Photo of a lighthouse, wave crashing, and 3 hot air balloons, for David Phillips Top Ten Weather Stories of 2018

Canada’s Top Ten Weather Stories of 2018

– By David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Weather changes in Canada are happening abruptly not subtly, rapidly not gradually.

Canada is not as cold as it once was, with every region and all seasons warmer than ever before. While Canada is still the snowiest country, less snow is falling in our southern regions. Our mountain snowpack and glaciers are disappearing rapidly, and frost-free days are increasing. Our growing seasons are longer, but so are the length and intensity of our wildfire seasons. In the Great Lakes, the past decade has featured both record high and low water levels. When it rains, it often rains harder and longer, with higher incidents of flash flooding, especially in our cities. Storms seem to be getting bigger and moving more slowly, leaving more damage in their wakes.

Scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada have concluded that the risk of western fires since 2015 has increased two to six times due to human-induced warming and that, in the Arctic, extreme sea-ice minima in recent years would have been extremely unlikely in the absence of human influences. In fact, scientists have made a clear link between climate change and extreme weather events that include heat waves, wildfires, flooding, and sea ice disappearance.

Weather changes in Canada are happening abruptly not subtly, rapidly not gradually. As Canadians continue to experience more and more extreme weather, intense month-long heat waves, suffocating smoke and haze from wildfires, and extreme flooding will simply be the norm mere decades from now. Events that were once rare or unusual for our grandparents are now more commonplace, while we all become more vulnerable due to extreme weather. As the Top Ten Weather Stories of 2018 bear out, Canadians must become more resilient—not only for what lies ahead but also for the variations in climate, which are already here.

This year featured extreme and impactful weather events that caused costly damage across the country. Historic river flooding occurred in British Columbia and New Brunswick, while the Greater Toronto Area experienced flooding almost every time it received a heavy rainfall. In the North, significant losses of sea ice cover and reductions in ice thickness continued; however, year-to-year variability in ice extent presented significant challenges to Arctic communities and for marine navigation. Paulatuk, Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, and other villages were unable to receive some or all of their ship-based annual resupply resulting in shortages of some goods and much higher costs to residents, businesses, and government. Like last year, this year was hot and dry for long periods in the Prairies, which led to serious hardships for growers and ranchers. However, this year, once the harvest got underway, early winter cold and snow set in for nearly six weeks. In July, uncontrollable fires raged across British Columbia; in August, Ontario. Firefighters in British Columbia began this year like the one before, bailing and bagging to help residents with record spring floods before moving on to fight nearly three times the average number of fires in a province-wide state of emergency. Month-long infernos fouled the air with unprecedented levels of smoke and haze, impacting millions of Canadians from coast to coast.

When it comes to tornadoes, it’s never possible to get an exact count. In 2018, there were 49 confirmed and possible tornadoes, which was fewer than normal. All were weak except for a killer in Alonsa, Manitoba, on August 3rd, which caused the first tornadic death in Canada in seven years and a family of strong tornadoes that pummeled parts of eastern Ontario and western Quebec on the last day of summer. And what a summer it was, with relentless heat from Victoria to St. John’s. Ottawa had its second-warmest Canada Day dating back almost to Confederation. Montréal had its warmest July on record with deadly consequences. Hundreds of daily records fell in the West, including Calgary’s all-time hottest day ever. For some cities, it was back-to-back opposites, with April the coldest on record followed by the warmest May ever. If you ask most Canadians, they’ll tell you that the long, hot summer was either a hummer or a bummer, but it was the never-ending winter that irked them the most. The cold grabbed hold early in the season and wouldn’t let go until May.

For the 12 month period—from December 2017 to November 2018—every season came out warmer than normal, an average 0.4 °C above normal. Despite a cold La Niña at the start of the year, 2018 soon turned warmer than normal for the 22nd consecutive year. According to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization, 2018 was the 40th consecutive year globally with above-normal temperatures and the fourth-warmest year since observations began 135 years ago. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years.

Top Ten Number 1. Record wildfires and smoky skies

Across Canada, the wildfire season started slowly, owing to the long, lingering winter that in some regions lasted into May. Despite the late start, national statistics showed that there were more fires than ever last year, and the total area burned was double the longer term averages.

In British Columbia, spring flooding led to increased vegetation, which dried out in the hot dry summer, turning it to kindling. For the second year running, British Columbia faced a province-wide state of emergency. Nearly 2,000 wildfires ignited across the province. Though the season started late, it made up for lost time. By August 8, there were 460 simultaneous wildfires—more than any single day in 2017—with 25 of notable size.

May was one of the hottest and driest on record, across British Columbia’s interior and south coast. A damp June eased the wildfire concern temporarily, but, by July, things were ramping up. Lightning on July 18 ignited forests in the Okanagan. Gusty winds and intense heat created fast-moving and aggressive fires that prompted evacuations and a state of emergency. As air temperatures soared and humidity dropped, fires spread quickly, becoming uncontrollable, going wherever winds took them. Firefighters from across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand were joined by the military to battle back the blazes.

By August, more than 10 million Canadians, from Victoria to the shores of Lake Superior, were breathing in the smoke from Western fires. Across the West, air-quality alerts became a fact of life for weeks, the smoke-polluted air endangering the health of the elderly, very young, and anyone living with respiratory disease. Downwind of the fires, residents in several western cities gasped and wheezed for a record number of hours as if sitting by a smouldering campfire. Alberta’s cities were especially dark and dirty, with Calgary recording 478 hours of smoke and haze (normal summer count is 12 hours) with one bout, between August 14 and 20, lasting 141 consecutive hours. Edmonton experienced 230 hours of smoke and haze, more than double its previous smokiest summer. Beautiful British Columbia didn’t look so beautiful, and, in Prairie Big Sky Country, you couldn’t see the sky for much of the summer.

Top Ten Number 2. Canada affected by global summer heat wave

Across the globe, summer 2018 was the third warmest on record. Torrid heat stretched from Japan to Great Britain to California, and Canada was also affected. May brought an early summer that persisted relentlessly through August, even longer in the East. For millions in the southern part of Canada, it was the third-warmest summer on record. On some days, heat warnings prevailed, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, with some regions hitting a humidex in the mid-40s. It’s rare for a heat-humid wave to grip so much of the country for so long, but two semi-permanent blocking highs persisted on either side of the country throughout the summer—a Bermuda High parked over the Atlantic Ocean and a California High stalled over the Pacific Coast. The result was a dome that blocked in the hot summer air and kept wetter weather out.

Millions in the East sweated it out through a sweltering heat wave that hit in time for the Canada Day long weekend, lasting from late June to the end of the first week of July—the longest and most intense heat spell in years. In Ottawa, it was the second-warmest Canada Day ever, with records going back to the 1880s. Further, the humidex reached a high of 47, the highest ever recorded in the nation’s capital. Across the Ottawa River, in Gatineau, the humidex reached a record 48. It was likely the worst combination of heat and humidity ever experienced in the National Capital Region. Understandably, attendance at afternoon celebrations on Parliament Hill dropped from an expected 20,000 to 6,000. In Montréal, Urgences-santé experienced a 30 per cent increase in emergency calls. Across Quebec, 93 people died from heat-related complications.

July and August combined were the hottest on record in Atlantic Canada, and the humidity only added to the discomfort. In July, cities in all four Atlantic Provinces recorded highest-ever average temperature, including Halifax, which had more than two straight weeks with maximum temperatures of 25 °C, shattering the previous record set in 1876. In Saskatchewan, three cities broke all-time high temperature records—Regina set an August record with a high of 41.3 °C on August 11, with records dating back to 1883. On the same day, Moose Jaw’s temperature rose to a record 42.3 °C—two degrees away from Canada’s warmest high ever recorded. But it was Calgary’s new all-time record on August 10 that made national headlines as the temperature hit 36.5 °C, with records dating back to 1881.

Two photos from Top Ten Weather Stories of 2018 by David Phillips. First one shows a satellite image of the earth, as a map, with temperatures displaying bright red over most of the earth. Second one shows a forest on fire.

Top Ten Number 3. Hot and dry to snow-filled skies blunt the Prairie harvest

Prairie growers and ranchers faced enormous challenges during a tough growing season. With the frost line two-metres deep in places, the long, cold spring kept farmers off their fields until mid-May. Then came drought through the southern and central Prairies where, between April and August, they received less than 60 per cent of the average rainfall. In some places, rainfall totals were the lowest in at least 40 years. For some producers, it was the third dry year in a row. In Regina, back-to-back drought years in 2017 and 2018 were the driest on record spanning 135 years.

When sweltering heat arrived in July and August, crops shrivelled. Cattle producers and dairy farmers faced dwindling stocks of feed grain and rising prices, forcing some to sell off their cattle and dairy cows prematurely. In Val Marie, Saskatchewan, rainfall in the growing season was a paltry 72 mm—less than a third of normal. At a farm near Val Marie, the hay yield was 32 bales per acre, compared to 210 last year, and amounted to less than a third of what would be needed for winter.

The seasons jumped from summer to winter as temperatures plunged and rain changed to snow when a cold-air mass out of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories invaded the Prairies in the second week of September and didn’t budge until mid-October. September frost is normal, but six weeks of cold and snow is unprecedented. A vast majority of the crops, upwards of $4 billion worth, was still on the fields and was flattened by record snows that made it impossible to combine. Farmers watched their crop quality being downgraded day by cold day until it bottomed out at feed grade. The miserable harvest weather was nowhere worse than in Alberta. Undoubtedly, Edmonton had its most miserable September on record. Afternoon temperatures averaged a record 6.6 °C colder than normal and a record 38.4 cm of snow fell compared to a normal of 1 cm. October was Calgary’s turn for weather misery. During the first two days of the month, a total of 38 cm of snow fell at the airport, breaking the record for any October day in 138 years.

Top Ten Number 4. Powerful May winds cost $1 billion

On May 4, a fast-moving squall line of thunderstorms raced across southwestern Ontario around noon, went through the Greater Toronto Area around 4:00 p.m., and sped into Montréal and Québec City by evening. Hurricane-force gusts produced record wind speeds for May: 126 km/h in Hamilton; 122 in Kitchener-Waterloo; 119 in Toronto; and 117 in Montréal. Power lines were toppled, leading to widespread power outages. In Quebec, 285,000 customers lost power, while in Ontario, where winds severed 350 hydro poles, 300,000 customers were impacted. With such fierce winds, fences, signs, shingles, siding, patio furniture, and bus shelters took flight. Straight-line winds speared tree branches into vehicles and homes, caused high-rise buildings to sway, and construction cranes to crumple. At some intersections, traffic lights crashed to the street. In Toronto and surrounding areas, GO train service was stopped. Along the shores of eastern Lake Ontario, strong winds and high waves destroyed docks. In Quebec, waves breached break walls and eroded the coastline. Tragically, three workers were killed during the storm. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, it was the country’s costliest storm in five years with total losses estimated near $1 billion.

Top Ten Number 5. Ottawa-Gatineau tornadoes on summer’s last day

On September 21, the last day of summer, meteorologists in Ontario and Quebec were busy tallying the season’s severe-weather statistics. It had been a relatively quiet storm season with five tornadoes in Ontario and two in Quebec, which were below the normal of 12 and 7 respectively. At the same time, they were keeping an eye on the possible collision of a warm, humid air mass and a sharp cold front. Things were aligning to produce late afternoon thunderstorms in eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

At 4:17 p.m., a tornado watch that had been issued for much of Renfrew and Lanark counties near Ottawa became a warning. Just before 5:00 p.m., a tornado struck Kinburn-Dunrobin, skipped across the Ottawa River and touched down in the lower Pontiac (Luskville) region of western Quebec, before striking the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood of Gatineau. Less than an hour later, another line of thunderstorms crossed the Ottawa Valley creating another tornado that struck Ottawa from Arlington Woods (Nepean) to Greenboro (Gloucester).

The Dunrobin-Gatineau tornado was classified as EF-3, with maximum winds up to 265 km/h, ranking it as the strongest tornado to hit eastern Ontario since 1903. More noteworthy, it was the strongest storm to strike anywhere in Canada during September in 120 years. The Dunrobin-Gatineau tornado lasted 40 minutes and tore a path almost 40 kilometres long. The Arlington Woods tornado was classified as EF-2, with maximum winds up to 220 km/h. The tornado outbreak also included four other EF-1 tornadoes (between 138 km/h and 177 km/h); one at Calabogie in Ontario; and three in Quebec (Val-des-Bois, near the Baskatong Reservoir, and 25 km north of Otter Lake). In the aftermath of the tornadoes, 430,000 people were left without power.

Top Ten Number 6. Spring flooding throughout southern British Columbia

For the second consecutive year in British Columbia, widespread spring flooding threatened communities across the province’s south, especially along the Okanagan, Kettle, and Fraser Rivers. It was a snowy winter, and, by spring, the snowpack across the province was the deepest observed in nearly 40 years of recordkeeping, ranging from 160 to 260 per cent more than normal, with a depth over 10 metres on some mountain peaks. When late-spring brought record high temperatures, a shock melt hit the region. Snowpack from alpine peaks to valleys melted all at once, overwhelming river systems and causing prolonged flooding.

Under a stationary ridge of high pressure, hot, dry air ranging from 5 °C to 10 °C above the seasonal average for early May pushed northward, promoting a steady, around-the-clock snow melt. Days later, scattered showers and thunderstorms worsened the situation. Water rose in rivers to levels not seen in more than half a century, causing devastating floods and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. A total of 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, 200 firefighters, and hundreds of volunteers spent an exhausting week bailing, bagging, and battling rising waters. Nearly 5,000 residents were evacuated and another 7,000 were put on standby alert as states of emergency were declared across the interior. Two days of heavy rain pushed rivers to levels higher than those recorded during devastating floods 70 years ago. The charred forests, devoid of vegetation from last summer’s wildland fires, were especially vulnerable to flash flooding, mudslides, and debris flows. Back-to-back bad flood and wildfire years are not yet a trend but a worry because each can increase the risk of the other.

Top Ten Number 7. Flash flooding of the Saint John River

Flooding along the Saint John River is a rite of spring in New Brunswick—sandbagging duties are to be expected. But nothing was expected about this year’s flooding. Even the most seasoned flood experts were taken by surprise. The snowpack had been deep but not record-breaking. There were early warm days but no record heat. Heavy rains fell but nothing out of the norm. None of the flood triggers were remarkable in and of themselves, but together they combined to create a flood that breached the banks of the Saint John River for over two weeks.

In early April, Edmunston was covered with 50 cm to 80 cm of snow. Over a 48 hour period, temperatures in the province soared to 29 °C, turning the Saint John basin from slush to sweat. Then, heavy rainstorms began to roll though, with rain falling on 31 of the following 32 days, totalling 152 mm. The result was a fast two-metre rise above flood levels on the Saint John River. The hotter it became, the faster the snow melted and the higher the floodwaters rose. Down river of Fredericton, water levels exceeded 2008 levels and historic 1973 levels, making 2018 the largest, most impactful flood in modern New Brunswick history. Throughout the province, rivers filled with raw sewage, motor oil, propane tanks, and drowned animals. Water levels were so high that the famous Reversing Falls stopped reversing. Adding to this were several days of high wind that created significant waves and related erosion. The Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Moncton was closed along with over 150 roads, bridges, and culverts across the province. The Canadian Army and Coast Guard came in to assist with flood relief efforts.

Two images for Top Ten Weather Stories of 2018. First one shows a dark sky, city streets, with a tornado in the distance. Second one shows a flooded tree lined city street.

Top Ten Number 8. Toronto’s August deluge

Late in the evening of August 7, a compact storm blossomed near York University, in suburban Toronto, before crawling southward to unload its moisture on the city centre. A downtown weather station recorded 58 mm of rain while Toronto City Centre Airport received 72 mm. Incredibly, Toronto Pearson International Airport, in Mississauga, and Buttonville Airport, in Richmond Hill, got less than 6 mm of rain; other weather stations didn’t record a drop. Downtown, the flash flood swamped roads and underpasses, submerging cars and forcing drivers and passengers to scramble to safety. Water poured into underground buildings, even trapping two men in an underground elevator. Power had been lost in their office building during the flood and, as water rapidly rose in the elevator, police scrambled to swim to their rescue. When the men were finally released, only 30 cm of air space remained in the elevator. Water flooded parking garages and subway platforms, wreaking havoc on city transportation. Over the summer, there were other instances where moderate rains led to flooding, signalling a larger issue for urban areas: As cities grow and more surfaces become impermeable, the risk of urban flooding increases.

Top Ten Number 9. Record cold start to a long winter

Across Canada, winter 2017 to 2018 began in November, deepened in December, paused in January, and came roaring back in February for a further two-month residency. Six months of winter proved to be a tough haul for even the heartiest of Canada’s cold-weather enthusiasts. It started when a dreaded polar vortex weakened, unleashing a dam of frigid air and brutal wind chills. Then, right on cue, December 21, winter’s first day, brought record-breaking Arctic air in over the North Pole and down through Canada. Between Christmas and New Year’s, extreme cold records were shattered, and 2018 dawned with extreme cold weather warnings for a swath of Canada the size of Europe. From Calgary to Cape Breton Island, outdoor New Year’s celebrations were brought inside, and most January 1 polar bear dips were frozen out.

With a lot of winter still to come, by late January, southern Quebec had already reached its average winter number of -20 °C or below days. Edmonton set a record of 127 days in a row with sub-freezing temperatures. In front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa’s “Hockey on the Hill” had to be moved indoors when the cold became too dangerous. Winter’s long, deep freeze had impacts across the country, including delays to rural mail delivery, garbage and recycling collection, and train and air travel, owing to frozen equipment. There were overflows at city shelters as Canada’s vulnerable homeless population sought shelter from the cold.

Top Ten Number 10. A cruel, cold, and stormy April

Known as the cruellest month, April lived up to its reputation across much of Canada in 2018. Nationally, it was the coldest April in 16 years, and, for millions in Ontario and Quebec, it hadn’t been that cold for 71 years. Some dubbed it “Apriluary” as farmers and golfers waited out frozen ground.

On April 4, a powerful Colorado storm tracked across southern Ontario and Quebec, coating surfaces with freezing rain, dumping heavy rain or snow or both, and buffeting the region with jet-stream strong winds. For almost 20 hours, freezing rain poured down on Montréal and Gaspé. A storm surge in Québec City led to the St. Lawrence River breaching its banks and flooding roads. Then, on April 15, a Texas storm packing twice as much punch rolled into the region bringing days of ice pellets and freezing rain. In just three days, southwestern Ontario was pounded with a half a month’s rainfall.

Toronto endured 21 hours of ice pellets, 9 hours of freezing rain, and 24 hours of rain. The gooey mix totalled 7 cm to 12 cm in places. Across southern and eastern Ontario, strong winds blew sheets of snow and ice from buildings, smashing windows both on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, and in downtown Toronto. The CN Tower closed after ice fell and pierced the dome below, forcing the cancellation of a Blue Jays game. Power losses from both storms numbered 500,000 in Ontario and 100,000 in Quebec, with some customers hit with outages twice in less than two weeks.

Regional highlights

Canada

  • Another warm year—barely
  • Record-low sea ice (maximum concentration)
  • And more low sea ice (minimum concentration)

Atlantic Canada

  • Christmas Day (2017) power outage in Nova Scotia
  • Covered bridge lost in flood
  • Easter blizzard
  • Summer snow in Newfoundland
  • Rare June frost
  • Storms Chris, Beryl, and Michael
  • More power outages
  • Lobsters not yet aboard
  • Record fall snowfall in Happy Valley
  • Newfoundland’s greatest blast on earth
  • 350,000 Maritimers in the dark

Quebec

  • January flooding follows record cold
  • Icy surfaces across southern Quebec
  • February flooding and power outages
  • One/two/three punch March storms
  • Three storms in cruel April
  • Putting the “gust” in August

Ontario

  • January’s mixed bag of weather
  • Thawing, raining, and flooding in February
  • April/May weather whiplash
  • Ontario’s first tornado
  • Northern Ontario’s trio of June storms
  • Ottawa too dry for too long and too wet all at once
  • Menacing Ontario wildfires
  • Trees down, trees down
  • Rain equates to flooding in Toronto
  • Leftovers of Tropical Storm Gordon
  • September’s last tornadoes
  • Pre-winter teaser

Prairie provinces

  • Million dollar blizzard
  • An abundance of snow in Calgary
  • Sudden melting and ice jamming trigger Alberta flooding
  • Manitoba wildfire season early and over
  • Stormy weather challenges cattle and people
  • May’s snow and cold gives way to June’s heat in Churchill
  • Weather adds three hours to football game
  • Mid-Prairie storms
  • Saskatchewan tornadoes—a year’s worth in two days
  • Million dollar hailers in western Prairies
  • Calgary’s early August hailer
  • North America’s strongest, and a killer, tornado
  • Edmonton’s record September snowfall
  • Calgary’s October snow-mageddon
  • Forgotten fall returns
  • Rime icing turns lights and water off in Saskatchewan

British Columbia

  • Boxing Day ice storm in Fraser Valley
  • January storm blasts coastal British Columbia
  • January liquid sunshine
  • Winter’s worst moment comes in February
  • July heat and record dryness
  • Winter starts at end of summer
  • Weather stopped ferries but not runners

North

  • Arctic winter heat wave
  • Arctic ice causes shipping problems
  • Let it freeze
  • Hours and hours of blizzards
  • Yukon heat
  • Record summer wet in Yellowknife
  • Quiet wildfire season in the Northwest Territories
  • Record winds whip Nunavut capital

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climate change, David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada, top ten weather stories, Weather Extremes

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