Top ten weather stories for 2012: story one

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Table of Contents

1. The Big Heat

Canadians experienced above normal temperatures and several record breaking days through winter, spring and summer from coast to coast to coast. It’s been a warm year…and decade!

That 2012 was another warm year in Canada – the 16th in a row – was no big surprise. Indeed, in the last ten years there have only been 4 out of 40 seasons that were colder than normal. In 2012 alone, winter, spring and summer were among the top 10 hottest for their respective seasons. Incredibly, each of July, August and September tied or exceeded any previous year for the warmest on record. It follows that July through September was the warmest of any three-month period in Canada in 65 years. From January to November inclusive, 2012 was the fourth warmest since 1948 when record-keeping began on a nationwide basis. Every region felt the warmth, especially the millions of Canadians living in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Lowlands who experienced the warmest such period on record.

Globally, it was even more one-sided. The last time there was a cold year globally was 36 years ago. Nearly half the population in the world has never experienced a month that was colder than normal globally. Even more remarkable, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 2012 was the 16th month since 2000 that the Earth has tied or broken a monthly warm temperature record. The last time a cold temperature record was eclipsed was 96 years ago. The World Meteorological Organization reported that despite an early cooling La Niña for half the year, 2012 will likely be in the top ten of the hottest years in more than 160 years. 

Canada Left Out of Winter’s Cold

Image of two melting snowmen in the grass.

In 2012, Canadians witnessed an almost total absence of winter – rain more than snow, green not white and mild not cold. It neither felt nor looked like winter. Temperatures between December 2011 and February 2012 were 3.6°C above normal, making it the third warmest winter on record since nationwide record-keeping began in 1948. Nationally, it was the second driest with only the winter of 1956-1957 being drier. The Prairie provinces experienced temperatures more than 6°C above normal for the third warmest on record and the driest ever. For millions of Canadians in the East it was the second warmest winter on record.

In Toronto, it became the winter that wasn’t. The city had five times more rain than snow from November to March, inclusive. Snow was virtually a no-show with a record low of 41.8 cm. There were no days with measurable snow after March 1 and there were only nine days with more than 1 cm of snow from November to April. The average winter temperature in the city was the warmest since 1840 (when record-keeping began). In Montreal overnight lows never dipped below -20°C (the mark of a cold Canadian day), which was a first for the record books. Another sign of an unusually mild winter was the closure of Ottawa’s famed Rideau Canal Skateway after only 28 days, marking the second-shortest season in its 42-year history. The average afternoon temperature for Saskatoon in December and January hit -3.2°C, which is about seven degrees warmer than the normal temperature and the warmest it’s ever been with records going back to the 1880s. For Calgarians, if the previous winter was remembered as the one that wouldn’t end, this year’s was the winter that wouldn’t start. Yellowknife did not record a single day throughout the entire winter when air temperatures fell below -40°C. Typically the capital city would see 10 such frigid days.

In Winnipeg, organizers of the city’s popular winter Festival du Voyageur had to haul snow in from skating rinks and city snow dumps. The unprecedented mildness led to the cancellation of winter carnivals, dogsled races, ice fishing derbies, pond hockey tournaments, and left snow too soggy for sculpting. Across Alberta and Saskatchewan, grass fires not snowbanks occurred with fire crews hosing down wildfires. On the other hand, the unseasonably mild weather was welcomed for its huge energy savings. And for outdoor workers and contractors it was an elongated open season free of costly impediments. The public mindset was that winter was cancelled. For beleaguered retailers, cold weather apparel and goods filled store shelves. Provincial highway departments and municipalities saved megabucks not having to clear as much snow. And, there were fewer traffic accidents and collapsed roofs. Health officials credited the soft winter for a nationwide decline of influenza. For example, Ontario reported only 678 cases of flu – well below the 5,026 cases reported a year earlier.

One Long Hot Summer

Kids at the beach on a hot day.

Few Canadians dared complain about the summer of summers in 2012. Nationally, June to August was the warmest on record – almost 1.9°C above normal. July to September was even warmer – the warmest of any three months in history. The whole country experienced above-normal warmth, especially Atlantic Canada, the northern Prairies and parts of Nunavut, which claimed their warmest summer ever. Only British Columbia had temperatures that were close to normal. It was so pleasantly warm for so long that many residents either felt guilty or were concerned that they were soon going to pay for such delightful weather. July was especially warm – the hottest month ever on record in Canada. A hot July also contributed to the warmest 12-month period ever from August (2011) to July (2012) for the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence and the entire Prairies. Summer warmth came later in Calgary, but between July and September it experienced its warmest three-month average since record-keeping began in 1881. From the early days of July, when Calgarians melted on Stampede grounds, the heat endured week after week and month after month. In Ontario, hot days above 30°C occurred from the get-go during summer’s first long weekend in May right through to Labour Day. In Hamilton, for example, days above 30°C numbered 38 compared to a normal of 10. In Toronto, there were 25 hot days compared to an average of 14. And in Montreal, the city’s 20 hot days were twice the norm with half of those days in July, something not seen since 1970. Paramedics were inundated with 10 per cent more calls from people complaining of shortness of breath, dizziness and heat exhaustion. Sports authorities wisely postponed games scheduled in the extreme heat. Many cities also experienced very warm night-time temperatures – part of a long-term trend seen across North America over the past several decades. For instance, Toronto had 16 nights with temperatures that stayed above 20°C compared to an average of 4. At times the air in southern Ontario was not only hot and oppressively humid, it was also dirty. Prevailing southerly winds brought in pollutants, triggering both extreme heat and smog alerts for the region. Some Ontario cities had 15 to 20 days with smog advisories compared to one or two days in 2011.

The warmth was not confined to the air. The temperature of Lake Superior – the coldest, deepest and largest of the Great Lakes – was a stunning 8°C above normal in mid-August, the warmest it’s been in a century. Lake Ontario’s surface temperatures peaked at 24°C, while Lake Erie’s reached 27°C – almost bath water. As a result of the heated lake water, toxic algal blooms thrived, especially in Lake Erie.

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