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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories for 2011

Runner-Up Weather Stories 2011 (chronological order) 

Double-Header March Storms into Quebec

During the first week of March, two consecutive weather systems adversely impacted southern and eastern Quebec. With a one-two punch, they dumped huge quantities of rain and snow that created floods and high snow loads. The first, on March 4 and 5, involved a major storm over the American Midwest that tracked toward Quebec, from the Gatineau to the Saguenay. Depending on the ambient air temperature, it brought either 40 mm of rain or 40 cm of snow. The second system formed along the American east coast and generated heavy snowfalls of 50 to 70 cm in the Eastern Townships and the Beauce on March 6 and 7. New records for snowfall over a three-day period were set at Sherbrooke (73.0 cm) and Mont-Joli (62.2 cm). In Montréal, rainfalls measured from 30 to 40 mm over two days – a rare occurrence in the month of March, when rains like that fall once every 23 years on average, and especially unusual so early in the month. In addition to the rain, the city was hit with gusting winds and 15 to 25 cm of snow with most falling on March 7. The foul weather made road conditions treacherous, especially during the morning rush hour, with ice lurking under the coating of fresh snow.

Following the powerful twin winter storms, a massive clean-up operation got underway. Snowplow operators worked around the clock in many cities. Sherbrooke University Hospital had to reschedule appointments and elective surgery. Police took the exceptional step of urging residents not to leave their houses. And snowmobiles zipped along streets as pedestrians put on snowshoes and cross-country skis to make their way around town. The double storm led to road closures and pileups, while schools and offices were closed for days. Over the four-day, two-storm event Quebec City received the most precipitation with 97.2 mm – 23 mm of rain and 72 cm of snow.

Record Wet Spring in Ontario and Quebec

Following a cold and snowy winter, those in Ontario and Quebec were looking for a repeat of spring 2010, which in Central Canada turned out to be the warmest and driest on record. Instead they got soaked by a spring that began late and was record wet and dismally overcast. Meteorologically, the two provinces were trapped under an orphan upper trough that sat circling counter-clockwise over the eastern half of North America, pulling up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The stubborn system featured long spells of wet days with occasional heavy soakings. Across the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin, spring 2011 was the wettest on record, with 54 per cent more precipitation than normal over the last 64 years.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, total April precipitation was a record 136.5 mm. The cruelest month was also the dampest ever in Hamilton where one stretch of 18 days had only a single dry day. Between May 13 and May 20, there were 148 hours featuring one or more of rain, fog and overcast skies; and a measly 20 hours of partly cloudy or clear conditions. The wet weather was everywhere. Among the cities experiencing their wettest spring on record were Montréal, Ottawa and Windsor, with records dating back more than 70 years. For Sherbrooke, Québec City and Mont Joli, it was their second-wettest spring on record. From March to May inclusive, Southern Quebec was affected by a record 24 low-pressure systems, compared to an average of 13.4. Even in Atlantic Canada, there was a depressing run of almost continuous rain. In Halifax, for example, it rained on 30 of 31 days from April 17 to May 17. And during March, April and May, there were never more than two consecutive days without rain.

The soggy spring put a damper on everything. Persistent rains turned pitches, fields and courses into bogs, making it difficult to schedule sporting practices and events. Weeks of steady rain kept golfers off courses and pub patrons away from outdoor patios. Swimming pool contractors were drydocked, while roofers had loads of job orders but couldn’t complete them. The only ones getting ahead were wet basement contractors, who were able to double their spring job numbers compared to last year. Garden centres took a financial bath when Mother’s Day and the May long weekend came up wet and cool. So persistently miserable was the weather that even hardcore optimists were scrambling, resorting to desperate remarks about the low forest fire index and pristine air quality. Across Ontario and Quebec, everyone prayed it was not a sign of more to come in the summer ahead.

A Close Call on Hamilton Harbour

An intense storm system originating in the American Midwest generated a series of powerful thunderstorms across southern and eastern Ontario and western Quebec on April 27 and 28. The storm spawned Ontario’s first tornado of the year, touching down in the Fergus area. Across the region, winds whipped rain horizontally and toppled trees and hydro poles. Blowing at between 85 and 100 km/h, they reached a peak gust of 124 km/h in Niagara Falls, New York. The storm was blamed for two deaths and six injuries, but it could have been much worse. For example, close to 100 Hamilton high school student rowers and their coaches were on Hamilton Harbour early in the morning on April 28. Just before the weather squall hit, harbour waters resembled a sheet of glass. At 7:00 a.m., with 30 boats on the water, the skies turned dark and fierce winds hit quickly and violently. Gusts of 90 km/h pushed two-metre waves into the rowing flotilla amidst pelting hail. The waves pounded the slender high-tech boats, capsizing five, splitting one shell in half and damaging two others. About 30 students either went in the drink or got wave-soaked, with nine suffering from hypothermia after spending 20 minutes in the frigid water and chilly air. Elsewhere across Ontario and Quebec, storm winds toppled trees, felled power lines, stripped buildings of siding and shingles, and caused traffic mayhem. More than 175,000 Hydro One customers in Ontario lost power, as did 15,000 Hydro-Québec customers in Montréal. In Ottawa, two elderly women sustained serious head injuries after being thrown to the ground by the strong winds, while in nearby Aylmer winds tore a roof off a barn dropping it on a nearby road.

June Thunderstorms Cut Power to 200,000

During the first week of June, communities from Windsor to Ottawa and along the St. Lawrence River sizzled under soaring temperatures and record high humidities. On June 7, under an unstable atmosphere, a cluster of storms off Lake Huron quickly developed into a supercell, initiating violent weather that included damaging winds, torrential downpours, mothball-sized hail and continuous lightning. The situation prompted Environment Canada to issue a tornado warning for Hamilton at about 1:30 a.m. on June 8. Emergency Management Ontario followed with a “red alert.” The National Lightning Detection Network identified an impressive 80,000 flashes of lightning over southern Ontario. Fire chiefs in Ottawa and Vaughan (north of Toronto) said the storm was one of the worst in recent memory for lightning-triggered house fires. The fast-moving thunderstorms raced from southern Georgian Bay across the Kawarthas to the Ottawa Valley. Near Ottawa, in excess of 90 mm of rain fell on Orleans in just 30 minutes. There were reports of utility hole covers popping out of the road. Damage to the Ontario hydro grid was extensive, with 300 broken poles between Peterborough and Tweed alone, and consistent with the occurrence of downburst winds in the range of 120 to 140 km/h. At least 150,000 hydro customers in Ontario and 50, 000 in Quebec were without power at some time and several remained disconnected for five days. Hydro One officials called it one of the most damaging and difficult storms to hit southern Ontario in decades, and sent out more repair crews than it did following the massive ice storm of 1998. In Quebec, strong-to-severe thunderstorms formed in the warm air north of Trois-Rivières and Québec City. Behind the cold front, hail more than 2.5 cm in diameter fell in Montréal, Estrie and Lanaudière. In the Richelieu Valley, powerful winds downed power lines, felled electrical poles and wires, and tore a school roof off in Saint-Hyacinthe.

“Saguenay-Size” Flood in Gatineau

Powerful, relentless thunderstorms pounded the Ottawa-Gatineau region on St-Jean-Baptiste Day, less than 24 hours after the area was hit by a tornado and hailstorm. Over two days, between 150 and 180 mm of rain fell in the region although rainfall amounts varied widely. The weather front associated with a disturbance over eastern Ontario and western Quebec began releasing copious amounts of rain in the afternoon of June 22, moving slowly over the region during the next two days. The atmosphere was very unstable – leading to intense rainfalls – but the region’s hilly terrain, ending in the Eardley Escarpment, contributed to the humongous rains. Waves of moisture from the south were lifted rapidly and abruptly by the escarpment, intensifying the storms. The accumulation of rain (intensities of 60 mm in 60 minutes, 135 mm in 6 hours and 250 mm in less than 2 days), was unprecedented in 100 years. In the Gatineau Hills, unbelievable rains of 250 mm accounted for more than twice the normal amount for June and one of the wettest moments in Eastern Canadian history. The Gatineau deluge was comparable to the Saguenay flood of July 18 to 21, 1996, both in terms of its rainfall duration and intensity. Only the spatial extent was different – 50 times larger in the Saguenay storm.

Along the Ottawa River, residents reported washed-out driveways, flooded basements and downed trees. Power outages were scattered but frequent, affecting 75,000 homes. Officials at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport cancelled or delayed more than two dozen flights, and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario called off its annual Teddy Bears' Picnic for the first time in 27 years. Across the Ottawa River in Quebec, flooding and landslides prompted the National Capital Commission to close several areas in Gatineau Park. Flooding was extensive, prompting dozens of road closures, and sewers couldn’t handle the overflow, which forced the evacuation of 200 mobile homes following a one-metre accumulation of water. Another 400 residences were flooded by sewer overflows and landslides, mostly in Chelsea and Cantley.

Bluesfest Blowout

Concert goers at Ottawa Bluesfest, one of North America’s major musical festivals, were enjoying the end of a beautiful summer weekend on July 17 when a sudden violent gale toppled the main stage. The powerful blast sent thousands of people scurrying from the grassy site as scaffolding buckled and collapsed backwards in a matter of seconds. Surprisingly, other than the stage, nothing else came down; video screens and concert tents stayed in place. Even more shocking, only three people were injured and none seriously. The squall – featuring winds as strong as an F0 tornado – moved in quickly. Temperatures dropped 10 degrees and the sky turned black, with incessant lightning and driving rains. Along the squall line, Environment Canada reported winds exceeding 90 km/h, including a peak gust of 96 km/h at Ottawa International Airport. In Petawawa, a wind gauge recorded 120 km/h, and at the Britannia Yacht Club, a newly installed wind meter on the roof registered at 118 km/h less than half an hour before the stage collapsed. At the height of the storm, an unofficial weather station in east Ottawa recorded a wind gust of 154 km/h. Away from the concert site, high winds knocked down trees and power lines. Violent winds exceeding 100 km/h roared through an extensive area of West Quebec from Upper Gatineau to Lac-Saint-Jean, causing uprooted trees, downed utility poles, swamped boats, flipped camping trailers, damaged roofs, split trees and smashed cars. And at Senneville/Baraute, officials confirmed the occurrence of a small tornado.

Quiet Forest Fire Season Except in Ontario and Alberta 

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in Winnipeg reported that – for the most part – Canada had a quiet wildfire year, with only Alberta and Ontario experiencing huge blazes. As of October 1, 4,322 fires had occurred during the season (less than average and about two-thirds of the 20-year average), while the 2,563,289 hectares consumed was well above normal (91 per cent above the 10-year average and 33 per cent above the 20-year average).

In Atlantic Canada, there hadn’t been a quieter forest fire season in years. The scene was similar in Quebec, with total fire outbreaks less than half the usual number and a meagre 12,500 hectares consumed, compared to the 20-year average of 260,297. Ontario, however, was another story. In June, warm and dry conditions began leaving a mark on its northwest forests. Smoke from wildfires forced 400 people to evacuate their homes in several First Nation communities. The threat of fire worsened in mid-July as hot, dry weather and dry lightning continued to sweep across the north. Approximately 4,500 people from 15 First Nations communities, including Sandy Lake, Fort Hope and others in the Red Lake District were forced out by clouds of dense smoke and raging forest fires. Fortunately, no houses or buildings were damaged. The smoke caused health problems, particularly for the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses, and was so thick and high in the sky that it could be seen from Manitoba to Newfoundland-Labrador. About 2,000 firefighters, including hundreds from out of province and at least 40 from the United States and Mexico, were on the ground and in the air working to tame the flames. Towards the end of July, on-and-off showers and high humidity helped firefighters get a foothold on the blazes.  Officials called it the worst fire season in 30 years, with 1,253 fires ignited and 633,025 hectares consumed – the third largest burned area in modern history. According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, one fire (the Sioux Lookout District Fire #70) burned 141,000 hectares, making it the largest fire recorded in the province’s history. A second fire in Sioux Lookout reached 112,000 hectares and became the eighth-largest fire on record. Together, the two fires accounted for close to 40 per cent of the total area burned in the province.

Across southern Manitoba, in the midst of unseasonably warm southerly winds blowing at 90 km/h and the absence of significant rainfalls for months, several brush and grass fires began raging on October 7. Up to 400 people were moved from communities south of Steinbach. October fires also burned in the popular cottage region northeast of Winnipeg towards Bissett. In western Manitoba, a fire broke out in Riding Mountain National Park. Saskatchewan’s biggest blaze of the year was located near Wollaston Lake and the Hatchet Lake Reserve where nearly 1,200 residents were forced to flee their homes on June 2. Fortunately, wind kept smoke away.  

In mid-May, strong winds, low humidities and tinder-dry forest litter created the horsepower for an active fire season in Alberta. On May 14, a wildfire burned out of control north of Fort McMurray near Richardson Lake. It became the province’s largest wildfire in 60 years, scorching through an area the size of Prince Edward Island. On May 21, tinder-dry conditions and strong winds prompted Alberta to issue a province-wide fire ban – only the second such ban in its history. On September 25, another fire burned about 20 km south of Fort McMurray, prompting officials to close a 250-km stretch of the busy highway linking Fort McMurray and Edmonton. In total, 1,140 fires burned more than 989,669 hectares in Alberta in 2011; this was far more than the 20-year average of 871 fires and 127,864 hectares consumed.

For British Columbia, cool, wet and dreary spring-summer weather across the province resulted in the quietest forest fire season in decades. Things took a turn in August when hot and dry weather spiked the fire danger rating to extreme on Southern Vancouver Island, the Kamloops Fire District and in the northwest corner of the province. But it wasn’t until Labour Day weekend that the fire season in British Columbia heated up, with a blaze near Okanagan Lake that forced about 550 people from their homes and campsites. Vancouver Island north of Nanaimo became another hot spot after weeks of hot, arid weather turned bark and twigs into ideal fuel for quickly igniting forest fires. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories, both the number of wildfires and forest area burned were below normal.

Thankful for Fine Weather on Thanksgiving in the East

From Thunder Bay to Halifax, Eastern Canadians enjoyed some of the best Thanksgiving weekend weather in a long time, with temperatures hovering in the high 20s and nary a cloud in sight. It was truly a gift from nature as temperatures rose at least a dozen degrees warmer than the norm, making October feel more like August. As implausible as it might sound, some Ontario residents flipped on their air conditioners while cooking Thanksgiving dinner. And those with backyard pools not yet closed for the coming winter were able to squeeze in a few last dips. Warm weather and sunny skies set a new record in Ottawa, where the temperature at the airport peaked at 27.6°C. In London, it felt more like Canada Day than Thanksgiving, and in the Hamilton region records were toppled on each of the three long-weekend days. The unusually warm weather actually began before Thanksgiving and stretched over a whole week – one of the most spectacular fall weeks in history – warm not hot; comfortable not humid. The spectacular fall weather disappeared the following week under high winds and cloudy, wet skies.  In Quebec, temperatures climbed to 28°C – some 20 degrees above normal in places. In the Maritimes, all provincial capitals broke records. Fredericton was the nation’s hot spot at 28.7°C on October 9 under brilliant sunny skies, topping the previous record for the day by more than 3 degrees.