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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories of 1998

Table of Content

1. Ice Storm of the Century

Despite it being the second mildest winter on record, it was a horrific ice storm that dominated the news.  Eastern Canadians know about ice storms, they occur about 10 to 15 times a year, but never had anyone experienced ice rains like those during the first week of January.

For the next six days, the water equivalent of the freezing rain and ice pellets exceeded 100 mm in some places -  more than a two-year supply.  The geographic extent of the storm was enormous, stretching from Georgian Bay to the Bay of Fundy.  What made the ice storm so unusual though was that it just wouldn't end.  The freezing precipitation held on for more 80 than hours, nearly double the normal annual total. 

The storm claimed as many as 35 lives and brought down millions of trees, 1,000 transmission towers, 30,000 utility poles, and enough wires and cables to stretch around the world three times.

Eleven months later, an unprecedented 700,000 insurance claims for storm-related damages had been filed.  Total insurance payouts approached $1.5 billion - three times the amount ever paid out for a natural disaster in Canada.  Losses covered by governments and industry will push the cost beyond $3 billion.

2. A Year-Long Heat Wave

That the year began with the second mildest winter on record was remarkable in its own right.  But what followed was truly phenomenal - the warmest spring, summer and fall on record.  Temperatures from December 1997 to November 1998 were an average of 2.5 degrees warmer than normal and a full one-degree above the previous high set in 1981.  There has never been a warmer year in the half century that Environment Canada has kept nation-wide weather records.  Statistically, we should expect a year like 1998 about every 2,500 years.  And the story was the same across the entire country with all regions having their first, second or third warmest such 12-months on record. Nationally, new record high temperatures were set in February, April, May, July, August, and September.  And for July, it was the warmest month ever in Canada.

The warming in Canada mirrored that globally - every single month from May 1997 to October 1998 has been the warmest on record since 1860.  Scientists concluded some remarkable and troubling climate facts this year:

  • 1998 was the 20th consecutive year with above normal global temperatures;
  • seven of the ten warmest years in the past 140 have occurred since 1990;
  • the 1990s is the warmest decade of the century; and the 20th century is the hottest century for at least 1200 years.

Further, natural forces such as El Niño and sunspots cannot fully explain the past 12 months of record-setting warm weather.  Although the warm year is not of itself evidence of global warming, a sharp increase in global temperatures in the past few years has added to the strong and compelling evidence of humankind's contribution to climate change.

3. Costliest Forest Fire Season on Record

So much fire so early in the year made 1998 a record year of forest fires in Canada. Flames destroyed a total of 4.6 million hectares of forests, about 50% more than the normal amount, much of it within protected areas and high in commercial value.  The 10,567 fires were the greatest number in 10 years. Worst hit were Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, northwestern Ontario, and the south half of the Northwest and Yukon territories.  Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and surprisingly Manitoba were largely spared fires this year.   Among the most memorable were fires in Salmon Arm, British Columbia where half the people had to be evacuated and in Swan Hills, Alberta where the town was evacuated twice.   By the end of October, about $700 million had been spent extinguishing fires in Canada's forests - twice the normal cost and likely the most expensive year ever. 

4. The Warmest, Longest Summer in Memory

A majority of Canadians seemed ecstatic over a summer that started early and just never seemed to end.  By the end of it, June, July and August was the warmest summer on record, and July was the warmest month ever in Canada.  But for most Canadians, it was the six months of summer-like weather stretching from Easter to Halloween that was most talked about.  It was so pleasantly warm for so long that many Canadians felt either guilty or concerned that somehow they were soon going to pay for the abundance of delightful weather. Among the winners in retail sales were lawn and garden suppliers (a 63% increase) and fishing and camping equipment (up 51%).  Some golf courses had their best year on record.  And beer was so popular that several brewers faced a serious bottle shortage. 

Although the summer was absent of any Texas-type heat wave, we couldn't escape the Louisiana-style humidity.  The hot spot was at Osoyoos, BC where a high temperature of 42.8°C occurred on July 27.  High humidity and surplus heat also helped to fuel an active summer severe weather season, especially in Ontario and the western Prairies.  There were no strong tornadoes and for the eleventh consecutive year, no one died from a tornado in Canada.  Four people, however, were killed by straight-line winds in Ontario.  Severe weather season had an early March start in Ontario and ended with a 172 events, the highest ever reported in the province.  Calgary saw thunderstorms on 8 of the first 10 days in July during its famous Stampede.  On July 4, a record 43 mm of rain fell in six hours, breaking the record set in 1909.  It even dared to rain on the weather forecaster's Stampede breakfast. 

5. Near-Record Dry Year

While record temperatures dominated weather talk in 1998, persistently dry weather may have caused the most hardship.  From December 1997 to November 1998, Canada had its sixth driest year on record, with total precipitation almost 5% below normal.  It was also the driest on record for the Yukon and Northern BC and in the boreal forests of western Canada and Ontario. 

The Great Lakes started out full, but ended the year with water levels well below average.  For the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence area, the past 12 months were the third driest in 51 years, some 12.4% below normal.  Lake Ontario lost 115 cm from its spring peak, and Lake Superior experienced its lowest water level in 73 years.  In some inland waterways, such as the Grand River in southern Ontario, water levels sank to their lowest marks in nearly 40 years.  The summer-fall drought forced many residents near London to truck in water because their wells had dried up, and prompted the first voluntary fishing ban on the Grand River. 

6. Early Planting and Record Early Harvest

A tame winter and early spring allowed farmers to seed a month earlier than normal.  Hot, dry weather also helped push crop development at least two or three weeks ahead of schedule. Farmers in many areas of Canada completed their harvest the earliest at least since the Depression.  On the Prairies, timely rains just before harvest yielded crops that were better than the last 10 years.  Canadian farmers produced a record canola crop; a record corn harvest some 18% higher; a record production of field peas; and the second largest crop of soybeans.

A late June frost forced many growers in the eastern Prairies and Ontario to re-seed their crops and   killer frost devastated the year's blueberry crop in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean area.  In Kelowna, favourable weather conditions pleased most fruit and grape growers.

For the second consecutive year, farmers in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley faced a growing season with drought.  Farmers accustomed to 80 to 90 mm of monthly rain had to make do with as little as 5 to 10 mm.  For the first time, the Nova Scotia government provided significant compensation to cover a portion of the estimated $50 million in losses.   In Grey and Bruce counties of Ontario, conditions were so dry that farmers were forced to use hay reserved for winter feed.  The extreme dryness left corn stunted.  Oats didn't fill out and bean plants sprouted empty pods. 

7. Winter and Spring Flooding in Eastern Canada

Two days of torrential rains in late January caused major flooding in parts of the Maritimes after several rivers overflowed their banks.  In Truro, Nova Scotia a combination of high tides, 80 mm of rain and melting ice from the Salmon River produced the worst flooding in 25 years.  Damages and clean-up costs exceeded $3 million. 

In late March, close to 4,000 Quebecers were forced out of their homes by flood-swollen rivers following the heaviest snowfall of the season and unseasonable warmth that produced a quick thaw.  The Châteauguay River swelled to 20 times its usual height, breaking all previous records.  For some of the evacuees, it was the second time in ten weeks that they were forced out of their homes, the first by the ice storm.

In Eastern and Central Ontario, heavy rains and a record warm spell in late March unleashed many ice-jammed and debris-clogged streams and rivers.  For the many residents of the Ottawa Valley, it was the worst flooding in more than 20 years. In New Brunswick, heavy March rains washed out dozens of roads between Saint John and Fredericton.  The hardest-hit area was Welsford, where floodwaters took out a covered bridge across the Nerepis River. On April 8, record rainfalls of 64 mm forced pedestrians in St. John's, Newfoundland to wade through knee-high water.

8. A Lingering Fall and Most Reluctant Winter

For most Canadians, the period between summer's last gasp and the first lasting snow cover is measured in weeks if not days.  But in 1998, the fall season prevailed for at least its three-month astronomical limit everywhere in Canada.  The national average temperature for September, October and November was 2.3°C above normal - another new record.  Credit El Niño - although long gone in May, its residual heat remained in the air, land and waters of Canada.

In the Arctic, where winter normally begins, the ocean was slow to freeze over.  Ice concentration in the Western Arctic remained at record-breaking minimums through much of the fall.   Many parts of Ontario never had it so warm. On November 30, Ottawa reached 16.4°C, a whopping 15-degrees above normal.  And as late as December 15, temperatures soared to 11.3°C in Windsor and Sarnia. 

By mid-December only two of Ontario's 80 downhill ski areas were open, a full month after the traditional start to ski season.  The possibility of no skiing over the holiday season, when ski resorts generate a quarter of their winter ski revenues, had operators desperate for snow.  The last time ski resorts were closed down during the holidays was in 1979. 

Remarkably, for Montreal and Ottawa, two of the snowiest cities in the world, snowfall totals to December 16 were a trace amount and 1.6 cm, respectively, compared to a normal of 55 cm.  By mid-December, Phoenix and Las Vegas had more snow this winter than either Montreal or Ottawa. 

9. Three Memorable Snowstorms

On February 25, close to 70 cm of snow were dumped on parts of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, making it was one of the worst blizzards in history.  The wind blew so hard in Brandon, Manitoba that some roads were snow-covered within minutes of being ploughed.  Roads were littered with abandoned vehicles and snowploughs broke down from being overworked.  Even snowmobiles got stuck in waist-high drifts.

On St. Patrick's Day, nothing was green in Calgary after the city experienced its worst March snowstorm in 113 years.  The airport recorded 32 cm of snow, but most other parts of the city received about 40 to 45 cm.  Downtown Calgary was a ghost town.  Motorists couldn't dig out of their driveways, and the bus system ground to a halt.  For the first time ever, the Irish had to cancel St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the city. 

It looked more like Christmas than Thanksgiving in Saskatchewan after one of the worst fall snowstorms on record dumped 25 to 70 cm of snow across southern and central districts.  Prince Albert took the worst hit with 42 cm of snow, a new one-day snowfall record.  In Saskatoon, snow-laden trees collapsed onto power lines, knocking out electricity to 30,000 homes.  Up to 3,000 of the city's 90,000 city trees were damaged by the freak storm.  In Regina, it was called one of the worst storms ever.  Although the city received only 18 cm of snow, the wet snow weighed down tree branches and snapped them like toothpicks onto cars, roofs and power lines.  Ten days later, temperatures soared to 24°C in southern Saskatchewan, and golfers to put away their shovels for their golf clubs. 

10. Active Hurricane Season and Big BC Blows

In 1998, the North Atlantic witnessed the sixth most active hurricane season since 1933.  Although it started out slowly, it hit with a fury by September 25 when four hurricanes (Georges, Ivan, Jeanne, and Karl) were swirling together in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  The three catastrophic storms were Danielle, Georges and Mitch.  But it was Mitch that will be remembered as the deadliest hurricane to strike the Western Hemisphere in 200 years.  Not since the Great Hurricane of 1780, which killed approximately 22,000 people in the eastern Caribbean was there a more deadly hurricane.  In spite of the high activity, hurricanes posed no serious threat in Canada.  Only three hurricanes entered Canadian waters - Bonnie, Danielle, and the remnants of Earl.  On September 3, Danielle passed south of Newfoundland and made a direct hit on a Canadian offshore weather buoy moored about 300 km southeast of Sable Island.  Maximum wave height reached nearly 27 m - the height of a seven-story building.

Although not hurricanes or typhoons, a rash of wind storms along BC's southern coast in late November and early December caused extensive blackouts and disrupted BC ferry sailings.  This year was one of only three since 1980 with 12 or more wind events of 60 km/h or more; six of those big blows took place in November.  A storm on November 23 left about 200,000 BC Hydro customers without power.  The next day, winds measured 85 km/h with gusts of 102 km/h - the most severe wind storm to hit the area according to BC Hydro.