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The Top Ten Canadian Weather Stories for 2001

Table of Content

1. Canada Dry From Coast to Coast

Drought is a chronic concern in Canada but rarely has it been as serious or extensive as in 2001. The growing season across southern Canada was its driest in 34 years. The drought's impacts were felt mostly on the Prairies, especially in the southern arid regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where some districts were suffering their second or third straight year of severe water shortages.

For Prairie farmers and ranchers, it was the worst of times - another dry year, low crop prices and higher expenses. The dryness was so intense that the Alberta government declared a drought even before the first day of summer.  And for the first time ever, water for irrigation was rationed in the spring. Even in the dustbowl of the 1930s, no single year between Medicine Hat, Kindersley and Saskatoon was drier than in 2001.  Astonishingly, Saskatoon was 30% drier this year than any other over the last 110 years. Fearing the worst, officials warned that the dry belt was going to need 50 to 70% more precipitation this winter and  spring to replenish water supplies for 2002 - an unprecedented amount. 

Statistics Canada called the growing conditions in the West the worst since the 1988 drought. Wheat and canola production plunged 43% from last year. The hit on the Western economy alone from the shortfall of grains was estimated at $5 billion.  Nationally, the drought was much more extensive than in 1988, because the East was also severely hit.  The first day of summer seemed to promise Ontario farmers the best crop in years - seed was already in the ground, there was no early freeze or severe storms, and moisture and heat were adequate. Yet, just two weeks later, and then for six more weeks, the dry weather and heat desiccated virtually every crop except grapes. 

In the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region, it was the driest summer in 54 years of records.  Right in the middle of the growing season, some of the best farmland in Canada (between Windsor and Kitchener) endured its driest eight weeks on record.  Montreal-Dorval recorded its driest April on record and in the middle of the summer set a new record - 35 straight days with no  measurable rain.  Despite the parched conditions, Quebec farmers fared better than most others with average yields on all grains.  Atlantic Canada was also parched.  It had its third driest summer making four dry summers out of the last five. Charlottetown and Moncton recorded their driest July and August on record with only a quarter of their normal rainfall.  Charlottetown's  five mm of rain in August was its driest month ever. Little wonder the potato harvest was down 35 to 45%!

Even in British Columbia, Canada's "wet coast", the winter was the driest on record with rain and snowfall only half the historical average across the coast and southern interior. Snowpacks in southern BC were at or below their lowest levels on record, raising concerns about the potential for a summer drought that could force everything from residential water restrictions, electricity shortfalls, and massive salmon die-off, to forest infernos.

From November to February, Vancouver recorded 380 mm of precipitation, the lowest total since 1976-77, and the second lowest since records began in 1939. At Victoria, the precipitation fiverecorded at the city's water reservoir was its lowest for any winter in 101 years. At the end of the "wet" season, the Region's main reservoir was less than 70% full - the lowest level in more than 30 years. On April 2, officials restricted all lawn and garden watering.  Severe restrictions were also put on filling swimming pools and hot tubs, and hosing down driveways and exterior buildings.  Even car dealerships were not allowed to wash vehicles.

2. The Never-ending Winter

For the first time in more than 20 years, Easterners experienced an old-fashioned Canadian winter - cold, snowy and long.  Record snowfalls and bitterly cold temperatures last December, followed by two or three months without a serious thaw, left most residents begging for spring.

In downtown Toronto, the snowcover finally disappeared on the first day of spring, marking the end of a 104-day stretch of snow on the ground  - the longest on record in 130 years.  Montreal had 281 cm of snow - the greatest yearly total in a quarter century.  Atlantic Canada  also had its share of snow records: huge amounts, a continuous cover and spent removal budgets.  The heavy snow and lack of rain allowed snow to pile up, buckling several roofs.  School closings or "snow days" numbered as many as eight in some districts.  Physiotherapists reported a record number of tennis-elbow cases in shovel-weary patients. Retailers boasted banner sales for roof rakes, ice scrapers, snowblowers and wiper blades, and manufacturers of windshield washer fluids couldn't keep up with demand.

But nobody had it worse than St. John's!  Newfoundland's capital city was directly in the path of almost every winter storm that crossed North America.  From the first few flakes of snow on November 22, 2000 to the final flurries on May 26, a grand total of 648.4 cm accumulated, breaking a more than century-old record.  It was likely the greatest snowfall for a city of comparable size anywhere in the world.  With storms averaging one every four days, city crews ran out of places to stack it (no wonder considering that, if packed as a snowball, the total snowfall would measure two kilometres across).  Over 500 million tonnes of snow fell on the city, enough to fill 3,200 SkyDomes.  Reluctant to call in the army, the Mayor appealed to municipalities in Eastern Canada to send a squadron of snow blowers and ploughs to his snowbound city.

For most winter-weary Easterners, the slow start to winter 2002 is simply pay-back time.  From Thunder Bay to Pouch Cove, winter was delayed several weeks.  While a terrible blow to outdoor enthusiasts and businesses, most loved winter's reluctance and their huge savings on heating bills.  By December 13, London had only a trace of snow - quite something for one of the snowiest cities in southern Ontario.  The coldest temperature Toronto could muster by the second week in December was -1.8°C, not even a killing frost.

3. It's Never the Heat … It's Always the Humidity!

Summer holidays this year began on a cold snowy note in northern and central Ontario and in Quebec, forcing the cancellation of many Canada Day firework celebrations (including those on Parliament Hill). At Kapuskasing, Ontario, 3 cm of snow fell on July 1.  But things quickly warmed up from there, making it the third warmest summer on record in Canada and continuing the trend of normal to warmer-than-normal summer temperatures - the 18th such summer in the last 22. Record-breaking temperatures were eclipsed in dozens of communities, from Saskatoon to Corner Brook, and almost every city exceeded its average number of hot days (temperatures above 30°C).  Fredericton, for example, had 20 hot days compared to its average of 10. Montreal had 23 hot days compared to its usual 9; and Ottawa had 26, compared to its average of 14.

But the first week of August will be summer's most remembered stretch, when much of southern Canada sweltered under torrid heat and insufferable humidity.  Sauna-like conditions, with humidex values in the dangerous range, were all too frequent and made 35° weather feel 10 degrees warmer.  In dry Saskatchewan, forecasters issued a humidex advisory for the first time in 30 years.  In Winnipeg, a humidex value of 46° causing many citizens to suffer exhaustion, nausea and even fainting on the streets.  The heat wave brought along the usual litany of smog advisories, watering bans, brown-outs and closed beaches.   In Montreal, the first 10 days of August were all hot days - its longest heat spell on record.  For the first time ever, city water used equaled the daily supply.  Toronto Pearson Airport  reached its second warmest day ever with 37.9°C on August 8, and the city established new all-time records for both water and energy consumption.  Osoyoos in southern British Columbia was the national hot spot when it reached 41.7°C on August 12, tying the all-time August provincial high.

4. Close to a National Inferno

One of the top news stories in Canada in 2001 could have been was "a nation on fire from coast to coast".  While wildfire potential across Canada was astronomical, actual fire losses were never lower.  The combination of low water levels, record low snowpack, an early thaw and a string of 15 consecutive seasons of milder-than-normal temperatures had fire managers from Manitoba westward anticipating an active wildfire season.  Grass fires in early March prompted officials in Alberta to declare the start of the fire season a month earlier than normal.  In Saskatchewan, the number of forest fires was already three times the norm due to a record dry winter and spring.  On May 24, northern Alberta around Chisholm became an inferno scorching an estimated 140,000 ha of tinder-dry forest and brush and destroying several homes.  Arrival of cool wet weather and a surprise snowfall during the first week of June brought some relief and enabled hundreds of evacuated residents to return to their homes.

From Central Ontario east to Newfoundland, the weather remained hot and dry through the summer and the potential for wildfires increased daily.  By the end of July, the drought code in Ontario was at record high ratings.  Record heat and dryness in August only worsened the fire potential. Provinces moved quickly to impose open fire bans, limit logging operations and mobilize fire management resources.  In Nova Scotia, the government outlawed travel in forests and banned camp fires. Even blueberry picking was forbidden!  In northeastern Ontario, authorities banned all fires.

On August 11, a motor home south of Princeton, BC caught fire. Flames  quickly spread to the dry woods and burned out of control for about a week.  On Labour Day weekend, with no rain in parts of  the southern and central districts for weeks, the fire hazard had become the worst in the province's history, forcing the evacuation and closure of Kananaskis country on the busiest weekend of the year. 

Whereas forest fire fighters went to work early in Canada this year, they fought fewer and smaller fires than average.  By mid-November, 7,525 fires burned 594,828 ha compared to the ten-year average of 8,018 fires and 2,761,314 ha.  Only Alberta came in above the long-term average for  the amount of area burned. It was the third quiet forest fire season in a row and, quite remarkably, featured the smallest total area burned in the last 11 years of monitoring.  A combination of swift action by forest fire managers, few lightning strikes, very humid air and much luck helped officials contain the threat of fire and minimize the area burned under such incredibly volatile conditions.

5. Air Quality Woes

Last year, many regions across Canada failed to report a single bad air day but this year's hot, hazy summer was one of the smoggiest since 1988.   The difference this year was the exceptionally dry summer in the East, with lots of sunshine and a sluggish high pressure system bringing air from the U.S.

Gritty brown air capped cities and towns from Sault Ste Marie to Sydney, including rural areas and cottage country. Smog advisories in Ontario were issued more often in 2001, covered more days and were generally more widespread than ever before. It was the earliest start to the smog season on record - one month ahead of schedule.  In the most seriously affected area, between Toronto and Windsor, authorities issued advisories covering 23 days - twice the number than any previous  year since 1988.  While some episodes were localized one- or two-day events, two bouts of dirty air lasting an unprecedented five straight days caused serious concern.  

Atlantic Canada had eight smog episodes, more than double the usual number.  Montreal had nine episodes - its highest since 1988.  In the Lower Mainland of BC and  the Fraser Valley, there were three smog episodes including one in August that engulfed most of the province.

6. Hurricane Gabrielle and "The Perfect Storm"

The North Atlantic hurricane season was the fourth most active in 120 years and the longest since 1981.  In all, there were 15 named storms from Allison to Olga - nine of them became hurricanes, four of which were major cyclones with winds of 178 km/h or higher.  Although it was one of the slowest-starting seasons on record - the first hurricane did not develop until September 8 - nearly half of the named cyclones developed in October and November.

For the third year in a row, six named storms moved into or close to Canadian waters - five hurricanes and one tropical storm. During a particularly busy 30-day stretch from late August to late September, four tropical systems (Dean, Erin, Gabrielle, and Humberto) passed through the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland. Although none of the storms actually made landfall in Newfoundland, each of them brought rainfalls in excess of 100 mm to Canada's easternmost province. The worst of the storms, Gabrielle, hammered the Avalon Peninsula with intense rain on September 19.  More than 160 mm fell on Cape Race in about 10 hours.  St. John's received 127 mm in about six hours, making it the wettest day ever in the capital.  Widespread flooding tore up roads, swamped shopping malls and parking lots, filled basements to the ceiling and left thousands of residents without telephone, electricity and heat.

Then came the "Perfect Storm", a hybrid of three weather systems - remnants of hurricanes Michelle and Noel and a non-tropical storm from New England - which converged and then intensified over the Gulf of St. Lawrence on November 7.  The nasty "weather bomb" blew out car windows, caused blackouts for more than 100,000 hydro customers and swamped wharves and fragile sand dunes.   Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island received the brunt of it - sustaining high winds combined with high tides to produce a storm surge of one metre or more, and waves of nine metres. Rocks as heavy as 14 kg were thrown hundreds of metres inland, some landing on golf greens.  The Confederation Bridge was closed to all traffic for the first time ever when winds were clocked at 123 km/h gusting to 155, the strongest ever measured.  The storm also tore out chunks of the Canso Causeway connecting Cape Breton Island to mainland Nova Scotia.

7. Winter Recreation - Best in the East and Least in the West

A real Canadian winter with lots of cold and snow provided outdoor enthusiasts in the East with some of the best snow and ice conditions ever.  In the West, the best skiing and snowboarding came in April - too late to save a disastrous season for mountain resorts.

Snowfall totals were bountiful in the East, about 10 to 30% above normal.  More importantly, the snow cover came early and had lots of staying power - lasting a month past its usual demise.  Snowmobilers couldn't have been happier with winter, as trail groomers groaned under the load.  A record early snowfall and persistently cold weather meant fantastic conditions for skiers and snowboarders for four solid months, compared to a short seven-week season in 2000. Ontario and Quebec resorts enjoyed their longest ski season in over 60 years, while resorts in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland reported their best season ever. In Ottawa, skaters on the Rideau Canal enjoyed a long season with superb quality ice which made for the best skating in years.  The nearly eight kilometres of frozen surface was open for 69 days - two weeks longer than normal, but well short of the 95 day record in 1971-72.

In the West though, the weather couldn't have been worse for outdoor recreation - scanty snows, thin snowpacks, strong chinook winds and weeks of warm dry weather.  At the end of December, fewer than half the Alberta ski runs were open - a full six weeks behind schedule.   A month later, conditions hadn't improved.  There was less than half the normal water equivalent of snow on the ground at Sunshine Valley near Banff.  Never before had Rocky Mountain snowpacks been as low. 

In Edmonton, January was its warmest in over 100 years of records with the average temperature 10 degrees  above normal.  The city also set a record for the least amount of snowfall with less than 1 cm.  Incredibly, the Alberta capital got more rain than snow in January.  The unseasonably mild weather washed out dog musher events in Alberta and changed the course of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race.  Who said weather isn't fair?  This November, ski hills in the West were packed with snow and mountain resorts reported 60% more snow than normal with earlier than normal openings.

8. BC's Big Blow

In mid-December, a week of powerful storms slammed into British Columbia's southern coast.  Torrential rain soaked the ground, leaving trees vulnerable to the near-record winds and causing century-old monarchs in Stanley Park to topple.  Throughout Vancouver, fallen trees knocked down hydro lines and caused traffic chaos, including the closure of Lions Gate Bridge.  A mighty storm on December 14 blacked out 175,000 BC Hydro customers - the worst power failure in years.  Several small craft broke free of  their moorings and BC Ferries cancelled sailings on five straight days.  Flights at the Harbour and International airports were delayed, leaving travellers stranded.  Students, however, were jubilant - school was closed in Surrey and final examinations canceled at UBC!

Winds at Vancouver International Airport reached 81 km/h, the fourth strongest winds on record.  On the northern tip of Vancouver Island, winds peaked at 143 km/h. Vancouver's total rainfall by the middle of the month (189.6 mm) had already exceeded December's average total and was on track for a new monthly record.   The unusually powerful storms were fueled by warm, moist air from Hawaii colliding with cooler air from the Gulf of Alaska.

9. Another Hot Year for Canada and for the World

The year 2001 was the ninth warm year in a row for Canada and likely its third warmest in over 50 years of records. The year 1998 still holds the record for the warmest year ever, with 1981 as the second warmest. 

With another mild fall in 2001, Canada has had an unprecedented stretch of 18 consecutive warmer-than-normal seasons -- an unbroken streak of  4 1/2 years -- starting in the  summer of 1997.   Both the summer and fall of  2001 were the third warmest for the season.

A warmer Canada is in step with the rest of the world.  The year 2001 is the 23rd consecutive year with above-normal global temperatures and the second warmest on record.  Nine of the ten warmest years globally have occurred since 1990.  The warmest year, based on records starting in 1860, was in 1998. Temperatures have been rising over the past 100 years, but  this slow warming has increased markedly over the past 25 years.   According to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, the global average temperature has risen about three times faster since 1976.   Now into the 21st century, global temperatures are more than 0.6°C above those at the beginning of the 20th century.   

Although yet another warm year is not of itself evidence of climate change, the unprecedented increase in global temperatures in the past  25 years has added to the concrete and compelling evidence of humankind's contribution to climate change.

10. Freak Lightning Deaths in an Unusually Quiet Summer

Each year in Canada lighting kills six to twelve people on average - not surprising given that it hits our country eight million times a year.  Most victims of lightning are hit outdoors, when the storm is raging overhead, and most are single-fatality cases.  This year was  not  exceptional for its number of fatalities, but rather the unusual circumstances surrounding four deaths:

  • On June 16, lightning struck and killed a teenage girl south of Wakefield, Quebec.  The erratic lightning bolt struck her after the rain had ended and the sun was shining - literally a bolt out of the blue.  Her companions were also knocked to the ground but not seriously injured.  The same thunderstorm shocked and burned 11 soccer players and bystanders, none seriously, in a Montreal park.
  • On July 22, lightning took the lives of two men who had taken shelter from a thunderstorm under a tree west of Toronto.  A single lightning bolt had hit the tree directly and jumped across to the friends killing them instantly - a rare double fatality.
  • On August 7, near Burks Falls, Ontario, lightning instantly killed an elderly man standing indoors while he was watching the passing thunderstorm.

Lessons to be learned from these tragic incidents include: waiting at least 30 minutes after seeing the last lightning flash or hearing the final peal of thunder before venturing outside; avoiding standing next to someone while waiting for a thunderstorm to pass - at least five metres distance should be kept; and remembering that there are no safe havens from lightning, not even indoors.

As for other summer storms, 2001 was notable for its curious lack of them - few hail storms, only  occasional severe thunderstorms and weak tornadoes, and no tornado deaths or serious injuries.  Storms that did break out were generally weak and short-lived. One exception to the storm-quiet summer was a costly hail storm which hit parts of Winnipeg and southern Manitoba on August 21, dropping nickel- to hardball-size hailstones.  Manitoba Public Insurance estimated that the storm triggered 11,000 claims costing over $20 million dollars for damaged vehicles alone.