Runner-up stories for 2008

Table of Contents

January: Wild to Mild

Early in January, a pronounced thaw enveloped Canada with feverish temperatures. The unusual prolonged and national meltdown sent temperatures soaring for millions of Canadians from Alberta to the Atlantic. Vineland, Ontario was the nation's hot spot with a record-setting 17.4°C on January 8 – warmer than San Francisco and Madrid. London had some of its warmest January weather in a decade. And Timmins broke all-time high temperature records on three days, with some records dating back 40 years. In Quebec, Saint-Anicet (in the Monteregie region) was the hot spot when temperatures soared to 16.3°C on January 9.

The January thaw happens almost yearly in Canada. What was striking this year was that the mid-winter balminess came early, stayed several days and was remarkably pronounced – and millions of Canadians got to enjoy or curse it. Temperatures soared to 7.1°C in Calgary. In Winnipeg, the temperature rose to a modest 3°C during what is typically the coldest week of the year and was warm enough for hearty Winnipegers to shed parkas, balaclavas and down jackets.

Across Canada, ball caps replaced hockey toques and snow boots turned into rubber boots. The sudden warmth brought out potholes and leaky roofs. Southern air shrouded parts of central Canada in fog thick enough to disrupt more than half the flights in Ontario and Quebec for a couple of days. The fog also contributed to several serious vehicular crashes and a few rural school closings. Unseasonable melting and January rains played havoc with backyard ice rinks. In the Windsor area, golf courses handled hundreds of calls from eager golfers trying to book tee times. Warnings went out, especially to snowmobilers and ice fishers, about unsafe ice on lakes and rivers. Authorities in Ontario and Quebec warned of swollen, fast-moving rivers and creeks, unstable snow banks and thin ice. Several residents southeast of Quebec City, along the Chateauguay River, were ordered to leave their homes after melting snow and rain caused the river to rise five times its norm in less than 24 hours and overflow its banks. Rescuers had to wait until heavy fog lifted to allow the coast guard to clear ice-jammed rivers.

Like most January spring fevers, this one ended abruptly with the arrival of brutal cold in the West and fierce winds in the East. In Quebec, winds surpassing 100 km/h damaged the electrical distribution network, caused numerous power outages in several locations and damaged cars and buildings, as well as felling trees.

Bathurst School Tragedy

Just after midnight on January 12, a van transporting a high school boys' basketball team fishtailed on a slippery highway just outside of Bathurst, New Brunswick. The aging van slammed into a tractor-trailer only minutes from home, killing 8 of its 12 occupants – seven teenage players and an adult teacher. According to the Transport Canada investigation, several factors might have contributed to the horrific collision, including deteriorating weather, slippery road conditions, driver fatigue and safety problems with the van. It had been snowing for most of the day in the Bathurst area, followed at night by a mix of snow, light freezing rain, snow grains and ice pellets. Visibility was poor at the time of the accident and the highway was covered by a 3-cm-deep slush. The force of the collision tore off the van's rear and a large piece of the passenger side, ejecting benches and the victims into the snow.

Week-long Blizzard a Rankin Record

On January 23, Nunavut residents in communities along the western shore of Hudson Bay started digging out after a seven-day blizzard that closed government offices, schools and banks, and halted flights and mail service. For most of the week, a low-pressure system lingered nearby, delivering drifting snow, swirling wind gusts above 100 km/h and -30°C temperatures with -57 wind chills. At Rankin Inlet, the prolonged whiteouts generated monster snowdrifts that had snowmobilers coming dangerously close to overhead power lines. A third of the homes in Clyde River were buried in snow drifts approaching the top of utility poles. It's not unusual for Nunavut's Kivalliq region to get blizzards that last for days at a stretch, but a week-long, 179-consecutive-hour assault was one for the books. With climate records dating back more than 25 years, Rankin Inlet's longest continuous span with blizzard conditions lasted five days in March 2005. The length of January's blizzard was unprecedented, creating a near crisis for several stranded settlements cut off from the outside world for nearly a week. Nobody starved, although food shelves were nearly bare. A welcome supply of fresh perishables like bread and milk arrived just in time. It seemed that the greatest hardship, though, was from the dwindling supply of cigarettes.

Deadly Start to Avalanche Year

For most of the winter-spring period, the avalanche risk was high across mountainous regions of British Columbia and into the Alberta Rockies. Experts blamed a deep, unstable snow pack for the worst start to the avalanche season in more than 25 years, with 10 people dead by January 8 – already close to the average yearly death rate. For the entire season, the number of avalanche fatalities reached 16, making it the worst winter since 2002-2003, when 29 people died.

Warm rains in early December, followed by a cold snap and light sugary snow, formed a thick but weakly bonded ice layer. Following several storms, the icy crust was buried under successive layers of highly volatile, tricky snow. High winds and rapid freeze/thaw cycles only added to the avalanche threat.

During the first week of February, a succession of Pacific storms dumped huge amounts of snow high in the alpine of the B.C. Interior. Heavy snows and frequent slides forced the indefinite closure of the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and Merritt, a major artery connecting the Lower Mainland to the B.C. Interior. The multi-lane mountain route was buried under four metres of snow and debris. One slide was five metres deep and 50 metres long, closing all four lanes of the highway. The corridor remained closed for two weeks – the longest closure since the mountain highway opened in 1986. Traffic was diverted over long detours, creating a huge inconvenience and enormous costs for truckers, haulers and motorists. Snow-clearing crews discharged explosives and flew in helicopters in a frantic attempt to gain control of the avalanches. Old-timers called it the worst slide season ever seen. A frigid, snowy spring kept mountainous snow solidly intact, pushing the avalanche season long past its usual end date. A rush to warming threatened to trigger large slides beyond the long weekend in May.

Prairie Spring Whitewashers

Well into April, lingering Arctic air and slow-moving moist Pacific weather systems combined to deliver some wicked snow and freezing rain across the Prairies. The nasty weather shocked Calgarians on April 10 when a record 23.4 cm of heavy, wet snow fell in five hours, breaking the day's record of 15.2 cm in 1920. At the start of morning rush hour, huge numbers of commuters were slipping, skidding and crashing. Traffic gridlock ensued on roads and at the airport. Three days later, a high temperature of 22.8°C had residents worried about a rapid thaw and possible flooding. Ten days after that, more foul weather dumped heavy snow on much of the province. Whiteout conditions on highways wreaked havoc with motorists and a Greyhound bus ended up in a ditch. Travelers were stunned by the ferocity of the storm as winds up to 60 km/h blew the 20-cm-plus snow into huge drifts along roads and highways. From April 18 to 25, it snowed every day in Calgary. A pair of huge storms sucker-punched the city with 16.6 cm on April 18 and 13.0 cm on April 20, leaving quite a mess. Emergency crews handled a deluge of calls from motorists skidding into ditches and sliding through intersections and into other vehicles.

As they say with weather, different strokes for different folks. Whereas motorists despaired over treacherous roads and near misses, and minor soccer associations lamented countless game and practice cancellations, skiers and snowboarders rejoiced over the two-week extension of pristine snow conditions. For farmers and ranchers, the sopping wet snow was pure white gold – a substantial moisture infusion that helped to restore soil moisture, fill dugouts and recharge pasture land.

In Alberta, April once again lived up to its claim as the cruellest month. At times, residents in the province's two biggest cities shivered in temperatures in the -10°C range. With winds gusting to 50 km/h, wind chills dipped as low as -23. In Edmonton, the mean April temperature was four degrees below normal, with 26 days below freezing. Dry cold and dry snow made it feel more like the dead of winter. April's snowfall total set a record for Calgary at 65.8 cm, with records dating back to 1881. The beginning of May brought no relief, as Mother Nature continued to hold off on spring. On May 7 and 8, a freak snowstorm walloped parts of northern Alberta. The 30-cm snowfall forced the closure of Highway 40 between Hinton and Grande Cache when several tractor-trailers spun into ditches. Calgary also got a final taste of winter on May 9 when temperatures fell below freezing and deep snow blanketed the foothills. Thankful for small mercies, Calgarians felt good when the forecasted 15 cm of snow came in at half that total.

In the same week a record warm temperature of 28.6°C occurred in Regina on April 14, winter returned with a vengeance in Saskatchewan. Heaps of heavy, wet snow and blizzard-like conditions struck from Kindersley and the Battlefords in the west to Stony Rapids in the north. Northern residents hunkered down when a whopping 59 cm of snow fell and snowdrifts reached heights of a metre or more.

April Chills B.C. Fruit

The year without spring is what B.C. fruit and grape growers called it. In the Okanagan, April was the coldest in more than 35 years, with average temperatures as much as three degrees below normal. During the third week of April, an unprecedented cold snap saw temperatures dip to record lows of -11°C. Snow also covered fruit. It was the hard freeze of 12 hours over three nights that became the death knell for soft fruits such as apricots, cherries and peaches, while winter fruits like apples and pears also suffered. Critically, the fruit was beginning to bloom right when it is most susceptible to frost damage. Frost kill was hit and miss, with some orchards escaping major losses while others lost more than half their produce. Total losses exceeded several tens of millions of dollars. Cherry orchards were hit the hardest, with some growers realizing only 30 per cent of normal crop production. Apricots were down by as much as 50 per cent. Peaches and plums were less hurt by the cold, while apples and pears suffered size problems and grew much smaller than last year's fruit. Okanagan vineyards were lucky to escape the freeze because spring's coldness had delayed flowering and budding by three weeks.

Quebec/New Brunswick Flash Flooding

In late July and early August, several large, slow-moving storm cells fed by humid, unstable air dumped large amounts of rain over northwest New Brunswick and several regions in eastern Quebec, including Charlevoix, the Eastern Townships, Beauce, Temiscouata and Gaspé. Rainfall was impressive: 150 mm in less than 48 hours, with intensities of 60 mm in one hour, exceeding 100-year events in some places. The resulting floods proved fatal, claiming the lives of a 10-year-old boy and his mother after a car they were travelling in was swept into Lac Long, about 50 km southeast of Rivière-du-Loup. Powerful currents washed out several small bridges and chunks of more than 50 roads in Quebec and swept away cottages. Many properties had to be evacuated. One Baie-St.-Paul resident said she had never seen the river swell so high in the 35 years she had been living there. Rising waters and landslides tore out railway lines, cut telephone services, filled basements and swamped cars in the east and also along Quebec's north shore and as far west as Montreal.

In New Brunswick, a local state of emergency was declared west of Edmundston in the Glazier Lake area, following flash flooding. About 75 people, mostly cottagers, were airlifted out with the help of Canadian Forces Search and Rescue. Some smaller, near-by rivers rose anywhere from six to nine metres, washing away roads and a highway bridge. It was the second flood of the year for western New Brunswick. Later in August, another heavy cloudburst near Rexton led to the closing of more roads for up to a month after a tributary of the Richibucto River demolished half a kilometre of roadway.

Would Summer Ever Come to the West?

At times, western Canadians wondered if this was going to be the year without summer. By August 1, spring-summer temperatures ranged three to five degrees below normal. It was especially a concern for farmers and gardeners worried by slow crop emergence. Low soil temperatures and unseasonably cool air delayed crop germination and development by 10 days to two weeks. Growers worried that delays would increase the risk of frost and hurt crop quality. By late July, some regions had only 80 per cent of the normal number of growing degree-days since spring seeding. In Manitoba, every month from February to July registered below-normal temperatures. May temperatures were nearly four degrees below normal and, from June to mid-July, temperatures were nearly two degrees cooler than normal. By mid-July, Winnipeg – typically with six days above 30°C under its belt – had none so far. Winnipegers patiently waited until August 16 for the city's first hot day.

On the other hand, cooler temperatures during summer's usual dog days enabled crops to move through the reproductive stage without significant heat stress. Because it was cool, people also tended to notice how wet it was, even though rainfall amounts were only perhaps 10 to 15 per cent above normal. On a seemingly positive note, Manitobans consumed less energy for air conditioning when compared to the same time period in 2007. However, energy usage in May and June was higher because furnaces were kept running longer.

The best of summer came in August and September. Above-normal temperatures were reported in August across the Prairies, which helped boost crop development. Temperatures remained mild during September, with many areas reporting their first fall frost one to two weeks later than normal. This allowed late-developing crops to mature without significant quality damage and the harvest to finish without interruption.

Quiet Wildfire Season

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in Winnipeg summed up the 2008 wildfire season in one word: "quiet." In 27 years of wildfire monitoring, 2008 ranked fourth in terms of the lowest number of fires reported with 5,686. Alberta was the only province/territory reporting more wildfire starts than any jurisdiction (12 per cent more than normal), yet the area consumed was less than 10 per cent of the area burned in an average year. Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia were the only jurisdictions reporting more total area consumed in 2008 than average.

The forest fire season started very slowly, owing to a deep snowpack and a cool wet spring. Hot, dry, sunny conditions and high winds in early May, however, turned parts of the Prairies into a tinderbox. Officials in Alberta issued a fire ban and warned people using the backcountry to be extremely careful. Fires in the province near Newbrook forced a state of emergency. Highways were closed and hundreds fled towns and reserves. Two thousand residents from Deschambault Lake, Saskatchewan and nearby Black Lake, Stony Rapids, Uranium City, Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay fled their homes as a forest fire in early June licked at the fringes of these northern communities and blanketed the area with thick smoke.

In British Columbia, despite an extremely dry spring (between the fifth and tenth driest in 61 years and around 20 per cent less precipitation than normal), cool temperatures, timely rains and a measure of luck helped to keep wildfires at bay. The number of wildfires in 2008 was normal, but with territorial burns amounting to only 15 per cent of normal, it was evident the number of large fires in British Columbia was very low.

Ontario-wide, 287 fires burned 1,216 ha, well below the 10-year averages. Wet weather kept people out of the bush and made the woodlands less susceptible to fire. Dry lightning strikes were also way down. Forest fires were practically non-existent in Quebec, which recorded its smallest number of fires in 25 years. Overall, 193 fires ate up 1,470 ha in 2008. The average over the last five years was 833 forest fires a year burning through 269,853 ha. Frequent rains helped counter high lightning numbers.

Surprisingly, the year's big wildfire story came from Nova Scotia. In mid-June, strong winds fed a large wildfire through the Porters Lake area about 30 km northeast of Halifax. Fires forced the evacuation of 5,000 people. The out-of-control brushfire constantly changed direction and burned for 36 hours, feeding off dead, dried-out trees toppled almost five years earlier during Hurricane Juan. Powerful gusts to 90 km/h and thick black smoke were the biggest challenges facing firefighters. Hydro power was knocked out to 8,100 homes after fire damaged a transmission line. Exits along a major highway were closed and traffic was rerouted, causing a massive traffic jam east of Halifax.

Pesky Pests, but No West Nile

It was a banner year for both black flies and mosquitoes, owing to wet, wet and more wet. Perfect conditions existed for breeding blackflies in eastern Canada this year: near-record snows, along with fast-running, high water levels during the spring, and relatively cool early-spring temperatures with low winds and slight cloud cover. Entomologists observed insect larvae densities three to five times higher than usual in rivers and streams from southern Ontario to Labrador. Algonquin Provincial Park and other wilderness areas reported a bumper crop of blackflies and mosquitoes, significantly above what officials have seen in the last 10 years. An editor with Cottage Life magazine reported his readers were calling it "the worst summer for the mosquito in memory." Although mosquitoes don't favour swift water, when banks overflowed during spring flooding the breeding habitat for mosquitoes expanded, providing an excellent protective cover for their eggs. The somewhat cool spring delayed mosquito development for a week or more, co-ordinating with the timing when humans were out and about in the wilderness.

Fortunately, the mosquitoes were of the nuisance variety and not the culex species – the main carriers of West Nile virus. One year after the worst outbreak of West Nile virus in the country, the rate of West Nile virus in mosquito populations fell well below its average over the last five years. In 2007, the Public Health Agency of Canada recorded the highest-ever number of West Nile cases across the country with 2,215 infections and seven deaths. In 2008, cases of West Nile infection plunged dramatically to less than 2 per cent of the previous year's cases and no related deaths were reported. Cool spring temperatures may have slowed the mosquitoes' ability to breed and expand their population, so the number of insects infected with the virus was likely also much lower. (In some of the worst years – 2003 to 2007 – warm springs and hot, humid summers were ideal for the culex variety of mosquito.) Experts also suggested that an increasing proportion of the population is becoming immune to infection from the virus.

The Big Smoke Becomes the Big Soak

What do you get when you combine the third snowiest winter on record with the rainiest summer ever? Quite possibly, the wettest year on record if you lived in Toronto in 2008. Annually, the city records 793 mm of rain and snow (water equivalent) on average. By September 13, Toronto Pearson International Airport had already reached its normal 12-month moisture allotment. Precipitation totals from January 1 to August 31 and every month following broke the previous record. With only 21 mm needed in December, the wettest year record (971 mm in 1977) was also up for grabs. On December 10, total precipitation for the month amounted to 24.8 mm – enough to break the record for the wettest year on record at Toronto Pearson International Airport. What was even more shocking was that the record wet year followed one of the top three driest years on record in 2007, when the yearly total precipitation amounted to 593 . If it hadn't been for December's excessive precipitation in 2007, that year would have been the driest in 70 years.

Up to the end of November, wet days numbered 145 in Toronto compared to an average of 130 days. Add another 44 days with a trace of precipitation and you get a sense of how continuously wet the year was. Other precipitation highlights included the fact that when it rained or snowed, it involved substantial amounts. The number of significant rain days with 25 mm or more numbered ten, compared to the norm of four. Connected to the high frequency of wet weather, the number of smog days were well down – six separate episodes totaling 12 days during the year, compared with the five-year normal of eight episodes totaling 23 days. In comparison, last year's figures were 11 episodes totaling 29 days and in the record smog year of 2005 there were 15 bouts for 48 days. What was really surprising was that to the end of November, the amount of sunshine was 12 hours more than normal. The wettest year was sunny with relatively good air quality: trying to find a ray of good news in a bad year.

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