by Mike O’Brien

Montreal is quite safe from natural disasters, relatively speaking. We should be regularly tossed by earthquakes, given our tectonic environs, but in my two-score-and-change lifetime the rumblings have been so minor as to be mistaken for a passing truck. When everyone on the island feels a passing truck at the same moment, it is evident that the disturbance was rather an earthquake, but only for reasons of statistical probability.

We are also subject to invasions of smoke from the burning forests north of us, but, owing to the vagaries of wind currents, not much more so than are New York or Philadelphia, apparently. We had a tornado years back, striking the only mobile home park in the area (apparently tornadoes have bought into the myth that they are especially drawn to such modes of living). We also have worsening heat waves, exacerbated by the swampy humidity of the St-Lawrence valley and the thermal properties of modern city construction. But this is hardly a distinguishing mark, given that every place from the Arctic to the Antarctic suffers heat waves these days.

The natural disaster that really sets Montreal apart from other cities is ice storms. Historically, this city has suffered nasty winters. They are cold, but not so cold as the wind-lashed prairies out west. It is the snowfall that really makes them iconic, and also expensive, given that our car-based infrastructure requires us to scoop up and relocate all the snow that falls on our roadways. The cold has abated over my lifetime; I can remember waiting for delayed trains in -40C weather (factoring in “wind chill”, which is a deceptively mild label for something that can cost you your fingers and toes, or even your life). Such extreme cold is rarer now, but so is cold in general.

Much of the winter season hovers around the freezing mark, to the economic ruin of many traditional winter industries like the ski hills scattered over surrounding townships. This is also a ruinous change for our infamously bad roads, as the oscillation of the temperature over and under the freezing point allows water to infiltrate voids in asphalt and concrete, then freeze and expand, fracturing these materials, then melt again and further infiltrate, then freeze again, ad infinitum. Given the incompetence, inertia and business-coddling corruption of our provincial government, we are unlikely to address this new climatic normal with anything more innovative than ever-larger sums of money.

But what of these ice storms, you say. This oscillation around the freezing mark, combined with copious precipitation, occasionally causes rain, snow and ice to fall in a wicked mix that freezes on contact with whatever colder-than-freezing surface it falls upon. There are obvious consequences of this, of course; signs, signals and windows obscured, roads and sidewalks slicked, property and machinery of all kinds enrobed. The less obvious consequence of an ice storm is weight. Like a candle-maker repeatedly dipping a wick in molten wax until it accumulates a thick body, a prolonged ice storm adds layer after layer of ice, and ice is very heavy (just under 0.92 grams per cubic centimetre, Wikipedia tells me). Assuming a modest centimetre-thick coating of ice, that translates to about 9 kilograms of weight per square metre. This may not sound like a lot, and on simple flat surfaces it is not. But on surfaces that have a lot of surface area relative to their volume, this added weight can far exceed the weight of the object upon which the ice is deposited. If the object has been engineered, by evolution or human enterprise, to be just strong enough to support its own weight, this icy burden can cause a structural collapse.

And so it was in The Big One, the ice storm of 1998, which stretched on for days and reached north and eastwards from Lake Ontario past Montreal and even into northern New England. The accumulation was so heavy that steel pylons over 50 metres tall, rated for over 40mm of ice accumulation, buckled and crumpled to the ground. Nearly two million people were without electricity for days, and this in the beginning of January, a time when temperatures can reach below -20C. Luckily, the unseasonable warmth that created the ice storm persisted, and mass hypothermia was avoided. The storm left lasting scars, though, particularly in the densely arbored region at the western end of Montreal where I reside. Many old trees lost thick branches, even collapsing entirely, and had to be removed, leaving gaps where they had stood for generations. Many of those that survived were weakened and vulnerable to disease and the constant assault of gravity on their fractured bodies. This damage was compounded as the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle whose grubs feast under the bark of ash trees, took an ever worse toll on the city’s canopy in the past two decades.

Twenty-five years later, this April, another Big One hit, albeit less widespread and severe. My own household was without power for five days, making coffee and soup on a propane stove and layering clothes and blankets to stay warm. The cold inside of the house reached the point where our cat reluctantly became a lap-cat out of self-preservation. The power outages were not, in this instance, due to collapsed hydro-electric pylons across Quebec’s hinterlands, but rather to countless small interruptions in the finer infrastructure connecting homes to the electrical grid. The towering trees of the suburbs, weakened as they were, lost huge limbs, some measuring over 20 centimetres thick and weighing hundreds of kilograms. Some failed at the trunk and collapsed entirely, like the one that fell through a sturdy fence into our yard. I would estimate that over two tonnes of wood fell in our yard alone.

Some of this fallen timber landed on power lines as it fell, hence the days without electricity. The physical burden of removing these dangerous and large tangles of wood was aggravated by inaccessibility of the damage, being mostly in back yards far from the road, admittance often being granted only through a small gate. It is difficult to drive a utility truck into such a position. It is more difficult still to reach hundreds or thousands such small disasters in a timely fashion. Our very verdant, very anglophone pocket of the area was one of the last places in Quebec to have power restored, provoking many jokes and some sincere complaints that the provincial government was deliberately leaving our linguistic enclave to freeze in the dark. I doubt that this was the case, although if we were also predominantly a religious minority I might not be so sure. (This is not a gratuitous slight, as any glance at the current government’s unconstitutional restrictions on religious practices will make evident.) Much debris remains to this day, nearly three months later, in the form of deadfall in hard-to-access places and worryingly large branches hanging by a ligneous thread high up in surviving trees. The top of the canopy, once bulbous and bushy, is now punctuated by the splintered ends of formerly top-most branches.

I do not care much for talk of “silver linings”. At least not when they are employed to draw attention away from the negative consequences of events which are preventable and for which responsibility can be assigned. Climate change being a messy and statistically manifest kind of affair, it may be practically impossible to delineate how any one event could be prevented, and how the blame for it may be placed (although this is becoming less messy as historical accounting of emissions is being more commonly used to assign portions of responsibility in recent climate change lawsuits.) I will, however, indulge in a bit of silver linings waxing about this recent ice storm, if only because it serves to indict another industrial disease of the natural world.

It just so happened that the storm struck a few days before a full moon, and the skies cleared in time to let it shine unimpeded . I have a habit of strolling around at night, when the air is cleaner, the people scarcer, and the animals bolder. I have seen many full moons, roughly one per month in fact. But in the well-lit (I take issue with this value-laden term, but you know what I mean) conditions that usually obtain during these nighttime wanderings, a full moon is scarcely noticeable, and barely remarkable. One might remark “oh, it’s a full moon tonight”, and point out the the moon is indeed very round and somewhat brighter than it was the night before, and that would be the end of it.

Being lucky enough to have a cottage in the family, I have seen the moon and stars in relative darkness, though even in the boonies the late decline in lighting costs and good breeding have seen twinkling diodes spread like a blight upon the land. I have seen the singular force of a full moon, shining a cool white daytime and cutting crisp shadows at every texture and shape. But I cannot recall the last time I saw such a scene in the place where I usually live. Had I never seen it, I might not miss it. But I have, and I do. Much has been written about the loss of visible stars in the places where most people live, and the severing of the cultural link between our ancestors, who gazed at and studied and celebrated the rich stellar scenes, and ourselves, who might be able to pick out a few dozen on a typical night. The atmospheric haze and the poorly regulated blooms of cheap electric light have not deleted the moon in the same way that they have blazed the stars out of our sensory world. What has been taken from us is rather the moonlit world. Gaze at a painting of a moonlit scene, or read an ode to the full moon’s illumination of a forest, and it will seem foreign and enchanted to most modern audiences. The moon still shines, of course. It just doesn’t dominate anymore. A doubling of the moon’s brightness doesn’t double the lighting of the world beneath it; if you couldn’t look up and see it, I’m not sure its fullness would be evident at all.

Given the pendulous logs still hanging from trees in the early days after the storm (nicknamed “widow-makers”, for good reason), the government issued very strong suggestions that people avoid walking around outside. The danger was that much greater in neighbourhoods like mine where the power outage made it difficult for people to see and to be seen. I was undeterred, however. Firstly, my love of gadgetry had provided me with a surfeit of expertly engineered lighting devices. Secondly, I’d be damned if I’d miss an opportunity to take in the sight of my strolling territory under a full moon, without the garish streetlamps and houselights washing the magic away. And so I ventured out, drawn like a moth, under a moon so bright you could easily read a book by it. The effect was grander than I had hoped for. Not just brighter, not just more singular in the character of illumination; it was as if a dull roof had lifted off of the world. The trees, with their 20 metres and more in height, stood against a blueish sky. Everything in my visual sense was pulled upwards, away from the ground, through the shadows, towards an infinitely distant and vast, glowing ceiling. This had practical benefits, as well, as the widow-makers stood out from the natural patterns of growing branches, geometric violations silhouetted against the sky.

I did my best to remember their danger and not get entirely lost in the aesthetic mode. I did well enough to avoid injury. I headed out the next night, when the moon was one day past full, to a similar scene. I often listen to podcasts when walking, but not then; the scene commanded a certain reverent silence. I also wanted to keep my ears keen for the creak and crash of falling trees, should one creak and crash onto me. I can’t say if the sonic landscape changed much during these dark days, as it was early yet and the full menagerie of spring animals hadn’t yet emerged. I believe I heard nighthawks, and in greater number or fuller voice than I usually do. What did they make of the darkness, and its coincidence with the full moon? What did it look like in their eyes?

The next night I went out again, and my heart sank. Some blocks in the neighbourhood, which had previously only been lit (and subjected to sonic and olfactory barbarism) by means of gasoline generators, were now reconnected to the electric grid and awash in the dead, ugly light of streetlamps. How much longer before this awful normal returned to the whole of my wandering route? I noticed immediately that the street lights, a mere half or third of the height of trees, blinded me to the branches above them. Ironically, these safety measures made it impossible to gauge the safety of passing beneath them. I turned heel and headed back to the still dark parts, the magic spell of the moon now broken by the depressing certainty that it was almost over. It struck the same emotional note I felt when the lockdowns of the early stages of the pandemic were lifted; that was perhaps the only time in my life when the industrial assault on the world slowed, and after a brief period of hoping that perhaps we could hold onto that respite, it became clear that nothing, not even a global emergency, would stop things from getting worse, faster, forever.

The next full moon was a sad affair. January’s moon was still fresh in my memory and made the return to dreary, washed out normality a visceral experience of deprivation. Another thing not just lost, but taken. I thought about the animals I see in my travels, the rabbits, the raccoons, the foxes and bats and skunks and groundhogs, in addition to the birds heard but unseen. I saw a rabbit sitting right in the middle of a streetlight’s glow, and wondered why. Did it feel safer in the light? I would assume they would try to remain unseen. Perhaps the nighthawks’ eyesight, evolved for darkness, was ill-suited to attacking prey in such light, especially when a miscalculation of distance could cause a deadly collision with the pavement. Or maybe these rabbits live mostly unmolested lives and do whatever they please.

It occurred to me that these animals have lived for dozens of generations under streetlights, not knowing that it is unnatural, not knowing that there was once a time when the moon and stars dominated the sky. Their world just is. It has always been full of streetlights and cars and airplanes and inflatable lawn decorations and all the other beeping, blinking, blaring barbarity of suburban existence. Even as environmental change accelerates, they’ll likely die before noticing that things have gone off of the baseline they were born into. They don’t read articles about accelerating warming trends, or feedback cycles, or the explosion of light pollution. They may suffer the effects of these things, but they always have and always will, unto their likely very soon demise. I envy their ignorance of how they are wronged by the forces of climate change and thoughtless development. I pity their vulnerability to the worse yet to come. I am happy to know that at least some of them got to see a full moon, as it is meant to be seen, just once in their short lives.