Runner-up stories for 2005

Table of Content

Canada Getting Warmer and Wetter

In 2005, based on preliminary estimates, Canada had the sixth warmest year in almost 60 years, about 1.3°C warmer than average. It was also the ninth consecutive year with above-normal temperatures. Six of the warmest nine years have occurred since 1998. Every Canadian region experienced temperatures warmer than normal in 2005. It was unusually warm in northern British Columbia, the Yukon and in the far North. Nationally, all seasons were warmer than normal, with the transition seasons of spring and fall showing the greatest positive temperature departures. Across Canada, spring was the third warmest (+2.1°C) and fifth wettest (+12%) since records began in 1948. Fall was delightful all across the country. Nationally, and in Ontario and Quebec, it was the second warmest fall on record.

A warmer Canada is in step with the rest of the world. Globally, 2005 was the twenty-seventh consecutive year with above-normal temperatures and within a fraction of the record temperature established in 1998.

Temperatures have been rising over the past 100 years, but this slow warming has increased markedly over the past quarter century. The ten warmest years globally have all occurred since 1990, the top three since 1998. According to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, the global average temperature has risen about three times faster since 1976, compared to that for the past 100 years. Now into the 21st century, global temperatures are more than 0.6°C above those at the beginning of the 20th century. Although yet another warm year is not itself evidence of enhanced climate change, the unprecedented increase in global temperatures in the past quarter century has added to the strong and compelling evidence of humankind's contribution to our changing climate.

Across Canada, 2005 was the wettest year on record, some 14% wetter than normal. Every season was wet, especially summer - its wettest ever at 21% above normal. Some areas in the west and north were 40% wetter than normal in summer, with some parts of southern Alberta and Manitoba double that.

Year-round Smog

Across Eastern Canada summer featured frequent hot and rain-free days, loads of sunshine, light winds and sluggish air currents. Not surprisingly, it also experienced a record number of smog advisory days in 2005: 53 in Ontario, 25 in Quebec and 3 in Atlantic Canada. Gritty brown air capped cities and towns from Windsor to North Bay and east to Quebec City, including rural areas and cottage country.

Smog advisories in Ontario were issued more often in 2005, covered more days and were generally more widespread than ever before. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment reported a record-breaking total of 15 smog advisories covering 53 days as a whole, compared to 8 advisories for 20 days last year. Two more firsts for Ontario were a widespread smog episode in October which lasted four days and the earliest warm season smog advisory on April 19 and 20. Traditionally, the smog season covers May to September.

In Southern Quebec, authorities observed 13 smog days in total (not advisories) during the warm season from mid-April to the end of September. Montreal experienced the most bad air days at 12 and Gatineau was next with 10. Of significance, Montreal observed more bad air days during the cold season than the warm season, recording 15 smog days between January 1 and April 15, and 12 during the rest of the year. Of significance, southern parts of Ontario and Quebec reported a substantial winter smog episode for the first time ever. From January 31 to February 8, a stagnant air mass, rare for this time of year, prevailed across Ontario and Quebec. An "inversion layer"-- in which warm air a couple thousand metres up presses down on colder air at ground level-- kept pollutants trapped down at breathing level. The nine-day event was the longest continuous bout of smog in the history of the air observing program in Quebec. The episode prompted the Quebec government to ask residents to refrain from burning wood unless absolutely necessary until after the weather changed. (About one half of the pollutants in Montreal in the colder months come from wood stoves.) Combined with 2005's April to October smog season, many were left wondering if smog has now become a year-round concern.

Record Sea-Ice Reduction in Arctic Ocean

Arctic sea ice melts back each summer, and reaches its smallest extent in September. After most summers, the ice cover rebounds to much higher values the following years. Since the 1970s, the geographical extent of the Arctic sea ice has been decreasing by about 7% per decade. What is of major concern is that the ice cover has yet to bounce back from its record low in 2002. In each of the last four years, the ice cover has dipped to the smallest area dimension since it was first measured by satellites in 1978. In 2005, the ice extent reached its lowest ever in a quarter century at about 5.3 million square km, down from 7.0 million square km in 1978-- or 20% less extent than it was nearly 30 years ago. This year's record surpasses the previous record minimum of slightly less than 6 million square km in 2002. Climate scientists suggest that the summer ice cover has reached a "tipping point" beyond which there is no return and it likely will continue to decrease until there is an ice-free Arctic Ocean sometime later this century.

On the Farm…

In late July, lush grain fields raised high hopes for growers across Alberta and Saskatchewan that the 2005 harvest would be the biggest ever. But when the harvest came, so did the rains and cold, ruining any chance of a banner year. In hard-hit Manitoba, summer rains flooded out much of the land before growers could even start to seed.

Many farmers had to scramble to get the harvest completed. Fortunately, November was warmer than normal providing growers with some extra time to get the crop into storage. But, for so many weeks in late summer and the fall, the harvest was at a standstill, two to three weeks behind schedule. While the quantity of the crop was never in question, with spring wheat production well above the five-year average in Saskatchewan, the excessive moisture and abundant cloud diminished the quality of the crop to "feed-grade" in some cases due to bleaching, mildew and sprouting. On the Prairies, only 43% of the wheat ranked grade No. 1 compared to 70% in average years. And with excess moisture came the added cost of drying the grain.

The early summer dryness across Ontario turned out to be devastating for hay and corn farmers. At least five locations in Ontario experienced their driest May on record. For example, from May 1 to July 31 at Toronto, there was only 66.6 mm of rain - about a quarter of the normal accumulation of 171 mm. The scant rain that fell over 41 days from June 15 to July 25 inclusive had serious repercussions for farmers. With corn and soybeans reaching maturity, and with relentless heat, growers needed even more rain than normal. They became desperate for a long, steady rain to soak deeply into the ground. By the middle of July, not only had parts of southern Ontario experienced their driest 10 weeks on record, those same areas had 24 days with temperatures above 30°C and their warmest beginning to summer on record.

…and in the Woods

The Canadian International Forest Fire Centre reported an average fire year in Canada in terms of the number of fires (7,292 compared to a recent ten-year average of 7,536), but with significantly fewer hectares of forest land consumed - 1.7 million hectares or 68% of the average. The number of fires was down in most provinces with the exception of Ontario and Quebec.

Summer in the northeastern boreal forest zone was the second warmest in nearly 60 years (+1.6°C) and precipitation was down. But across the west, where the fire season was quiet, it was slightly cooler than normal. Significantly, it was the second wettest summer in over half a century. The result was that British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had their fewest number of wildfires in the past 10 years.

It was a slow start to the fire season across most Canada. However, in northeastern Ontario and in Quebec the fire hazard built through June and into July. The continuing dry weather, high temperatures and the addition of lightning grew the fire activity. By mid-July, the situation was extreme across Quebec in the midst of some of the driest and warmest conditions on record. The province experienced its greatest number of fires in the past decade and some 2.4 times the average area burned over the past 10 years. Less area burned than in 2002, but the fires in 2005 were much more widespread. In fact, some officials felt Quebec hasn't seen fires this widespread since the 1930s. In contrast, 2004 was the slowest for forest fire activity since 1928. Most of the fires were started by lightning and fuelled by the hot, dry conditions. The worst fires occurred between Matagami and Chibougamau in northern Quebec. In early June, wildfires caused 1,800 construction workers to leave the James Bay Eastmain hydro-electric development project.

Air France Accident at Toronto Pearson

On August 2, Air France flight 358 from Paris landed in a driving rain storm at Toronto Lester Pearson International Airport. The jet overran the runway, slammed into a ditch, and burst into flames as more than 300 people aboard scrambled to safety. While the accident is still under investigation by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, weather is being considered as one of several contributing factors in the accident. In the last few minutes before the landing, a principal expert investigating the crash has noted that the weather conditions were very poor. Just prior to and at touchdown, winds were shifting and shearing with strong gusts, the runway was rain-slicked, a blinding downpour reduced visibility, and there were thunderstorms with frequent lightning in the vicinity of the Airport. That no one was killed remains a major miracle.

West Nile Virus

Mosquitoes had to love this year's warm summer in the East. With such warmth, they became more active and bred more often. Further, with the record warm temperatures, humans presented easier targets for the blood-thirsty pests. More people spent time outdoors wearing shorts and short sleeves. Overall, the best weather for the favoured mosquito carrying the West Nile virus was in Ontario and Quebec. Prolonged warmth and long dry spells interrupted with heavy doses of rain (when it did rain) were ideal for the disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Given the favourable weather, it was not a surprise that counts of West Nile virus were much higher in 2005 than the year before. Of the total of 3,988 dead birds tested for West Nile virus, 447 (11%) were positive. In addition, 21 horses tested positive for the disease. Most people bitten by an infected mosquito don't get sick at all and less than 12% become seriously ill. In testing of human beings, results showed that 225 clinical cases of West Nile virus occurred, including 12 deaths: Saskatchewan (2), Manitoba (1), Ontario (8, with half the deaths in the Toronto area) and Quebec (1). Last year, a mere 29 clinical cases of West Nile virus and no deaths were reported in Canada, down from the record year in 2002 of 1388 cases and 14 deaths.

Queen's Visit to Canada

On May 17, stiff winds, grey skies and a drizzle greeted the Queen and Prince Philip when their plane touched down for the launch of centennial celebrations in Saskatchewan and Alberta. If anything, the "English" weather made the royal couple feel at home. Unfortunately, weather plagued the Queen's visit for most of the nine-day tour - raining on all but two of the days with public events. As it happened, the weather was near perfect on the weekend the couple vacationed in Jasper. For official functions, the weather could not have been much worse. To their credit, the Royals never showed any weather weariness and were in good spirits throughout the visit. They refused to take cover, never hurried and the Queen chose to ride in an open-air carriage when a closed vehicle was offered. At the Saskatchewan Legislature Building in Regina, the Queen and Prince Philip arrived in an open, horse-drawn carriage during a downpour that lasted most of the day. Soaked and shivering spectators huddled under coats, tarps, and umbrellas. On May 23, at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, a chilly rain and gusty winds forced organizers to cut short a centennial performance despite a crowd of more than 15,000 hardy souls who were mostly huddled under umbrellas and garbage bags in order to catch a glimpse of the Queen and Philip. The miserable weather greatly disappointed thousands of their sodden admirers but the royal stiff upper lip won over the crowd everywhere the couple went.

Warm Fall from Coast to Coast to Coast

Fall is often the shortest season of the year in Canada as the time between the first frost and first snow can be days long, if not hours. Nationally, fall 2005 was the second warmest on record. Only in 1998, was the period between September and November warmer at +2.3°C.. Every region in Canada experienced unseasonably warm conditions, especially in Eastern Canada where temperatures averaged 1.7°C warmer than normal. At individual places, such as London and Toronto, it was the warmest fall on record and, remarkably, followed on the heels of the warmest summer on record. Even in the Arctic, fall temperature anomalies were in the top ten of the warmest fall ever. On the Prairies, following winter's frigid first blast around the middle of November, record warm temperatures returned to the West. On November 22nd, Calgary and Saskatoon recorded daily highs of 20.0°C and 11.4°C respectively. In the late fall, record warm spells usually run a day or two, but the warm spell on the Prairies endured for nine days or more. On the downside, the unseasonably warm fall weather affected retail sales of winter clothes and equipment.

Record Snow Dump in Montreal

On December 14-15, a major weather system moved up the American east coast pushing significant snow into southwestern Ontario before lashing eastern Ontario and southern Quebec with a huge dump of snow. Communities around Toronto and to the west received between 10 and 15 cm of snow, creating hundreds of single-vehicle crashes. Eastern Ontario took the brunt of the storm. From Trenton to Cornwall, snowfall totals exceeded 23 cm and included some ice pellets. Ottawa's morning rush hour was chaotic when 54 transit buses broke down or were in accidents. However, the storm left its biggest punch for Montreal. The city was socked with a record-breaking 41 cm in a mere 11 hours. During morning rush hour, snow fell at a phenomenal rate of 8 cm an hour. Blowing snow and high winds generated blizzard conditions and created monstrous drifts as tall as a metre or more. The 40+ snowfall at Dorval was the city's largest single-day December snowfall in its weather history and second to the snowiest day ever -- March 4, 1971-- when Montreal was buried in 43.2 cm of snow. The expected disruption occurred to air and transit travel. More than 200 flights in and out of the Trudeau International Airport were impacted and, by early afternoon, highways became parking lots as more than 400 vehicles -- in fender-benders or skids or just stalled -- waited for a tow. Instead of calling for the army, Montrealers tackled the storm's entrails, confident their reputation as the world city that ploughs and shovels more snow than any other was firmly in tact and that this was merely a first good test for the winter that was still five days away from starting.

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