a child that they predicted rain coming and its stuck with me since.


    Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

    The vast communication network that existed between Europe and North America. Its really fascinating to see the influences individuals had on each other and weather recording practices.

    And of Course:

    Sweet or Salty?

    Sweet! Such a sweet tooth.

    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Star Trek.

    Cats or Dogs?


    Favourite Animal?


    Favourite place in Montreal?

    Probably any natural space - I love how many parks, parkettes, and just neat little crooks and crannies there are in Montreal to be discovered. A close second would be the large variety of vegetarian/vegan restaurants to explore!>

    Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!


    by Victoria Slonosky       on August 28th 2019

    It’s hot and humid outside, and has been another sizzling summer. But before we complain too much, we should remember the past winter…

    All Montrealers agree that this past winter was a difficult one, with the freezing rain and freeze-thaw giving us lots of ice everywhere. This ice then hardened making walking a dangerous activity, with the risk of slipping and spraining or breaking a limb high. But how unusual was it in historical terms?

    The first person to ask me this was Natasha Hall from CJAD this past winter, so I ran a few statistics to answer her. It was definitely unusual, with the fifth highest number of hours of freezing rain since 1954 – 83 hours of freezing rain or drizzle between November 2018 and March 2019. For comparison, there were 104 hours in 1998, the year of the famous ice storm, and 103 hours in 1983, another year with severe ice storms. The average since 1954 is 43 hours of freezing rain and drizzle per winter.

    Freezing rain is hard to compare with historical records as past observers usually only noted if freezing fell during a day, not the number of hours as observers have done since the start of hourly observations at the Dorval Airport. They also seem to have only recorded strong events. This is one of the reasons the DRAW project is so important: we need the weather data from DRAW to bridge the gap between historical weather diaries and modern synoptic observations, and to be able to tell the difference between real changes in weather, and changes that come about because of the different ways people observed in different periods. Despite this, it does look like freezing rain has increased since the 18th and 19th centuries.

    The freeze-thaw effect, where warm temperatures during the day melt snow into puddles of water, only for the cold nights have the puddles refreeze into lethally slippery smooth patches of ice, was not unusual this past winter. The average number of freeze-thaw days over the winter is 42, and the winter of 2018-2019 winter had 45 freeze-thaw days. The winter of 2017-2018 holds the record number of freeze-thaw days, at 67, followed by 2002 and 1880, both tied at 65. The vast puddles turned into lethal ice surfaces might, somewhat counterproductively, have had more to do with efforts to melt the ice from freezing rain than with the actual air temperature.

    Until the mid-20th century, transport in Montreal relied on horses and carriages or sleighs. Sleighing conditions were important, and warm winters with frequent melting and refreezing were harder to get through than cold ones. When the temperature went below freezing and stayed there, rivers froze and became roads. Snow accumulated, packed down hard and made conditions perfect for horse drawn sleighs. With fur lined robes and dressed for the cold, transport was sometimes easier in winter than on muddy roads in spring and summer.

     Sleigh and Horse

    Figure 1: Horse and Sleigh with passenger

    After 1900, ironically the same year that the first automobile came to Montreal (clipping thanks to V. de Serres),a column marking “Sleighing conditions” was added to the weather register.

     McGill Register

    Figure 2: Sleighing Condition was on the form, but rarely recorded!

    Despite the ever increasing presence of motor vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles were still used for deliveries in Montreal well into the 1950s.

     La Presse 1899

    Figure 3: Clipping from La Presse, November 23 1899

    In warm winters, with frequent freeze-up followed by thaws, roads became impassable mires of frozen slush or mud. With each snowfall the sleighs had to be brought out; with each thaw they had to be replaced again with wheeled carriages, which tended to get stuck in the half frozen mud. Years with high numbers of freeze-thaw days include 1805 and 1825, 63 days each between November and March, 1807 and 1849. The winter of 1848-1849 was described in detail by Dr William Sutherland of Montreal, who recorded having to switch between his carriage and sleigh through the entire winter.

    “Almost all the snow gone; wheels in general use today,” he wrote in his weather diary on December 30th. After a snowfall in early January, sleighs were taken out again but “wheel carriages were in use” again on January 17th 1848. There was another switch to sleighs soon after, with carriages back out on January 25th 1848. There was enough snow on February 2nd for “sleighing fairs”, but by February 22nd, “sleighing was hard in town” due to a lack of snow.

    When we remember that the roads weren’t paved, and imagine the state of the streets after the snow melted and horses, sleighs and wheeled carts and carriages have passed over, we might reflect that difficult as it might often be to get around in winter in the 21st century, it could be worse.

     Saint James Street

    Figure 4: Saint James Street by R.A. Spoule, McGill Rare Books and Special Collections, Lande Collection (Lande 32)

    Introducing DRAW Members: Renée Sieber

    by Rachel Black       on July 31st 2019

    Ever interested in who is behind our project? In this series learn about our members!



    Renée Sieber


    Ontario by way of Michigan and New Jersey

    Role at DRAW:

    Multifaceted - To answer citizen science related questions ; to look at non-experts collaboration with scientists to influence science policy ; To get people interested in the site and remain interested in the site ; To assess the quality of contributions and broader value of the contributions within science ; science literacy to help individuals become more educated about the world


    • To conduct research
    • UX, UI Design
    • Translating goals of the project into software architecture
    • Part of the interdisciplinary glue of DRAW (Geography) - the value is to advance all fields, no one is treated like a technician, we encourage people to explore what is researchable at the outer limits of their discipline

    Favourite Season? Why?

    Spring - Spring in Quebec is explosive.

    Favourite Weather Symbol?



    Favourite Tree? Why?

    Maple - because it has beautiful colours in the fall and many affordances (aesthetic in function - syrup)

    And of Course:

    Sweet or Savory?


    You are on a deserted island - three things you have to have?

    A way to make fresh water, unlimited power, a laptop that could access the internet

    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Star Wars 4-6

    Cats or Dogs?


    Favourite Animal?


    Favourite Music Genre?


    If you'd like to find out more about Renée Sieber and her work with DRAW check out our News page or explore the following:

    Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

    Horizontal and Vertical Montreal

    by Victoria Slonosky       on July 17th 2019

    This week on the DRAW blog : look at how the vertical and horizontal city can affect weather!

    The urban heat island effect is one that’s well known to many city dwellers- the fact that heat tends to accumulate in large (and even not-so-large) built up areas, partly due to land use and partly due to heat sources from energy use by people. Roads, concrete, asphalt, buildings and other man-made structures all have different heat and water absorbing or shedding characteristics than do natural surfaces such as forests, grass and wetlands.

    Large cities like Montreal have changed enormously in extent over time, starting from small centres, currently known as Old Montreal covering a few square kilometers in the early 19th century when continuous weather records began (Figure 1) to covering nearly two thousand square kilometers of urban conglomeration, suburbs and exurbs today (Figure 2).

     Island of Montreal

    Figure 1: Annotated map of the Island of Montreal, 1834 (Original from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

     Island of Montreal

    Figure 2: Island of Montreal, 2013

    But not only has the horizontal extent of downtown Montreal changed, the vertical profile has as well.

    For much of the 19th century, the Montreal skyline was dominated by churches, and most especially by the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral. The cathedral towers could be seen from miles away and feature prominently in every landscape depicting Montreal (Figures 3-6).

     On the Saint Lawrence River

    Figure 3: Travelling in winter on the St-Lawrence river, 1866 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2897892)

     Montreal from Saint-Helen's Island

    Figure 4: View of Montreal from St Helen’s Island c.1830 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2837606)

     Ice road from LaPrairie

    Figure 5: Montreal from the Road to LaPrairie over the Rapids (Philip John Bainbrigge (attributed to) 1837, 19th century M968.97, McCord Museum)

     St. Lambert's Road

    Figure 6: St. Lambert's Road, Montreal, QC, about 1870 (Alexander Henderson about 1870, 19th century MP-0000.1452.59, McCord Museum)

    With the development of Montreal as a major port, and especially the construction of the huge grain elevators from the turn of the 20th century, and the proliferation of skyscrapers from the 1930s onwards,the vertical profile of the city of Montreal changed as well. The Sun Life building, completed in 1931, was the largest building in the British Empire at the time, with 24 storeys (though the Royal Bank of Canada building, near the cathedral on St Jacques / Saint James Street, was several storeys higher). Today, it’s almost impossible to find the towers of Notre-Dame amidst the soaring building surrounding the cathedral (Figure 7).

     Recent Montreal photo of the Cathedral

    Figure 7: This more recent picture is taken from approximately the same vantage point as Figure 5 (Vicky Slonosky)

    What does this mean for the weather? As downtown residents and workers can attest, the tall buildings often act as wind tunnels, funneling icy cold blasts down the artificial canyons from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence. The presence of tall buildings can also affect convection, changing vertical air movement and leading to more cumulus clouds and thunderstorms around urban areas. Increased warmth in winter, as well as active measures to melt snow and ice, contribute to the formation of slush, which then freezes into icy surfaces overnight. The inhabitants of a city truly can create their own climate.

    In addition - if you are interested in having a great look at the vertical and horizontal changes yourself check out the lookout at the top of Mont Royal, La Grande Roue de Montréal in Old Port, or Musée Point à Callière where there is an exhibit on the changes!

    Handwriting Help

    by Rachel Black       on July 3rd 2019

    Old handwriting can be difficult to read and interpret, even for the experienced. Are you having difficulty reading the pages you are transcribing? Look no further - today’s post is about tips and tricks to reading old handwriting.

    I wasn’t aware of this before, but the study of old writing in fact has its own name : Palaeography! This discipline focuses on the reading, deciphering, dating and context of old documents throughout history. It is crucial for historians and philologists to be familiar with this discipline because language and the way we write is constantly evolving over time - to understand a document you are studying you need to know how it was created! This of course, is not to be confused with Graphology, which is the study or analysis of a person’s handwriting in order to identify personality, emotional state, or the person itself. Graphology is a little more controversial and seen as a pseudoscience in some circles.

    It can be difficult to read old handwriting for several different reasons. Is it a diary, ledger, administrative record, or personal correspondence? Or none of the above? Each of these documents might have different short forms, abbreviations, or different handwriting which could cause the document to be difficult to read. Our own weather ledgers have predetermined short-hand which might not be known to the general layperson and which might not be found in personal diaries or correspondence of someone unconnected to the weather world.

    Or spelling could be an issue. In older documents the letter ‘i’ could be substituted with a ‘y’ or the letter ‘s’ with a ‘f’. In addition, there are types of ‘mirror writing’ that can occur. I have personally seen this in notes my grandparents have made where they have inverted their ‘n’ to look like a ‘u’, their ‘w’ to look like a ‘m’ and vice versa! This can make for some amusing or confusing reading!

    Or they could have used a technique such as cross-hatching (also known as cross letters or crossed writing) which was used to save paper and thus postage in the 19th century. By writing overtop of an existing part of the letter, in the same ink in one sitting, it can be difficult to distinguish specific letters or words without practice. This requires a little more patience to decipher and luckily it is not common practice in ledgers.

     Cross-hatched letter

    Here is an example of a cross-hatched letter (Wikipedia Commons).

    Overall, learning how to navigate older handwritten primary source documents is extremely beneficial and takes practice, so don’t get discouraged! Here are some helpful tips and tricks on how to deal with handwriting on our weather ledgers:

    1. If you find something you can’t read - don’t panic!

    2. Even the most experienced historians can have difficulty reading older documents. Take a deep breath, or a break, and carry on.

    3. Check the resources available

    4. Under Meteorological Observations there is a handy chart for symbols, including those which are single letters or combinations of letters - check here to get an idea of what might be the closest to what you are seeing on the page Or check out the drop down menus that are available in the Transcription Panel - these have little images showing the options that could present in these cases - like cloud types or wind directions!

       Transcription panel dropdown

      The drop down menu for Clouds in the transcription panel has images to help!

    5. Look for clues on the page - words/letters/numbers

    6. Is there anything else on the page that can help you identify it? Compare other letters or words or numbers to see if they are similar and hazard your best guess.

      Check your numbers against others on the page - is this 7 similar to that 7? Or is it actually a 1?
      Also, if you are looking at temperature, cross check it against the time of year! A temperature of 73F is not odd for the summer, but in the winter? Probably actually 13F!

       Example of number comparison

      Is this a 2? A 7? Checking other parts of the page can clear up this confusion.

    7. Spelling

    8. If it’s an issue of spelling getting you down, sound out the word. No spell-check can create some pretty interesting spellings so think phonetically!

    9. Ask for help

    10. Ask around! Ask your friends what they think; if you are at a DRAW event, ask those around you; Ask us via Facebook, Twitter or email what we think!

    Or if you are truly stumped and no one else is sure, feel free to mark it as illegible! This will let us know that something wasn’t clear and we can get back to it for further review.

     Illegible option

    Feel free to select illegible.

    Check out these interesting reads on palaeography, graphology and other tips of the trade when reading old handwriting!

    Wikipedia - Graphology
    Wikipedia - Palaeography
    Graphology Handwriting Analysis
    WikiHow - How to Read Old Handwriting - Tips for Reading Old Handwriting
    UK National Archives - Palaeography
    Find My Past Blog - 11 Tips for Reading Old Handwriting
    Wikipedia - Mirror Writing

    Guest Post: Air Quality in Montréal

    by Geoffrey Pearce       on June 19th 2019

    Please join me in welcoming Geoffrey Pearce to the DRAW Blog!
    Geoffrey Pearce has been teaching in the department of geography at Dawson College since 2011. Prior to that he completed a master's degree in planetary science at the University of Western Ontario with a research focus on the geology of the northern plains on Mars. His attention has since shifted to Earth and helping students to engage in urban field studies and citizen science projects. Today he will be talking about Air Quality in Montreal

     Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent Blvd, 1875

    Figure 1: An engraving showing a shoe factory at the corner of Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent Blvd in 1875, with smoke being released from chimneys (source: Canadian Illustrated News, Dec. 1875/BANQ)

    In the opening of his landmark 1897 study ‘The City Below the Hill’, the sociologist Herbert Ames draws a contrast between living conditions in the well-to-do Montreal neighbourhood of Ville-Marie, ‘The city above the hill’, and living conditions in the poor and industrial areas along the Lachine Canal, ‘The city below the hill’:

    “Looking down from the mountain top upon these two areas, the former is seen to contain many spires, but no tall chimneys, the latter is thickly sprinkled with such evidences of industry and the air hangs heavy with their smoke.”

    Ames’s text provides detailed insight into economic and social conditions in neighbourhoods along the Lachine Canal, but there is only vague mention of the smoky air. A similar sense of ambiguity recently struck me when looking at the DRAW website and seeing the word ‘smoke’ written in the margins of a meteorological entry made on McGill campus in June of 1878. Was this smoke from a distant forest fire, or from people in the city burning coal and wood? Was it a localized phenomenon or did it span the city?

     Smoke in the Ledgers

    Figure 2: remark about smoke from an entry at McGill's observatory on June 15, 1878, taken from DRAW website

    This spring I put the challenge to students in an Environmental Studies course at Dawson College, where I teach geography, to describe how air quality in Montreal has changed since the late 19th century.

    Students had trouble finding discussion of Montreal’s air quality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and connecting entries of ‘smoke’ from the DRAW page with other sources proved challenging. This is related to the nascent state of public health science at the time, but is probably also influenced by the fact that air quality was so persistently poor that heavy smog was not newsworthy. Wood and coal were the main sources for cooking and heating, and a variety of industries that have since disappeared from the city landscape added to the unhealthy atmospheric mix. At the end of the assignment, several students expressed gratitude that the city smells much better than before. I suppose that this is one way to appreciate our heritage!

    Today, the Air Quality Health Index is displayed on screens while waiting for the metro, and chasing up data from specific monitoring stations is relatively simple. A quick Google search yields peer-reviewed studies about risk factors for particular boroughs, and controversies surrounding air quality - such as debate about the fate of wood burning ovens in pizzerias and bagel shops - are regularly covered in the news. The challenges that students encountered in describing the current state of air quality in the city were related to the abundance of data, rather than its paucity.

    With the semester over and the assignments graded, I was left reflecting on how difficult it is to create a succinct answer about the how, where, and why of Montreal’s changing air quality. The shift from coal to hydroelectricity beginning in the mid 20th century reduced smoke substantially, but globalization and the local disappearance of many industries was also significant, as were emissions regulations shoehorned by property developers in the 1930s. Many students were surprised to learn that coal-fired power plants in Ontario made significant contributions to pollution in Montreal until they were phased out a few years ago. And these are only a few of the main variables. While neighbourhood differences in inequality and exposure to environmental hazards in 19th century Montreal are striking, some students compared this with the current contrast in air quality between uphill and affluent areas, such as Westmount, and lower income communities bordering industrial sites, such as Montréal Est.

     Smoke graph

    Figure 3: the graph shows the # of smoke days recorded at Dorval Airport for each year between 1953 and 2018; the drop in smoke days was strongly influenced by the shift to hydroelectricity (graph courtesy of Victoria Slonosky)

    The general trend for air quality in Montreal in recent decades is one of significant improvement, but I have found that students are much more aware of harmful but short-term events then they are long-term trends. One of the drivers of science is to understand and respond to things that were formerly invisible or misunderstood. In this sense, increased awareness and measurement of smoke, and concern about its health effects, can be seen as reflective of impressive and hard-won progress. We can look to the past to understand how progress occurred and to help guide us as new challenges occur.

    Weather Symbols in Real Life

    by Rachel Black       on June 5th 2019

    Weather symbols are important to the transcribing of weather data as they explain without words weather phenomena that is being experienced. We have dedicated a section of our website to exploring the different weather symbols we use in our transcription interface (Meteorological Observations) and a couple months ago looked at the history of weather symbols on this very blog (International Communication: Weather Symbols). But do we really know what the symbols mean when they are defined as ‘hoar frost’ or a ‘solar corona’?

    This series will explore real life images of the weather symbols - taken by our own team!

    Lunar Halo

    Captured by our developer, Rob

     Lunar halo symbol

     Lunar halo real life


    Captured by team member Rachel

     rainbow symbol

     rainbow real life

    Solar Halo

    With two small “mock suns” or “sun dogs” on either side, captured by team lead Vicky

     solar halo symbol

     solar halo real life


    Captured by team member Rachel

     overcast symbol

     example of Overcast sky


     Example of Clear sky


    Show us your own examples of symbols in real life on Facebook or Twitter!

    Who Were the Observers?

    by Victoria Slonosky       on May 22nd 2019

    This week we will explore a little about the individuals who were taking the observations we are transcribing.

    The McGill observatory was originally founded by Dr. Charles Smallwood. An emigrant from England, Smallwood arrived in Montreal in the 1830s and set up a country practice in St Martin on the island north of the island of Montreal, then called Ile-Jesus, and now called Laval. By the 1840s, he had built an observatory with an impressive array of home-made instruments and arrangements for automatic recording. In 1863, he was invited to move the Observatory to McGill College. For some time it was known as the Montreal Observatory.

     Dr. Smallwood

    Dr. Charles Smallwood

    Smallwood had an honorary position as Professor of Meteorology, but he wasn’t paid to be a Professor or a weather observer, and although the observatory had some subsidy from the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) for instruments and for student assistants, he continued to earn his living as a doctor, living in Montreal on Beaver Hall Hill. One of his student assistants, Clement McLeod, was given permission by the College to room in the main building to make it easier for him to take observations in the adjacent Observatory.

     Clement 'Bunty' McLeod

    Clement "Bunty" McLeod

    Smallwood died in November 1873, without an obvious meteorological successor. After some consultation with the Director of the MSC, George Kingston, McLeod, who had just graduated in Civil Engineering, was nominated to take over the observations. MacLeod was dispatched to Kingston in Toronto with a number of the instruments for a crash training course, and observations resumed in January 1874.

    McLeod was the Director of the Observatory for the next 40 years, until his death in 1917. Letters from 1875 show that salaries were paid for the Superintendent and two assistants. In 1880, McLeod applied to have a “the desirability and necessity” of residence built at the Observatory for the observer consider; this was granted and a house was built onto the Observatory building, where McLeod and his wife raised their family.

     McLeod with his students

    McLeod with surveying students

    We know one student assistant was James Weir. Another, A.J. Kelly, graduated in 1911, served in the Princess Patricia regiment in World War I, and returned to McGill, where he eventually became Superintendent of the Observatory in turn.

    A budget for 1937-39 has listed the salaries of the Observer, A.J. Kelly, Weather Man, J.C. Kelly, and Day Clerk, C.L. Henry. Further wages are listed “for exposure of Sun Card”. A later document describes Charles Henry as having been the Chief Observer in 1958 “for over twenty years”.

    If you'd like to learn more about the observers and the history of the observatory itself, don't hesitate to contact us!

    Communicating Weather: Storm Warnings and Telegraphs

    by Victoria Slonosky       on May 8th 2019

    This week we will look at how weather, especially dangerous weather, was communicated in a time before telephones, cell phones and the internet. It is no surprise that weather observations played a significant part!

    Space and Time: the Observatory, The Transit Telescope and Longitude

    One of the most important functions of the McGill Observatory, and one which brought in much needed revenue to help pay for the meteorological and other scientific observations, was timekeeping. Timekeeping is fundamental to any kind of observing. In the 19th and early 20th century, timekeeping relied on observing the transit of certain stars. Midnight was defined as the moment certain stars, depending on the season, passed overhead. The transit telescope was one of the most important instruments in the observatory, although for timekeeping purposes it didn’t need to be as sophisticated and powerful as for astronomical discovery.

                          transit telescope

    Accurate time was important in the age of railways to co-ordinate schedules, but was also crucial in determining longitude, both for ships in an Empire connected by sea and across the North American continent being surveyed, mapped and settled. Time and space are linked by the Earth’s rotation; the Earth rotates through 15 degrees of longitude every hour. With an accurate clock, the difference in time between two places can also be translated into the difference in longitude between those two places, and location can be determined. Somewhere 4 hours west of Montreal is also somewhere 60 degrees west of Montreal.

    Clement McLeod, the Observatory’s second Director, used time and the exchange of telegraph signals with Waterford, Ireland in 1891 to obtain the most precise determination of longitude in North America for the McGill Observatory. McGill’s time signal was communicated to Montreal’s harbour, then one of the busiest in Canada, and by telegraph to Ottawa and westwards across the country. Once telegraph lines were laid under the Pacific, the time signal travelled across the ocean as far as Australia.

    Storm warnings and telegraphs

    Time was also very important for weather observations, both for exchanging weather observations across many time zones and for tracking fast moving weather like storms. Before the telegraph, storms moved faster than any human communications could. If a storm developed on the Great Lakes and passed up the St Lawrence towards the Atlantic, it moved faster than a rider on a horse or a ship could travel to warn people downstream in the path of the storm that danger was on the way- to say nothing of the hazard of trying to travel in a storm. With the invention and widespread use of the telegraph in the second half of the 19th century, for the first time there was a means of communication which could travel faster than weather systems, and so storm warnings became possible. It was to develop storm warnings, and to try to lessen to terrible losses of life from shipping at sea, on the St Lawrence and on the Great Lakes that the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) was first started. For many years, the MSC was a part of the Department of the Marine.

    This is the reason the observations times in the McGill records tend to be at odd, but precise times such as 7:48 am or 11:13 pm. It’s partly to allow for synchronous observations across many longitudes, and partly to allow for the weather observation collators at a central observatory such as Toronto or Washington enough time to receive all the reports by telegraph, plot them all on a map, analyze the results and then issue a storm warning or forecast at, say 9am or midnight.

    We will see you next time with more information on the principal observers at the McGill Observatory!

    Introducing DRAW Members: Vicky Slonosky

    by Rachel Black       on April 24th 2019

    This week we will explore who is behind our project, starting with Vicky Slonosky!



    Vicky Slonosky


    Montreal (south shore) via England, France and Toronto and back to Montreal

    Role at DRAW:

    General wrangler & worrier, and historical weather data expert

    Favourite Part of DRAW?

    The enthusiasm! Everyone working on it is there because they want to be, and because they believe it’s an interesting and worthwhile project.

    Favourite Season? Why?

    Autumn- after the summer heat, the relief of the first cool breeze and hint of chill is like a promise of renewal- I think we should start our new year in October. Also, harvest season is a great time for any baker.

    Favourite Weather Symbol? Why?

    Tough one to choose, but I think snow drift, because it’s so quintessentially Canadian, with “poudrerie”, “blowing” and “drift” seen in the earliest Canada records going back to the 18th century (though admittedly often accompanied by words such as “violent", “affreuse" and “horrible"!)



    Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

    Cumulus- I love watching them grow, change shape, and billow out against a bright blue sky. Also very cool when they become dark and turn into dramatic storm clouds.

                          Plate 3 from Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1865)

    Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

    The sheer number of people who are interested in weather and giving up their precious free time to type in old weather records, as well as the variety of way people have found to use the results.

    And of Course:

    Sweet or Salty?

    Sweet (I'm a baker)

    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Star Trek. I used to do all my math homework watching after school reruns

    Cats or Dogs?

    Allergic to cats, so dogs, but would be happy to have cats if I could

    Favourite Animal?

    Chickadees. I watch them from my kitchen window and have a special bird feeder only they can get into

    Favourite place in Montreal?

    So many to choose from! Toss up between St Helen’s Island for outdoors and BAnQ for indoors.

    If you'd like to find out more about Vicky Slonosky and her work with DRAW check out our News page or explore the following:

    Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

    Marginalia in the Ledgers

    by Rachel Black       on April 10th 2019

    Welcome to the third installment of the DRAW Blog! This week we will be discussing Marginalia and the incidences of marginalia which we have found in our own ledgers.

    Have you ever encountered a book in which someone wrote in the margins? Or did you ever draw or doodle in the margins of your class notes as a student or while in a meeting? If you have, you have either encountered or created marginalia.

    Marginalia are marks that are made as additions to an existing book or document. Specifically marginalia can be drawings, scribbles, comments or critiques which appear in the margins (or sometimes between the lines of the actual text too!). These marks can be placed by a reader after the fact (like if you wrote in notes regarding the text content in order to help organize your thoughts) but can also be created by the author or publisher during the documents’ creation. This can be seen in many biblical manuscripts through liturgical notes in the margins and even in popular fiction, like in the case of 16-18th century copies of Reynard the Fox where moralistic notes are placed in the margins for readers to muse on.

    A good example, and one of the better known ones is the marginalia found in medieval manuscripts. Scribes would test their pens on the outer leaves of the manuscripts, and later books, to ensure their strokes would be consistent. These marks could be as random as scribbles or be the full alphabet, musical notation, or drawings. In one case, even a cat added marginalia to the manuscript, leaving paw prints on the pages! You will also see instances of marginalia in archival documents, such as personal papers. McGill University Archives holds private fonds from individuals and some contain marginalia, like the Ross Family Fonds which contains doodles in the student notes of Dorothy Ross - she drew her professors during class!

    But why does marginalia matter?

    Marginalia can provide a different layer of understanding to the document for modern day readers as information about the construction of the document and who was doing the writing is not usually recorded. As a result, these random doodles can tell us about trends (styles of writing in different parts of Europe for example) or even about the people involved. Marginalia is incredibly important to historians and archivists - even Citizen Scientists too!

    We were surprised and excited then that while digitizing the ledgers for transcription that we found marginalia in the pages. Highlighted today are 8 images from ledger pages dating from 1902,and 1904-1906. The marginalia found in our ledgers are interesting; they appear to be something possibly to pass the time as they are not notes or commentary or pen tests - they are specifically portraits of people



    Our observers have drawn several people they likely knew in profile view, replicating not only several men (with impressive facial hair) but also several women with fancy up-dos and details such as dress ruffles and hair accessories.



    We honestly don’t know too much about these doodles as of yet - a few of the men have names scrawled underneath them and one of the portraits is initialed. We will have to research further into who these people might be or who could have drawn the portraits - all which could provide context to the observatory at the time and who was involved!




    If you are interested in reading more about marginalia check out the following:

    Or, if you would like to see the marginalia featured here up close, contact the McGill University Archives here.

    International Communication: Weather Symbols

    by Victoria Slonosky       on March 27th 2019

    Welcome to another DRAW Blog post! This week we will be looking at the why and how of weather symbols.

    While transcribing you may have come across little symbols used to depict different types of weather, rather than writing. It was one of the most difficult challenges we faced in designing our interface in fact. We can’t just ask our citizen scientists to type them in - there are no keys for these symbols after all! Do we provide a table to consult? Do we ask them to type them in as “rain” or “snow”? What sort of standard should we use that is both accurate and easy for citizen scientists to transcribe?

    Our developer Rob came up with the answer: a drop-down menu which let the users match the handwritten symbol on the page with a list of pre-determined symbols. We created this list from a variety of print sources, including the Instructions to Observers (1878) by George Kingston, the director of the Meteorological Service of Canada and Hints to Meteorological Observers (1908, 6th edition) by Marriott.

    This difficulty we faced in trying to figure out a standard to transcribe the weather symbols is not new. The idea of trying to use standard words to describe weather goes back to at least the 18th century. One of the first attempts to coordinate standardized international weather observation was undertaken by the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, in Mannheim. The Mannheim network had stations across Europe and in North America and Greenland. A number of factors including cost and the Napoleonic Wars contributed to its demise in 1795 as international correspondence, even about the weather, came under suspicion of potential espionage!

    In the early 19th century, Francis Beaufort and Luke Howard continued the search for a standard way to discuss weather. Howard was the topic of our last blog post about cloud classification systems, and Francis Beaufort was a member of the Royal Navy. As such, he was interested in trying to classify wind strength for ships at sea. The Beaufort Scale describes the force of the wind based on visual cues, such as white caps on waves or the filling of the ships’ sails. Beaufort also devised one or two letter codes for weather such as “rn” for rain. He used “b” for “blue sky”, which is why we sometimes see “b” as an indicator for “clear” - this is a common symbol found in our own ledgers!

    This system worked well enough for the English but as time went on countries wanted to exchange weather data and an international standard was needed. Letter codes for weather conditions based on each country’s language were too confusing. A standard that transcended language was needed.

    The first international meeting to set standards for land-based meteorological measurements was held in Vienna in September 1872. Question 15 on the docket was “Is it desirable to introduce for Clouds, Hydrometeors, and for other extraordinary phenomena, symbols which shall be independent of local language, and therefore universally intelligible?” According to the minutes there was a long debate on the “advisability and the difficulty of the adoptions of symbols”, in which scientists from Brussels, Christiania, Geneva, Florence, Vienna, London, Padua, and St. Petersburg took part.

    Consensus was met though and the following symbols were agreed upon:


    And well, the rest is history! You can see these symbols in use when transcribing the weather data from our ledgers. If you are interested in looking at further weather symbols, check out Meteorological Observations for a full list of symbols you might see while transcribing!

    For more information check out:

    The Invention of Clouds - Richard Hamblyn
    The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to see the Future - Peter Moore

    Clouds, Cloud Types and Abbreviations

    by Victoria Slonosky       on March 13th 2019

    Clouds or the lack of, are an ever present part of our skyscape. It is no wonder then that when the classification of the world around us began during the 18th century Enlightenment, with Carl Linne in Sweden developing the binomial system of plant classification (still used today for all living things) that the classification of clouds wouldn't be far behind. The classification began in the early 19th century with Luke Howard.

    Luke Howard was a Quaker chemist who spent hours as a boy watching the clouds. He was among the first to realize that clouds had a limited number of distinct types, rather than endlessly drifting from one shape to the next (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was another who tried to classify clouds by type and height). He based his Latin cloud names on the typical shapes and heights of the clouds. Cumulus clouds are heap-like, stratus clouds by definition and have some form of precipitation falling from them. As they were based on Latin, Howard’s cloud types were able to be used internationally since he first devised them in 1817.

    Howard gave his first lecture on cloud types in London in 1802, when he proposed that there were three main types of clouds: Cirrus, Cumulus, and Stratus. He recognized also that clouds morphed from one type to another, often in recognizable ways as the weather changed. For example, cumulus clouds could spread and merge into a stratus layer. He proposed that the basic cloud formations reflected the physical process by which the clouds were formed, such as cumulus clouds being formed by convection, which turned clouds from mysterious, ever-changing entities into physical sciences which could be studied and related to weather such as participation. In a way, we could say that the classification of clouds launched the scientific field of meteorology.


    Thunderclouds gathering - frontispiece of Essay on the Modification of Clouds, 3rd Ed. Luke Howard, 1865

    When writing down the observations for clouds in ledgers such as the ones which DRAW is transcribing from, using the full name of a cloud could be cumbersome. Clouds as a result have two letter abbreviations, such as Ci for Cirrus. They can be combined, such as when there is a layer of cumulus clouds to form Cumulo-stratus, Cu-St, or the most impressive of all, the towering thunderstorm clouds which all the way through the atmosphere to the top of the troposphere, Cumulonimbus, CuNi. All clouds with precipitation falling from them are nimbus clouds, so if while transcribing you see an entry for nimbus, check to see if there’s also some precipitation, usually in the form of rain or snow in the same observation time!

    If you’re interested in reading more about the history of cloud classification, check out the free e-book of Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1865) available here. You can also check out our Meteorological Observations page for a full list of cloud types and their abbreviations!