Top ten weather stories for 2012: story seven

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7. High and Dry in the East

Higher than normal temperatures and a lack of rainfall in Eastern Canada meant a great summer for most outdoor enthusiasts but trouble for some crops and water systems

Higher than normal temperatures and a lack of rainfall in Eastern Canada meant a great summer for most outdoor enthusiasts but trouble for some crops and water systems. A year after being doused, farmers were begging for rain in 2012. Although not  record dry (of 65 years, 13 summers were drier across the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence river basin and 8 were drier in Atlantic Canada), the lack of rain and excessive warmth was notable. For example, Atlantic Canada had its driest and fourth warmest spring on record. In southern Ontario and Quebec, winter-spring 2012 was the mildest and driest on record; May to July was near-record hot and there was a stretch of eight weeks between the first week of June and the end of July when some farmers barely saw a thimbleful of rain. When it did rain, it was either too much too fast or too short and too little.Conditions were largely due to a strong stable, high-pressure dome known as a Bermuda High that was positioned over the Atlantic Ocean but reached much further west and north than usual. Its dominance and persistence inland kept rain-bearing weather systems at bay.

In Eastern Ontario, it was both hot and dry. In Ottawa, where records go back to 1889, no July was even remotely as hot and dry. Total monthly rainfall was a paltry 19 per cent of normal and measured 19 mm less than the previous record in 1931. Further, between June 11 and July 31, temperatures reached or exceeded 30°C on 23 days. Known as hot days, Ottawa typically gets 13 of them all year. In Quebec, some regions set new summer temperature records (Gatineau, Sherbrooke, and Gaspé) and it was dry everywhere except in the Lac Saint-Jean and Gaspésie. Atlantic Canada experienced its warmest and driest growing season ever. And at Charlottetown less than 75 mm of rain fell in June and July – the third driest on record.

Duck in a disappearing pond.

Heat and drought led to frequent beach closings, water rationing measures and boil water advisories. Water levels in rivers and lakes in the East were at their lowest in over a decade. All of the Great Lakes in October were below their 1918-2011 average levels and lower than they were a year ago. August and September were the driest months ever recorded in the Lake Superior and Michigan-Huron regions. Water in the St. Lawrence River at Montreal fell to record low levels in July and August and measured  a metre lower than a year ago. Elsewhere in Quebec, several other large rivers also reached historic lows. For recreational boaters, depressed water levels were a safety hazard. Commercial navigation found low levels a challenge, necessitating loads reduced by 10 per cent to avoid running aground. Hydro-electric generation was reduced due to lower flows – 20 per cent less in July compared with the previous year. And fish biologists in Atlantic Canada were forced to close several world-class salmon rivers when surface water temperatures rose 7°Cwarmer than normal.

Dry forest conditions

In cities and parkland, the extreme heat and long bout of dryness severely damaged young trees with immature root systems. Farmers in eastern Canada experienced several challenges during the growing season including early frosts, prolonged dryness at crucial growing times and extreme heat that increased insect pressure. Things started well, with farmers taking advantage of an early spring to get seed in the ground sooner than usual. But at the crucial pollination stage from June to early July, crops in Ontario were dangerously parched and stopped growing. Incredibly, even weeds and clover were dying under the soaring heat and dryness. Dried pastures and reduced forage forced livestock farmers in Ontario and in the Pontiac region of Quebec to cull their herds. Even Christmas tree growers were hit, losing thousands of small trees to the ongoing drought. In the end, yields and quality were variable from crop to crop and area to area, but the season ended with a better harvest than initially anticipated. Indeed, Statistics Canada reported that despite extreme weather, Ontario farmers produced the largest soybean and grain corn crops in the province’s history. Quebec farmers also boasted record corn production. The lack of rain and high temperatures proved to be a challenge for farmers in Atlantic Canada. In eastern PEI, farmers had to stop irrigating because of water shortages. In the Annapolis Valley, corn growers lamented small cobs with missing kernels. Further, army worms ate their way across the fields. And strawberry growers and orchardists faced a set-back when early warm temperatures were followed by multiple frosts. Yields were generally 40 to 60 per cent of normal, with apple producers faring the worst with between 0 and 20 per cent of their normal crop. Other tree fruit including cherries, peaches, pears and plums also experienced loss due to the freezing temperatures and ended up with yields between 5 and 50 per cent of normal. On the plus side, vintners everywhere were ecstatic. Bringing grapes to maturity is often a challenge but not in 2012. Warm and dry conditions accelerated ripening by three to four weeks, the acidity of grapes was near perfect and the dry weather kept mildew and rot from the vines.

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