Monday, December 8, 2014

The Day The Sun Turned Blue Above Toronto

The first sign of the apocalypse came on a Saturday night in the early autumn of 1950. It was a little after 9 o'clock. That's when a star was seen streaking across the sky above Toronto; some said it was as big as the moon. It was gone in an instant; it broke apart into three pieces and disappeared over the lake. Most people didn't even notice. But the meteor was just the beginning. The real show started the next day, when the sun turned blue.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Toronto — which is what all Sunday afternoons were like in Toronto back then. The stores were closed. People went to church. They hung out at home and spent time with their families. It was the first day after Daylight Saving Time, too, so people were enjoying the extra hour of rest. And since they were already expecting it to get dark early, some of them didn't even notice how early it really was. It was only the middle of the afternoon when a gloom fell over the city, like an eery, early dusk. Something had gone wrong with the sky.

One of Toronto's most famous astronomers, Helen Sawyer Hogg, looked up. "[T]he western sky," she later wrote, "became a dark, terrifying mass of cloud and haze, as though a gigantic storm were approaching..."

As darkness descended, the animals began to behave in strange ways. Ducks went to sleep in the middle of the day. Dogs hid under their owners' beds. Cows started to moo, demanding to be milked. And all over the city, people turned on their lights. Electricity use surged. Power-lines failed. And when the power-lines failed, bank alarms were accidentally tripped. Police scrambled to respond to the false alarms. As they did, the heavens swirled above them.

"Toronto's sky was filled with weird wonder," the Globe and Mail reported. "A great saffron-colored cloud filled the sky. Around it rolled steel grey clouds, shot by blackness and rippled, as water is rippled by a sudden light wind. Far off to the north and east the cold white light of the horizon accentuated the darkness that hung over the city.

"It was beautiful with a strange and dreary beauty and filled with ominous portent..."

The sun was most ominous of all. For most of the day, it was hidden behind those dark, swirling, purple clouds. But in the few brief moments when it did shine out from between them, it was shining the wrong colour: a frightening blue-mauve. It cast no shadows. And it shone with no rays.

People. Freaked. Out. They didn't know what was happening. Some thought the sun was exploding. Others thought it was a flying saucer announcing the beginning of an alien invasion. Lots of people assumed it was a sign of a nuclear attack. This, after all, was at the very beginning of the Cold War. Stalin had just gotten the bomb. The Second World War had only ended a few short years earlier. And every day, the newspapers screamed with headlines about the war Canada was helping to fight against the Communists in Korea. Purple skies and a blue sun sounded an awful lot like the kind of thing people were expecting: the beginning of the Third World War.    

Police stations in Toronto were flooded with phone calls. People asked if an atomic bomb had been dropped on the city or somewhere else nearby. Others thought doomsday had come. One caller, according to the Toronto Daily Star, "said the end of the world was approaching and asked police to tell citizens to be prepared to meet their Maker." The newspaper reported that some people were praying in terror. A few even blamed the clocks: "Some said a supernatural power was angry with the world for tampering with daylight saving time..." Radio stations began to give hourly updates, asking people not to panic.

And the bad omens were far from over. As people woke up on Monday morning and went to work, the skies were still swirling with "yellows, browns, pinks and purples" and the sun was still shining blue. It continued all day. And then, that very same night, there was yet another sign of the apocalypse: a dark shadow swallowed up the harvest moon. It was a total lunar eclipse.

But of course, despite of all the ominous signs, the world didn't come to an end that week. There was a perfectly rational explanation for everything.

It all started nearly four months earlier and more than three thousand kilometers away, in the forests of British Columbia. No one seems to be entirely sure exactly what sparked it — some think it was an Imperial Oil crew lighting a small fire to drive away some bugs; others say it was a slash-and-burn logging blaze that got out of control. Either way, the conditions that summer were perfect for it. The forests were dry; there was a drought. And since there weren't any permanent settlements or major roads nearby, the authorities just let the fire burn. It swept across the border into northern Alberta, raging out of control. It lasted for months. By the the time it was all over, the Chinchaga River fire had destroyed millions of acres of forest. To this day, it's the biggest recorded forest fire in the entire modern history of the continent.

In late September, when the fire was about four months old, there was a big flare up — its biggest yet. And this time, the enormous cloud of smoke hanging over the blaze got caught up in a weather system that swept it east across the Prairies. It only took a few days to reach the Great Lakes. The strange purple cloud darkened the skies above Toronto. The smoke particles were just the right size: they scattered the red wavelengths in the light from the sun, so it looked blue-mauve instead of yellow-orange.

And it wasn't just Toronto. Reports flooded in from all over the Great Lakes. After that, the winds continued to carry the strange cloud east, right across the Maritimes and then out over the Atlantic. By the end of the day on Tuesday, the cloud had reached the other side of the ocean. The sun turned blue in the skies above the British Isles and Western Europe. In Denmark, it sparked a run on the banks before the cloud finally broke up.

In the end, it was the changing seasons that brought the great fire to an end. The rains and snows of late October doused the flames. The devastation left in its wake finally convinced the government to change the rules. Forest fires would now be fought more vigorously. The sun above Toronto hasn't been blue since.


Image: a postcard of Toronto in the 1950s (via Chuchman's postcard blog) plus lots of Photoshop.

You can read Helen Sawyer Hogg's column about Toronto's blue sun for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada here. It's a PDF. Her husband, Frank S. Hogg, was also an astronomer. He wrote about it here, which you can read if you've got a Toronto Public Library card. That card will also allow you to read the coverage from the Toronto Daily Star here and here, the Globe and Mail here, and the Associated Press here and here. The writer Pat Mastern remembers her own experiences outside of Toronto that day here.

You'll find the Wikipedia entry for the Chinchaga River fire here. The Edmonton Journal remembers it here. The Canadian Smoke Newsletter writes about it on Page 14 of this PDF. The Star put together a map of the cloud's path, which you can find here.

You can learn more about Helen Sawyer Hogg thanks to Torontoist's David Wencer here and Wikipedia here. Utrecht University has a whole big archive of her column's for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada here. And the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has an index of her columns for the Toronto Star here.

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