Top ten weather stories for 2002

Table of Content

  1. Prairie Plagues
  2. Winter 2001-02 Canceled
  3. A Lazy, Hazy Summer
  4. Prairie Rain Gushers - too much too soon
  5. Icy Spring Shatters Records
  6. Sizzling Summer in the Cities
  7. "Wet" Coast Drought
  8. Four Hurricanes in Four Weeks
  9. Quebec Smoke Crosses Borders
  10. Canadian Weather Fit for A Pope and A Queen

1. Prairie Plagues

This year's growing season was the worst ever for farmers in Western Canada. The weather brought drought and deluges of biblical proportions, searing heat, clouds of grasshoppers, pestilence and mid-summer snow and frost, topped off by harvest rains that showed up late and dumped too much. The stress and strain reached the breaking point for thousands of producers, their families and communities. While there is no doubt that farmers and ranchers were hit hard, others like grain handlers, truckers, feed lot operators, vehicle and equipment dealers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs also felt the sting.

The seeds of this year's misery were sown over the last five years, with two-thirds of the seasons recording warmer and drier than normal conditions during that time. Going into spring 2002, Western Canada was the driest it had been in over a century. Farmers needed 60% more precipitation than usual before the start of the growing season just to replenish water supplies. What they got was a 60% decrease in precipitation, which effectively ended the growing season before it ever got started.

As winter changed to spring, the relentless dryness in the south moved northward to grip the middle Prairies. The most affected area was the central rectangle between Edmonton, Calgary, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon - some of the most productive land in western Canada. Dugouts and ponds dried out or, at best, hit a quarter full. In Saskatoon, June's precipitation was down 56% and marked the eighteenth consecutive month with below-normal precipitation.  In the Edmonton area, the period October 1, 2001 to April 30, 2002 was the driest  start to a growing season since records began in 1880.

The extremely dry conditions and record cold in April and May delayed seeding and slowed crop growth all year. Then temperatures warmed dramatically, giving Edmonton its second warmest and driest June and July ever. Severe heat stress began to take its toll on all moisture-starved crops, especially cereal and oilseeds. More extremes followed with a shocking record freeze and snowfall in late July and early August. Century-old weather records were shattered in many parts of Saskatchewan when the temperature dipped below zero on August 2, the earliest August frost day in 109 years of records.

As the southern districts started harvesting in late August, the weather took a cruel twist. The rains that farmers begged for in June, and didn't want at harvest time, fell from the skies at the worst possible time. What scanty grain the snow and frost had missed was divided up between cattle, grasshoppers and migratory birds. The grasshopper infestation reached far and wide with counts of 100 insects per square metre in one Saskatchewan district. In most areas, the growing season ended after a severe frost in the middle of September. Frequent showers plagued the harvest for the next two weeks, followed by snow at the start of October. The season ended abruptly with 10 to 15% of the crop still left in fields.

In terms of wheat production, figures came in more than 25% below last year's meagre production and the quality was so poor that the majority of the harvest was graded as feed. To make matters worse, poor pasture conditions - along with decimated hay crops - caused feed-strapped livestock producers to sell off some of their herd. The Prairie plagues prompted record crop insurance payouts and government assistance to help producers weather the adversity.

2. Winter 2001-02 Canceled

Nationally, it was the eighth warmest winter in over half a century and the eighteenth driest, pretty much par for the course over the recent past. In fact, the country hasn't seen a really cold winter since 1993-94. For the more than 15 million Canadians living in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, the 2001-02 winter was the warmest ever - the kind that only comes around once every 210 years.

In many parts of Canada, winter barely showed. A persistent stream of Hawaiian air flooded North America, driving the jet stream farther north and nudging out the Arctic air that normally dominates Canada's winter. Without snow cover, the warm Pacific air surged unaltered across North America all the way to the Atlantic Coast. As a result, snowmobiles gathered dust and skaters sat on the sidelines throughout most of the winter season. Ottawa's Rideau Canal, renowned as the world's longest skating rink, was a stretch of slush and puddles for most of the winter. It recorded its latest opening date ever (February 2) and its shortest season (25 days).

For inhabitants of southern Ontario and parts of Quebec, winter was fairly frost-free. In Toronto, only 25 days had daily highs below freezing - less than half the usual number - and the average winter temperature in the city was the warmest since 1840 (when record-keeping began). The real story wasn't that it was so warm but rather it wasn't very cold! In Montreal, for instance, overnight lows never dipped below -19°C (the mark of a cold Canadian day) which was a first for the record books. And places like Toronto, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Windsor, Quebec City, Val D'Or and Bagotville also logged records for the warmest winter to date.

On the positive side, huge sums of money were saved on snow removal, there were fewer traffic accidents and easier commutes, flooding was negligible and home heating bills were down by 25% in central Canada. For people who love and depend on winter, the season was one of the most boring and expensive in years. The warmth wrecked havoc with the construction of ice bridges and winter roads in the North, ski-hill operators in Ontario and Quebec lost their shirts, and outdoor enthusiasts were greatly disappointed. Even retail customers stayed home, leaving businesses with large unsold inventories of snowboards, snowmobiles and snow shovels.

3. Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

The summer was generally a quiet time for weather across Canada with fewer thunderstorms, twisters and hailers and less property damaged from severe weather. Like last year, there were no strong tornadoes and the thunderstorms that did break out were generally weak and short-lived. But where we lacked in the storm department, we made up for in smog.

This year's summer brought excessive heat, loads of sunshine and sluggish circulation, which meant a record-breaking year for smog advisories in southern Ontario. In the most seriously affected area, between Toronto and Windsor, authorities issued 10 advisories totaling 27 days - more than last year's record - and logged the latest smog episode on the books (September 10).

In Quebec, there were 15 smog days on seven separate occasions. Montreal was the most affected with 13 days (normal is 10). The worst air episode lasted four days in August under a weak southwesterly flow that kept re-circulating the same mass of hot, humid, stale air. It was the longest bout of continuous smog in Quebec since its air-monitoring program began in 1994. Also of note, the last two summers in Montreal have been the worst for smog in the last 15 years.

Even the Maritimes could not escape the haze. From August 14 to 16, the Annapolis Valley was shrouded in smog so thick that even from the heights of Cape Blomidon,  Wolfville could not be seen. Officials issued smog and health advisories on seven occasions with some of these extending over a period of two or three days. Normally, the Atlantic Region can expect two smog episodes per year. And in portions of central and eastern Newfoundland, where the air is normally quite clear, pollution concentrations just short of the threshold for poor air quality were noted.

4. Prairie Rain Gushers - too much too soon

After three years of drought, rains finally came to the southern Prairies in early June with a series of large, slow-moving storms. What began on June 6 as a light sprinkle south of the Trans-Canada Highway turned into biblical-sized deluges over three days. For some, record rains dumped up to 280 mm, transforming dustbowls into mudbowls. In Brocket, Alberta the community got a year's worth of rain in three days. Rivers spilled their banks, sewage systems overflowed and roads were washed away. In the higher elevations of Waterton Park, ice and 100-cm high snowdrifts forced campers to leave their campsites. Residents in Lethbridge mopped up flooded basements and others abandoned their homes. While farmers in parched lands should have rejoiced, the deluge of water washed away seeds and further delayed the planting season. Across the Trans-Canada Highway, farmers and ranchers hoping for some spillover rain could only watch in vain when the storm clouds dissipated north of Calgary.

In Saskatchewan, two days of soaking, not flooding, rains were welcomed by drought-stricken farmers, breaking the worst dry spell in living memory. Many locations received between 80 mm and 120 mm - enough to recharge the soil moisture, fill reservoirs and green-up parched pastures. In Saskatoon, a meagre rainfall of 14 to 18 mm (the most in one day in a year) was enough to raise spirits temporarily.

At the same time, violent thunderstorms rolled into southern Manitoba dumping up to 250 mm of rain - the largest drenching in recent memory - and bringing winds of up to 114 km/h. In Winnipeg, only 60 mm of rain fell over two days but that was enough to flood streets and basements, and swamp cars when sewers could not keep pace with the downpour. Several traffic lights and 300 trees toppled over, while the city's popular river walk was submerged under a metre of water, closing it for nearly a month.

Southeast of the Manitoba capital, flash flooding drowned fields and washed out roads. Nine rural communities declared states of emergencies when water rose higher than the "flood of the century" in 1997. Piney and Sprague were the towns hardest hit. Rising waters forced many residents to leave town by boat. At Sprague, a metre of water filled the main street and a boil-water advisory was in place for well users. Half the cereal, canola and soybean crops in southeastern Manitoba were lost. And three weeks later, a new wave of mosquitoes emerged from the sodden ground and standing waters.

5. Icy Spring Shatters Records

Spring was the cruelest season for Canadians from coast to coast. Overall, Canada had its fifth coldest spring. What was especially jarring was the fact that it was the first cold season of the past nineteen. For most Canadians between Vancouver and Montreal, spring was just too long, too cold and too much like the winter they didn't get.

On March 20, the temperature dipped to -35°C on the Prairies. For the fourth day in a row it snowed in Victoria and Vancouver (the deepest and latest major snowfall ever). In London, deadly whiteouts swept the region, while in Ottawa and Montreal residents were digging out of their greatest snowfall in a year and southern New Brunswick got hit with 25 cm of wet, sticky white stuff. Welcome to the first day of spring!

On the Prairies, it was the coldest spring since records began 120 years ago. In some areas, March was colder than January and February for the first time ever. And sadly, it was a dry cold. Saskatoon had its second driest spring in over 97 years. It didn't look dry in Calgary because most of the precipitation was snow, 70% more than usual.  The city had 25 snow days in spring, 10 more than normal, with the final blast hitting Calgary on the May long weekend. Mental health workers in the city claimed that gloomy weather was responsible, in part, for record numbers of people calling crisis hotlines.

While snow seldom falls in Victoria or Vancouver after the middle of March, the first days of spring brought between 10 and 15 cm of snow. During that month, new low temperature records tumbled throughout British Columbia eclipsing more than 530 previous daily records. And it wasn't over yet. On May 6, the west coast shivered when temperature highs barely made it above freezing. Snow flurries and ice pellets filled the air across the Lower Mainland.

Across southern Ontario and Quebec, a mid-April heat wave shattered high temperature records but it turned out to be a false spring. Just a week later, a wind-whipped storm left the Great Lakes region covered in snow, cold rain and ice pellets. In Ottawa, a record 17 cm of snow fell on April 28. Across the two provinces, a frosty Victoria Day weekend felt more like Remembrance Day as cold arctic air hung overhead bringing in a nasty mixture of rain, ice pellets and snow as far south as Sarnia. Die-hard campers stocked up on blankets, hand warmers, toques and parkas. Tragically, four campers near Kenora who used a propane heater to ward off the long weekend's brisk temperatures died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The unseasonably cold weather critically delayed farmers planting their crops. In southern Ontario, farmers planted corn three weeks later which created problems when mid-season rains failed. Strawberry farmers irrigated around the clock in an attempt to save the tender plants from frost. The cold also delayed the forest fire season by up to two weeks in areas from Ontario westward.

Nature was confused and so were customers. Golfers and gardeners had been teased all winter by little snow and balmy temperatures and had hoped for an earlier spring.  Garden centres and outdoor attractions were virtually empty for much of the spring.  Retailers blamed the persistent cool weather for a 30% drop in the sales of weather-sensitive goods and services, such as pools, air conditioners and warm season apparel with many Canadians putting off or outright canceling purchases.

6. Sizzling Summer in the Cities

For the majority of Canadians, it was a summer to remember with record warmth, perfect weekends and little weather. In Eastern Canada, it was a slow start to summer, but once underway, it just wouldn't give up and was topped off by the warmest September ever. At Toronto, the average June 1 to September 30 temperature was 21.5°- a whopping 3.2 degrees warmer than normal and the warmest ever in 63 years. The number of hot days above 32°C was 23 (normal is 5) and hot nights above 20°C a record 19 (normal is 5). Life in the big city was not only hot and steamy, but also downright stinky because of a ten-day garbage strike. Toronto declared 15 heat-alert days and two heat emergencies, the third greatest number of heat days with records dating back to 1955. The blistering heat prompted people to crank up air conditioners, leading to record energy consumption.

In Montreal, the summer period (June 21 to September 20) was both the driest and warmest ever. Incredibly, total summer rainfall was 25% less than last summer's, which was itself a record.  In the Maritimes, summer was slow to start. Overall, temperatures were close to normal but for the fifth summer in the past six, rainfall was less than normal. British Columbia had a glorious summer. It was in the top ten of the province's warmest, and the third driest on record, with precipitation 30% below average. And in southern Ontario and Quebec, weekends ruled. Of the 31 weekend days and holiday Mondays from June 1 to Labour Day, only four to seven were wet (with often just a sprinkle). Most Canadians didn't want summer's great weather to end, especially for cottage holidays, barbecues and outdoor weddings.

What was good for campers and beach bums, though, was bad for farmers and gardeners. The lack of rain created drought concerns in central Canada for the second summer in a row. For Sarnia, London and Kitchener-Waterloo, among others, it was the driest August and driest month ever. Toronto (Pearson Airport) had its driest August ever since 1937. For the Great Lakes region, concerns were escalated because five of the last six summers have been drier than normal. Most crops were late getting into the ground because of the cool, wet spring. And while hot dry conditions early on helped corn and soybean production, the lack of rain meant plants couldn't sustain their growth. In the cities, scant precipitation ravaged thousands of trees. Many died, while others just hung on or were badly stressed which made them vulnerable to pests and disease.

7. "Wet" Coast Drought

British Columbia's dry season worked overtime this year. In Vancouver, only 105 mm of rain fell from June to October - barely a third of normal and the driest in 65 years of records. It was especially dry in October when a scant 18.3 mm of rain fell at the International Airport compared to its average 112.5 mm. Whistler and Port Hardy also had their driest October ever. In the interior, Vernon experienced its driest ever June-to-October rainfall with only 72 mm - the lowest since records began in 1900. Victoria International Airport also broke a record for least precipitation in a stretch from April to October.

The long dry spell was connected to a persistent high-pressure area over the province that blocked storms from reaching the coast. Further, a mysterious pool of warm water suddenly appeared over the northeastern Pacific Ocean in late summer about 1500 km from the Coast. The resulting lack of rain led to concerns about water levels in several areas of BC, including Vancouver. By early November, reservoirs there fell to about 25% of capacity and were dropping at a rate of 1% per day. The season's salmon run was also threatened as streams over Southern Vancouver Island went dry.

Relief came in early November, when fall storms lashed the coastal region but little moisture fell elsewhere. Heavy rains flooded basements in Vancouver and the city's  airport reported almost a month's worth of rain - 147 mm in 17 consecutive days. Unfortunately, the rains ended as quickly as they began, and what was looking like the first wet month in a long time ended up with below-normal rainfall totals. The last two weeks of November, traditionally the wettest two weeks of the year, had no moisture at all. In the interior, things were no better. Kelowna received less than 50% of its normal precipitation in November and, for the first time ever, no snow.

By early December, with rainfall and reservoirs at historic lows, officials in Victoria raised the possibility of winter outdoor watering restrictions - a first! The region's main water supply at Sooke was short three billion gallons and losing ground at 18 million gallons a day. Pacific Coast water managers continue to worry as the last three years have been among the nine driest over 55 years of records, with some 15% less precipitation. Other sectors that depend on a stable amount of water, including forestry, agriculture, sport and commercial fishing, hydro power, and recreation and tourism are also feeling the pinch.

Finally, on December 10,  the rains came! A series of intense Pacific storms began pummeling the west coast with extreme winds and rain. The storms curved northward to the Gulf of Alaska, clipping and occasionally crossing the northern BC Coastline. One storm packed winds in excess of 100 km/h at Point Atkinson and 130 km/h on the outer coast of Vancouver Island, prompting forecasters to issue a rare warning for hurricane-force winds in the Strait of Georgia. Even the relatively sheltered Powell River Airport recorded a powerful gust of 111 km/h.

8. Four Hurricanes in Four Weeks

Meteorologists foresaw a normal hurricane season in the North Atlantic Ocean and for the most part they were pretty accurate. At season's end, there were a dozen named storms from Arthur to Lili, four of which became full-blown hurricanes and two that logged in as major storms with winds above 178 km/h. The season was the calmest in five years explained, in part, by a strengthening El Niño.

While the season itself was considered calm, September stood out as an especially explosive month with the formation of eight of the season's twelve named storms - an all-time record for a single month in the Atlantic - due in part to the sudden warming of the sea surface temperature. All four hurricanes - Gustav, Isidore, Kyle and Lili - developed in September and each had an impact on Canada.

Hurricane Gustav was the first of the year, making it the first hurricane to strike so late in the year in more than 60 years. On September 12, Gustav made landfall near Sydney, NS - a day after being upgraded to a full-fledged hurricane, and the first hurricane to make landfall in Nova Scotia in six years. The storm caused  power outages, downed trees and minor flooding. The greatest rainfall (100 mm) occurred near Antigonish, NS and the highest wind speed (122 km/h) on Sable Island. Wind gusts over 100 km/h from the remains of Gustav were still being reported in Newfoundland days afterward. Fortunately, disaster was narrowly averted in Charlottetown as Gustav's storm surge arrived just four to five hours shy of high tide. Had it hit at the tide's peak, an additional 70 cm of elevated water would have inundated the downtown core.

Next came Isidore, one of the season's two intense hurricanes, which moved onshore in Louisiana on September 26. Its leftovers moved south of the Great Lakes and into the Maritimes the next day with welcomed rainfalls of 25 to 35 mm from Ontario eastward.

Fast on Isidore's tail, Hurricane Lili tore through Louisiana one week later. The next day, its tropical remains merged with a storm in the Great Lakes and deepened into an intense low that moved through northern Ontario and Quebec. Damage was limited to power outages and fallen trees.

Kyle, the last of the September hurricanes, was not so much forceful as it was persistent. Dubbed this year's "Energizer Bunny", it kept going and going for 22 days making it the third longest-lived storm in history. Even more unusual, Kyle strengthened into a tropical storm on four separate occasions. Bay of Fundy residents feared the storm would  fulfill a threatening prediction in the Farmer's Almanac -- that Kyle would be the second coming of the infamous Saxby Gale, a vicious storm 1869 that destroyed hundreds of boats and drown over 1000 people. Fortunately, Kyle never even reached Canada's coast and was dubbed the "Saxby Fail."

9. Quebec Smoke Crosses Borders

In the first week of July, millions of residents in Eastern Canada woke up to the smell of acrid smoke and the sight of hazy skies. Concerned citizens inundated police and fire departments with calls. Satellite images revealed lightning-triggered forest fires south of James Bay in Quebec as the source. The fires were deemed the province's worst in a decade, as tens of thousands of pine and black spruce burned near James Bay and the Manicouagan Reservoir. The blazes were so intense that water bombers could not fly close  because of thick smoke and strong air currents.

The smoke traveled so widely because it became trapped under a layer of warm air that concentrated the plume. The smoke layer, which measured 200 to 300 km wide, was siphoned by a northerly flow which swept it across southern Quebec and southern Ontario, westward into Michigan, eastward to all four Atlantic Provinces, and as far south as Washington and Baltimore. The smoke pall cut visibility to three kilometres in places, and dimmed sunshine for much of the Northeast. Old Quebec City was shrouded in a white haze, obscuring visibility in the lower town to less than 500 m. In Montreal, fine ash particles fell on cars, and authorities issued health advisories. In Toronto, with the city in the midst of a civic strike, the smell of smoke was a welcome relief from rotting garbage.

10. Canadian Weather Fit for A Pope and A Queen

This year two world-famous dignitaries experienced first-hand why Canadians are so obsessed with our ever changing weather.

Pope John Paul II arrived in Toronto on July 23 during a triple-whammy weather advisory of heat, haze and humidity. The day before, a powerful thunderstorm rolled across the region bringing heavy rains and high winds and downing power lines and trees. Near London, a World Youth Day event was cancelled because of the threat of tornadoes. On July 28, a crowd of 800,000 packed Downsview Park in north Toronto to celebrate outdoor mass with the Pope. The day before, in scorching heat, hundreds of young people had been treated on site or at local hospitals for heat exhaustion and sun-stroke as temperatures in the shade soared to a steamy 30°C. Prior to the Sunday mass, around 5 a.m., a cold, drenching rain fell for several hours and hundreds of shivering pilgrims had to be treated for hypothermia.

Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Iqaluit, Nunavut on October 2 for the start of her Golden Jubilee tour of Canada. Large crowds came out to welcome the royal couple in sub-freezing temperatures and snow flurries. Two days later, thousands of residents in Victoria greeted the Queen and Prince Philip under majestic clear skies and warm sunshine. But it was the cool and blustery weather on October 8 in Winnipeg that sparked the greatest interest, especially back home. In the afternoon, the temperature hovered close to freezing and strong north-northwesterly winds blew at 35 km/h, gusting to 50. The damp cold felt even colder on the Red River, where the water taxi carrying the Royal Couple stalled and had to be towed to shore.

On October 12, the Royals visited Sussex, New Brunswick in bright sunshine and comfortable fall temperatures. But the next day in Ottawa, the Queen endured a stiff westerly wind and steady driving rain during ceremonies on Parliament Hill and at the National War Memorial. Despite the miserable weather, more than 4000 soaked and shivering spectators attended the event.

Date modified: