Top ten weather stories for 2010: story two

Table of Contents

2. Vigorous Igor

A map of Canada that shows the areas most impacted by Hurricane Igor. The Provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, all of the island of Newfoundland, eastern Labrador and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec.

Roadway washed out due to Hurricane Igor near Hodderville, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, September 2010. © Jim Mahoney Environment Canada 2010.

Meteorologists foresaw an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean in 2010. As it happened, 19 named storms from Alex to Tomas formed in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico – well above the long-term average of 11 and the third highest total on record. Twelve full-blown hurricanes occurred compared to a normal of six storms, with five logged as major at Category 3 or higher. Key to the busy season was the emergence of La Niña in July, which gathered strength as the year rolled on. La Niña favors lower wind shear over the Atlantic Ocean, allowing storm clouds to grow and organize. Other climate factors included warmer-than-average water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean, and the tropical multi-decadal trend that has brought favorable ocean and atmospheric conditions in unison since 1995. 

September was the busiest month with eight storms, tying 2002 for the record number of named storms forming that month. It started with Hurricane Earl heading hard and fast for the Canadian Maritimes at the beginning of the Labour Day weekend. Early on September 4, the storm made landfall along the south shore of Nova Scotia west of Halifax as a low Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 119 km/h. Earl was soon downgraded to a tropical storm but remained intense as it swept northeast across the province before moving into the Northumberland Strait and across eastern Prince Edward Island. The region around Halifax took a hard, wet hit with wind gusts reaching 120 km/h and rainfalls exceeding 50 mm. In eastern Quebec, heavy rains around 85 mm fell between Sept-Îles and Manicouagan, while the northern coast of Gaspésie received 40 to 50 mm of rain in less than six hours. The majority of the storm rain was not tropical in origin but came from an extratropical system entering from the west. Besides driving rain, Earl generated 25 m peak waves west of the Scotian Slope. It also kicked up some dangerous riptides along the coast. The storm’s strong winds pulled several boats from their mooring and dashed a few smaller boats against the rocks. One man died as a result of the storm. Earl also left Halifax streets, beaches and parks littered with downed branches and foliage, and more than 220,000 customers in the Maritimes without power. The wind rattled apples in the Annapolis Valley but little of the bumper crop got bruised or banged. Orchardists felt lucky because they were spared the peak winds that were forecasted.  Instead, they got needed rains.

On September 20, Hurricane Igor brushed northwest past tiny Bermuda, whipping the territory with fierce winds and rain but sparing it a devastating direct hit. Igor was still a hurricane the next day as it tracked just offshore of the Avalon Peninsula but was soon to become a post-tropical storm. Initially, models had Igor bypassing Canada. However, as the storm moved further north, it failed to steer as far east as expected. Hurricane-force winds ripped across eastern Newfoundland with a savagery that forced 22 flooded and wind-battered towns to declare states of emergency. Over 150 communities became isolated when swollen rivers washed away the only roads into town and all connecting bridges. 

Maximum winds circulating around the storm’s centre increased from about 120 km/h to 140 km/h as it approached the province. Adding to Igor’s strength and moisture content was a sharp upper weather front that tracked slowly eastward across Newfoundland. The complex weather system, with bands of heavy rain, had a huge circulation and reach. Apeak wind speed of 172 km/h was recorded at Cape Pine in southeastern Newfoundland and Labrador – rare for September and the broad expanse of extreme winds even rarer for that time of year. Rainfall records were set in several places. The highest was at St. Lawrence, on the Burin Peninsula, where an unprecedented 239 mm drenched the community in about 20 hours. Many other stations reported in excess of 150 mm, breaking century-old records.

Newfoundlanders appeared dazed by the degree of the damage and extent of the storm’s impact. The storm was the province’s worst by far. In addition to taking out power for 70,000 hydro customers, water flowed everywhere, overwhelming culverts, filling basements, destroying homes, wharfs and boats, and eroding road beds. Igor’s drenching also caused rivers to swell, leading to more than 150 ruptures in roads and bridges. The Insurance Bureau of Canada says insurable claims related to Igor amounted to $65 million – only a fraction of the total losses – yet the biggest weather-related insurance claim in Newfoundland and Labrador in recent history. Non-insured costs exceeded $120 million.

The worst of the rainfall from Igor missed St. John’s, but the winds were fierce. In countless communities, boil water advisories were in place and food and fuel ran short. Heavy rain turned roads into rivers and tore out chunks of asphalt.  Washouts closed the Trans-Canada Highway and the main access roads to the Bonavista and Burin peninsulas for several days where towns and outports were the hardest hit. Miraculously, there was only one-storm related death. The Canadian military quickly moved in to help in the restoration work.  The mission involved more than 1,000 soldiers and military engineers, and heavy equipment, along with navy ships and Sea King helicopters. Further, thousands of workers and volunteers toiled tirelessly to restore a sense of normalcy in short order, though it will be well into 2011 before damaged infrastructure, such as roads, is completely restored. In many ways Igor was a life changer.  Communities will never be the same, Newfoundland geography was destroyed or altered forever.  Families lost everything.  And more so, it changed the psyche of the people forever. While not a major killer storm, Igor was a destroyer – the worst in a province famous for its storms.

In early November, a large trough and front over eastern North America drew loads of moisture and tropical rains northward from Hurricane Tomas. Six-day rainfall amounts over southern New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia caused the worst flooding in a century, with dozens of road washouts and bridge collapses like the 20-m Tusket River bridge in Nova Scotia. The flooding was the worst in over 100 years for some areas. Continuous rains swamped homes and cottages, turned farmers’ fields into lakes and chewed away roads. Property damages covered by insurance approached $100 million; double that for infrastructure costs. The slow motion storm swooped over the Maritimes leaving thousands without power and disrupting all forms of travel. Storm rainfall totals were unbelievable, even if they were for six days, and included: Yarmouth 215 mm; Halifax International Airport 172 mm; Kejimkujik National Park 222 mm; Mechanic Settlement (near Bay of Fundy National Park) 339 mm; Saint John 167 mm; and Charlottetown 107 mm.

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