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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories of 1997

Table of Content

1. Red River's Flood of the Century

The 1997 spring flood on the Red River was the highest recorded this century.  At least 1,840 square kilometres of valley lands were flooded as the Red River rose 12 metres above winter levels.  By the time the river's crest reached downtown Winnipeg on May 2, some 28,000 Manitoba residents were forced to flee their homes.  A provincial government minister described the event as "the most significant natural disaster to strike a Canadian community in the twentieth century."  Unofficial estimates of total damage to public and private property, including replacing infrastructure and flood-proofing will exceed $450 million.  Incredibly, though, damages prevented by flood control works and emergency dyking were estimated at over $6 billion.  The main causes of the flood were a frozen saturated soil and a deep snowpack with its record high water content.  Further, two weeks before the flood came, a nasty snowstorm dumped half a winter's snowfall load in the Red River basin in one weekend.

2. El Nino Arrives On Schedule

During the latter half of the year, most Canadians were talking about El Nino, either blessing it or cursing it for whatever the weather.  And right on schedule in early December, warm Pacific breezes wafted across much of Canada.

It was one of the balmiest starts to winter in the west on record, bringing an unthinkable green or brown Christmas to Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton.  On the negative side, El Nino wrecked havoc with the construction of ice bridges and winter roads in the North, and generally caused grief for people who depend on seasonably cold and snowy weather.  The warm "chinook-like" winds were also blamed for tinder dry grasslands that fuelled voracious wildfires in southern Alberta.

What truly made the weather remarkably unseasonable was that a year ago much of the Prairies had more than 100 cm of snow on the ground, and nighttime temperatures were between -20 and -30°C.  In 1997, El Nino seemed to be turning the world upside down with knee-deep snowfall in Guadalajara (the first time in 116 years), and the fact that it was warmer on the Canadian Prairies than in Mexico City.  El Nino mildness didn't make it all across Canada.  Atlantic Canada suffered through one of its coldest and snowiest starts to winter on record.

Recent reconnaissance of the tropical Eastern Pacific shows that El Nino's very warm pool of water continues to strengthen.  Warm sea surface temperatures remain 5 to 6 degrees above normal.  The latest advisory predicts that the largest El Nino this century will peak in January and likely persist through March-May 1998 before weakening.

3. Thunderstorms and Hurricanes - Few and Weak

The summer was noteworthy for the few number of severe weather events - heavy thunderstorms, twisters and hailers - unlike the expensive disasters that plagued Canada last summer.  There were no strong tornadoes reported this year, and convective storms that did break out were generally weak and short-lived. 

The only notable exceptions to a "storm-quiet" summer were in Saskatchewan where there were 102 severe weather events (average is 73) including 11 tornadoes, and the interior of British Columbia where a devastating hailstorm and strong downburst winds did several millions of dollars damage on two separate occasions. 

For a hurricane season that was projected to be active, it was one of the quietest this century.  Seven tropical storms formed, but just three of those reached hurricane strength.  Only one of the tropical storms appeared during the peak August to September period - an occurrence last noted in 1929.  None of the tropical storms had an impact on Canada.  With the expected shut down of El Nino before early summer, experts have projected nine tropical storms will develop in the Atlantic in 1998.  From these storms, five hurricanes will evolve and two will become intense, making for a normal hurricane season.

4. Another Cool, Wet Miserable Spring

On the heels on a seemingly endless winter, Canadians suffered through another dismal spring with rain, cold and heavy snow.  The flood risk was high from British Columbia to New Brunswick, and especially around the swollen Great Lakes, where it was feared that strong winds would easily flood low-lying areas.

A mass of Arctic air hovering over Hudson Bay gave portions of Ontario and Quebec the wettest, coldest and windiest springs in 50 years.  Blooms were about a week to two weeks late.  Unseasonable weather kept people away from garden centres, golf courses, and outdoor attractions and generally hurt most retail sales.  Farmers planted seed in April and May but nothing happened.  Some growers said it was the coldest start to the growing season in memory with some grain crops still not in the ground on June 1. 

5. British Columbia's Big Wet

Monsoonal rains that began in the fall of 1996 continued to soak British Columbia through 1997.  From October 1996 to the end of August 1997, Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops received more precipitation than any previous 11- or even 12-month period.  At Vancouver, 1997 turned out to be the wettest year since records began there in 1937.  Well-deserved sunshine and warmth finally arrived to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island on July 11 for a five-week summer before rains resumed.  Happily, November was one of the mildest, driest, sunniest on record.

Weather-related problems devastated agriculture across British Columbia.  From blight on potatoes on the Coast, to a wet spring in the Peace River that prevented planting, to a soggy growing season in the Fraser Valley, to widespread hail damage in the Okanagan, the weather forced some farmers into bankruptcy.

6. Perfect Harvest Weather

Fall temperatures were warmer than normal over 90% of Canada.  Across the Prairies, the lack of a late-summer killing freeze provided additional time for crop maturation and ideal weather meant that fieldwork was virtually complete by the middle of September.  As a result, farmers realized slightly better yields than earlier anticipated.

News on the farm was also good in Ontario and Quebec.  Record seeded acreage and average yields produced a record soybean crop of 2.7 million tonnes. 

7. Okanagan's $100 Million Hailstorm

Only July 21, a destructive hail and wind storm ripped through the orchards of the Okanagan, Similkameen and Creston valleys.  Almost all exposed fruit was slashed or knocked off trees.  Fresh fruit losses of $70 million resulted in at least $120 million in reduced economic activity in the local and provincial economies, including the loss of 1000 seasonal jobs at the orchard level and in fruit packing houses.  Growers called it the worst storm in memory.  Nearly 40% of the crop was deemed unsuitable for fresh market.  Trees will take two to three years to recover.

8. Summer "Drought"

Hot, dry conditions at critical growing times made the summer difficult for many farmers.  In some regions of the Prairies, the dryness was the worst in 10 years, putting stress on crops at a critical stage.

Some Nova Scotia farming regions had less than 10% of normal July precipitation, an all-time low.  Many farmers were forced to sell off a majority of their livestock.  The dry weather prompted officials to close parks in Halifax and to ban all open fires in PEI forests. 

Farmers in the Ottawa Valley encountered their driest summer in several years forcing many of them to dip into their stored food reserves to feed cattle or to sell off about one-third of their herd.  Overall most farms experienced grain yields that were 50% less than usual and much of it was harvested as forage not grain.

9. Victoria's "Snowstorm of the Century"

At the end of 1996, a series of brutal winter storms blasted Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, and the Fraser Valley with over 100 cm of snow.  But it was the 80 cm of snow that fell on December 28 in downtown Victoria that shocked the country.  The most unlikely winter city in Canada now had the distinction of having the third highest one-day snowfall of any major city in Canada. 

Personal hardship to the million or more residents and visitors in southern British Columbia was felt well into 1997.  Throughout southern Vancouver Island, roofs sagged and collapsed as rain-saturated snow imposed crushing weights on roofs and walls.  Damage and clean-up costs associated with the storm approached $200 million with insurance losses about $80 million which is the biggest pay-out in BC history.

10. Spring and Winter Wildfires

The forest fire season began early and ended late in Canada.  In late May and early June, warm weather and frequent lightning strikes were responsible for high numbers of blazes and hazardous fire conditions across northern Ontario and western Quebec.  Although hot weather in June and July left forest areas in the East extremely vulnerable to fire, good luck and the absence of lightning strikes kept fires to a minimum after the first half of June. 

On September 1, the Canadian Forest Service reported that there were 5,681 wildfires across Canada, only 2/3 of the 10-year average of 8,489 fires and the fewest number in 25 years of records.  The area burned amounted to only 19 percent of the average, 502,223 hectares compared to the normal 10-year average burn of 2.6 million hectares.

But by Labour Day not all fires were extinguished.  In the middle of December, 17 forest fires broke out in the central Alberta foothills near Hinton - the first winter forest fires in a decade.  More serious were the massive wildfires near Fort McLeod Alberta in the southwest.  Strong chinook winds blowing at 80 to 100 km/h whipped the grassfires across the tinder-dry ranchland, scorching several buildings and 1000 kilometres of fence, burning to death hundreds of livestock, and leaving hundreds of hectares a blackened wasteland.  Losses exceeded $2 million.  Cooler weather and snow on December 19 helped reduce the fire hazard across the province, allowing firefighters to bring all fires under control.