The top ten weather stories for 2003

Table of Content

  1. BC's Year of Disastrous Weather - fires, floods and freezes
  2. Hurricane Juan and Hurricane "Juannabes"
  3. A Long, Cold Winter Grips Eastern Canada
  4. Canada Ablaze from Ontario to the Okanagan
  5. Endless Drought in the Prairies
  6. Atlantic Canada's Most Expensive Rainstorm
  7. New Brunswick's Ice Storm of A Century
  8. A Record Year of Deadly Avalanches
  9. Alberta Spring Whitewashers
  10. Ice Age in Badger

1. BC's Year of Disastrous Weather - fires, floods and freezes

Never has such a variety of weather extremes punished British Columbia more than those in 2003. Much attention was focused on the summer fires and for good reason. It was the most terrifying fire season in memory and the most expensive natural disaster in BC history. Not counting timber losses, the cost of fighting the wildfires alone approached $500 million. In total, nearly 2500 forest fires charred 2650 square kilometres of land, bush and residential areas - 11 times the annual average area burned over the last 10 years. It was BC's second province-wide state of emergency and its longest. Three pilots lost their lives fighting the fires and 334 homes burned to the ground. The Insurance Bureau of Canada called it the single largest insurance loss for a wildfire in Canada with insured property losses totaling at least $250 million. The emotional consequences can never be tallied.

Conditions for BC's summer of fire were four years in the making. Going into 2003, some areas along the Pacific coast and in the southern interior were in the midst of their worst drought in 100 years. From 2000 to 2002 inclusive, only two of twelve seasons were wetter than normal in southern British Columbia and only one was colder than normal. Prior to this summer, southern BC had gone through its driest three-year period on record.

Evidence of prolonged dryness was everywhere. Near-record low stream flow (10 to 20% of normal in some areas) and deficient ground water raised the concerns of power companies, water utilities and homeowners on wells. The Fraser River peaked near the first of July at one of the lowest stages since record keeping began 90 years ago. Hungry bears roamed suburbs; hordes of beetles munched on pine trees; salmon suffocated in lethally warm streams; worried utilities imported energy; and water-desperate ranchers culled herds.

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it did! During most of the summer, a large Pacific high pressure area anchored near the coast kept weather away from British Columbia. At some weather stations in the Interior, temperatures soared to 40°C. In Kamloops, temperatures rose above 30°C on 19 days in July and 20 days in August: normal for each month is 11. Kelowna recorded the driest June-July-August period since records began in 1899 and set a record with 44 consecutive rainless days. On the coast, Victoria had its driest summer since record-keeping began in 1914 with a paltry 8.2 mm of rain. The forests in the south were tinder-dry and the forest floor volatile - a spark away from igniting. Then came flashes of dry lightning, strong gusty winds and a bit of human carelessness.

Normally British Columbia encounters one major "interface" fire a year that encroaches on communities. This year firefighters faced at least eight interface fires. The crisis began in early August when fires incinerated Louis Creek and threatened Barriere and the suburbs of Kamloops. Dozens of homes and businesses, including two saw mills, burned to the ground. And the province was only beginning to catch on fire. Two weeks later, lightning ignited the dry forest in the Okanagan Mountain Park south of Kelowna. Powerful winds sent flames racing toward town overwhelming retreating firefighters. On August 23, the fires leveled 250 homes and prompted the evacuation of a third of Kelowna's population.

In total, more than 50,000 BC residents were evacuated from the danger of flames and smoke in 2003 - the second largest evacuation in Canadian history. At the height of the fire season, 7600 civilian firefighters and nearly 2000 military were fighting the blazes.

Barely a month lapsed when the summer fires made way for autumn rains and floods. A huge storm, dubbed the Pineapple Express by forecasters, carried cargoes of moisture from the tropical Pacific near Hawaii. The system soaked the BC Coast with record rainfalls leading to major floods and mudslides. Slopes left bare by earlier wildfires just couldn't hold back the raging waters as they washed soil and trees down mountains. The Lillooet River near Pemberton reached its highest level ever, rising 4.8 m in just two days. Flood waters tore up valuable fish spawning beds and contaminated water systems, roads were awash with 2 to 3 m of rain and farmers frantically moved livestock to higher ground. The deluge was a disaster to an already crippled forestry sector, idling loggers because of road closures and wet ground. Reservoirs that were little more than mudflats a month earlier were now full and threatening to spill. The week-long rains left four dead, forced 1200 to flee mud-filled homes, and washed out bridges and highways. Damages were in the tens of millions of dollars. The steady, intense downpour was perhaps the heaviest deluge to strike the West Coast in more than 200 years. Monsoon-like rains, which reached 40 mm per hour in some areas, broke records left and right: Victoria had its rainiest day on record on October 16 with 136 mm of the wet stuff; Squamish set several rainfall records, including 239 mm in two days; 318 mm in three days and 369 mm in four days; and in the Elaho Valley, up to 600 mm fell over a four-day period.

Floods gave way to frost in early November as a persistent northerly flow engulfed much of British Columbia, shattering dozens of low temperature records for the month. In the Interior, it was the coldest start to November in years (October had been the second warmest on record at Kamloops). At Kelowna, it was -13°C on November 5 - about 5°C colder than it gets in January, the coldest time of the year. In Victoria, record-freezing temperatures turned many flowers to pulp and worried fruit growers. Vancouver set daily low temperature records three days running, dipping to -4.6°C, which was colder than it had been all of last winter.

But nature wasn't finished. On November 28, heavy rain and wind in Vancouver caused flooding of both homes and roads. It was one of the heaviest rainfalls ever to hit the Lower Mainland. The weather system moved slower than most and had time to drop more than 100 mm of rain in 24 hours. The storm triggered a landslide that severed a natural gas pipeline to Prince Rupert, where some residents were without fuel for a week.

Not even included in the list of weather disasters were devastating timber losses inflicted by the bark beetle, which continues to thrive and propagate under its ideal weather conditions - hot, dry summers and mild winters.

2. Hurricane Juan and Hurricane "Juannabes"

Hurricane experts foresaw a more active and intense storm season in the North Atlantic and they were right on the money. In 2003, 16 "named" storms formed in the Atlantic basin, well above the long-term average of 10. It was also the longest season in over 50 years. Two storms, Odette and Peter, showed up in December. The last time two tropical cyclones developed in the Atlantic Ocean in December was in 1887! Seven of the sixteen storms grew into hurricanes, hitting a peak in September when four "named" storms - three of them killers - crossed into Canadian territory. Warmer-than-normal sea temperature in the Atlantic Ocean was a key factor in making it another active year and continuing the trend that has made the past decade the busiest on record for tropical Atlantic cyclones.

Fabian came first, arriving off the southeast edge of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland-Labrador on September 7, taking down a yacht and drowning three men. On September 19, Isabel entered Canada in Ontario as a much weaker storm than it had been when it came ashore at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane. (See table of hurricane intensities on the last page). In Ontario, rainfalls from Isabel totaled 30 to 50 mm and winds gusted to 73 km/h. Wave heights reached four metres at the western end of Lake Ontario. The winds uprooted trees, sheared off branches and left 40,000 residents temporarily without power. Hurricane Isabel was well forecasted but it failed to live up to the public hype. Damage in Ontario was minimal because the storm raced so quickly through the province. October brought Hurricane Kate, which passed south of Cape Race, Newfoundland packing maximum sustained winds of 120 km/h and generating waves 10 metres high. The storm soaked St. John's with 45.2 mm of rain, setting a single-day October record for rainfall.

Between Isabel and Kate came Hurricane Juan, making a direct hit on Halifax and forever changing the face of the city. Juan was the most damaging storm to hit Halifax in modern history. Losses across Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island totaled over $100 million, with additional insurable losses of more than $82 million and counting. Even more tragic was the irreplaceable loss of 100 million trees, some of them century-old trees. In Halifax's popular Point Pleasant Park, the hurricane destroyed 70% of the park's 86,000 trees. Eight people died from the storm and its after affects.

To chronicle its trail, Hurricane Juan moved from its birthplace southeast of Bermuda and ripped through Halifax shortly after midnight on September 29th. The last time the port city was hit by the eye-wall of a hurricane (the worst winds in such a storm) was in 1893, when a Category 2/3 storm (sustained winds of 176-185 km/h) made landfall. In September 1798, a hurricane came ashore near Halifax harbour, blowing down huge trees and washing away schooners. Hurricane Juan raced northward across Nova Scotia, weakened quickly - as tropical cyclones do over land - and arrived in Prince Edward Island as a marginal hurricane. Hurricane Juan was only the fourth category 2 hurricane to hit Nova Scotia since the 1800s and only the second hurricane to hit Prince Edward Island since 1930. Juan's rapid forward motion meant it spent less time over the cooler waters of the Scotian shelf, which - in turn - left less time for the storm to weaken.

The result was an enormous mess. Hurricane Juan tore down power lines, flooded waterfront properties, sank dozens of yachts, heaved sidewalks and damaged stately downtown homes in Halifax and Charlottetown. Along the Atlantic Coast, entire marinas and harbours had to be re-built. At its peak, Juan left more than 300,000 homes without power in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It was a Category 2 hurricane when it hit Nova Scotia with sustained winds at 158 km/h gusting over 185 km/h. Winds generated a storm surge of over 1.5 m, and raised the water level in Halifax harbour to a record 2.9 metres. Maximum wave heights outside the harbour were measured at nearly 20 metres. Mercifully, rainfall amounts from Juan were not heavy at 25 to 40 mm.

On an ironic note, Hurricane Juan forced the evacuation of the Canadian Hurricane Centre in Dartmouth. The mighty force of the wind made the nineteen-floor building sway so badly people became nauseated. In Prince Edward Island, however, even the full brunt of a near-hurricane couldn't dissuade civic-minded residents from voting in their provincial election. Though half of the Island's households were without power and many streets were clogged with fallen tree branches, 83% of eligible voters still came out to cast their ballots!

3. A Long, Cold Winter Grips Eastern Canada

As mild El Nino breezes waffled across British Columbia and Alberta, and occasionally as far east as Manitoba, most of Eastern Canada remained in a deep freeze for the winter making it one of the coldest and longest winters in 20 years. The frigid weather caused record levels of power consumption, as customers cranked up the thermostat to beat back the cold. Expectations for a mild winter had been high in Eastern Canada, since five of the last seven winters had above-normal temperatures. In fact, the 2003 deep freeze seemed especially brutal because the previous winter had been the mildest on record for most of the area. Just in case Eastern Canada had forgotten how harsh winter could be, Mother Nature zapped Montreal with 24 raw days this winter (last winter no temperatures dipped below -20°C in Montreal), most often accompanied by strong winds producing high wind chills. In Toronto, last year's lowest winter temperature was -14°C. This year, there were 32 days colder than that. The city rang up nine cold weather alerts, many with multiple days of penetrating cold. Technically, Ottawa and Montreal had a January thaw - one day. On New Year's Day, Ottawa's maximum temperature made it to 0.1°C, but freezing temperatures continued for the next 76 days in a row.

School "snow days" became a regular issue in Eastern Canada, either because of too much snow, brutal wind chills or frozen pipes. Despite piles of snow and the record number of days with snow in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region, there was a winter drought underway with the region tallying its lowest winter precipitation total in 56 years of record-keeping. Precipitation was 40% below normal with virtually no rainfall to speak of. It snowed hard at times and often. In Toronto, 70 of the 90 days from December 1 to the end of February recorded at least a trace of snow - a daily reminder that winter was long and holding.

The cold, snowy weather was a boon for energy producers and retailers of winter apparel and, along with rain-free weather, produced some of the best winter sports conditions ever. On the flip side, the enduring conditions created a snow-clearing challenge and gave rise to a barrage of complaints. A record number of pipes froze - double the recent 10-year average - and the unseasonable cold delayed maple sap runs and damaged 30 to 40% of Niagara grape vines. Crop insurance payments to Ontario wine producers in 2003 exceeded total payouts to that sector over the last 20 years.

The intensity and duration of the cold across North America produced some of the worst ice conditions in a decade on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and along the East Coast. Strong winds pushed massive blocks of ice, up to 6 m high, along the eastern and southern shores of the Great Lakes. The Lakes also saw the greatest ice cover on record for the month of March, with the surfaces of lakes Superior, Erie, and Huron 98% covered. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the ice extent was 50% greater than normal in March (the most extensive since records began in 1968) hampering ferry service, cargo traffic and fishing operations.

4. Canada Ablaze from Ontario to the Okanagan

The Canadian International Forest Fire Centre reported a near-average fire year in Canada in terms of the number of fires (8,226 by the end of November), but only half the total hectares (1.6 million hectares) consumed when compared against a recent 10-year average. While those statistics imply a tame year for fires, this year's season will remain unforgettable for years to come with costs for fire fighting that approached $1 billion.

The country's largest and most destructive wildfires were in British Columbia, where the cost of fighting fires alone approached a record $500 million. The BC Premier called it the worst fire season in 50 years. Insurers called it the costliest wildfire in Canadian history. Tragically, it was the worst year for the number of hectares burned in our mountain national parks - six times the yearly average over 10 years and by far the worst year in the past decade. Further, fires destroyed precious habitat for countless wildlife and birds.

British Columbia was not the only province on fire in 2003. While fires in Alberta consumed only one-eighth of the area that fires burned in 2002, it was not a quiet year. In mid-June, crews battled a major fire near Fort McKay, where flames and thick smoke forced nearly 400 residents and workers to flee to Fort McMurray. However, it was a monster wildfire in Crowsnest Pass that really turned up the heat. Tinder-dry conditions, scorching temperatures, low humidity, blazing sunshine and sweeping and shifting mountain winds kept the fires, which became known as the Lost Creek fire, burning out-of-control for most of the summer. Containing the fires in heavily-timbered steep terrain was futile at times. The hot hellish flames exceeded 1000°C, melting trailers and metal as they moved at galloping speeds. The fires drove more than 2000 people from their homes, once, twice and three times. Smoke and ash from the inferno dusted cars and sidewalks and polluted the air over Calgary and Red Deer. Valleys filled with dense, acrid smoke created serious breathing problems for residents and fire crews. As citizens prayed for rain and calm, nearly 1000 firefighters feverishly worked 16-hour days in near impossible circumstances. Finally, at the end of August, after 30 days burning out of control, the Lost Creek fire was tamed, but not without the help of a late summer snowfall and cold temperatures. The hot spots, however, flared up again two months later.

In Manitoba, a dry spring and late green-up combined with persistently high temperatures, blustery winds and excessive dry lightning to create prime wildfire conditions. Fires blackened huge chunks of Manitoba's forests, making it the province's third worst forest fire season on record for the area burned. At times, virtually the entire province was under blow-up conditions with wildfires spreading at jogging speeds. In Northwestern Ontario, the same dryness, low humidity, unruly winds and high temperatures produced what one veteran firefighter called "potentially the worst fire conditions in 25 years". By the second week of June, dry thunderstorms ignited multiple fires. One massive blaze near Lake Superior caused the evacuation of nearly 1000 residents to escape billowing smoke and encroaching flames.

5. Endless Drought on the Prairies

Following soaking rains during the 2002 harvest and normal-to-above normal winter snows and spring precipitation, the Prairie soil at the start of the growing season was in the best shape it had been in 15 years. The crop year started with hope that the multi-year drought, and likely the driest spell in 135 years, had finally ended. However, optimism was tempered by the knowledge that recent trends pointed to a majority of drier and warmer seasons. Growers also knew that minimal subsoil moisture meant their eventual success depended on plentiful summer rains. Further, weather for pests favoured another plague of grasshoppers like the outbreak of last year that ravaged millions of dollars of crops.

With the onset of summer, rain was scare and - together with searing heat and strong, moisture-sucking winds - erased any earlier moisture gains. Yet another drought-year further stressed farmers and ranchers already adversely impacted by agricultural trade wars and the mad cow crisis. And, predictably, the hot dry weather also brought back hordes of grasshoppers. The southern Prairies received less than 38% of normal precipitation in the summer, making it the third driest in 56 years of record-keeping. Incredibly, the summer rainfall was less than the previous three "drought" years, and the lowest since 1967. Hopes for a bumper crop were quickly dashed.

At harvest time, warm, dry, sunny, frost-free conditions helped significantly. Over 80% of the crop was harvested by the first week in September - a dramatic improvement over 2002 when only two-thirds of the crop had been harvested by Thanksgiving. Moreover, perfect weather meant that over 90% of the spring wheat crop reached the top two grades, ranking it among the best quality crops in recent history. Total wheat production for Western Canada in 2003 was 21 million tonnes, slightly less than the recent five-year average, but a dramatic increase of 45% from 2002.

6. Atlantic Canada's Most Expensive Rainstorm

At the end of March this year, an intense spring storm moved across Atlantic Canada and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Heavy rainfalls totaling 80 to 120 mm fell over mainland Nova Scotia, southern New Brunswick and western Newfoundland - most of it in less than 12 hours. The combination of a carwash-like downpour, heavy snow on saturated ground (already in spring snowmelt) and high tides caused major flooding in all four Atlantic provinces. Some communities got a month's worth of rain in just a day, forcing evacuations and prompting numerous states of emergency.

In Nova Scotia, two people drowned in the storm. Rivers that hadn't flooded in 50 years were bursting at the seams. Floodwaters swept away countless bridges, washed out hundreds of roads and collapsed basement walls. Clogged streams spilled water onto road surfaces to a depth of 1.8 m in some areas. Washouts took up to five months to repair. For Nova Scotia, it was likely the most expensive rainstorm in the province's history, with losses to public infrastructure totaling $15.6 million. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the event caused an additional $14.3 million in insured damages to cars, homes and other properties - the highest insurance losses from weather in Atlantic Canada history - until Hurricane Juah.

7. New Brunswick's Ice Storm of the Century

Southern New Brunswick is well known for its Groundhog Day storms. In 1976, a legendary February 2 gale racked Saint John with one of the fiercest storms ever to hit the Bay of Fundy. At the height of the slow-moving cyclone, winds were clocked at 188 km/h and waves reached 12 m. On Groundhog Day 2003, a devastating ice storm began coating the southern half of the province with 40 to 60 mm of frozen rain. At Wolfe Lake, 58.3 mm of freezing rain fell. Moncton was the hardest hit, where it was estimated that such a storm would hit only once in 75 years. Following the main storm, the weather turned windy (above 75 km/h) and brutally cold, generating wind chills of -27 and leaving thousands shivering under a mantle of ice and snow. People shoveled and chipped away for days. Schools closed for a week. The roofs of several barns and storage structures collapsed under the weight. The storm also killed a huge number of livestock and wrecked havoc on maple sugar wood lots.

For five days, utility and power crews worked to exhaustion repairing the damage. Some sites had to be visited two or three times. Ice-encrusted tree branches, power lines and poles snapped under the burden of icing up to 33 mm thick coupled with high winds. It was a historic ice storm for New Brunswick. The provincial power authority called it the worst ever, far exceeding the magnitude and cost to the province of the infamous Eastern Canadian ice storm in 1998. Costs of repairing the damage to cables, poles and transformers was put at $4 million. More than 63,000 customers lost power and telephone service, with thousands going almost a week without electricity.

8. A Record Year for Deadly Avalanches

Twenty-eight people lost their lives in avalanches in the Canadian Rockies this year - tying 1965 for the second deadliest year in nearly a century. While the yearly average death rate is around ten, 2002-2003 was an El Nino year where conditions create complex and unusual snow packs ripe for avalanches. Snow conditions changed quickly and often, making the avalanche hazard extreme for most of the year. Early in the season the problem was a lack of snow, later it was too much. Several rapid freeze/thaw cycles and high winds combined to create an unstable snow pack, leaving mounds of re-crystallized snow piled on top of weak layers and leading to large overhangs and frequent slides.

Two of the worst accidents occurred near Rogers Pass in British Columbia, the scene of Canada's deadliest avalanche in 1910 when snow buried 62 train passengers and rescuers. On January 20, 2003 a series of three avalanches in the backcountry near Revelstoke killed seven skiers under four metres of crunchy, packed snow. Two weeks later, seven Alberta teenagers on a school ski trip near Rogers Pass died when a heavy slab of snow tumbled under its own weight near the summit.

On March 11, about 15 to 25 cm of snow fell in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks. The heavy snow, combined with a sudden warming, triggered a pair of avalanches that blocked the Trans-Canada Highway for days in a two-metre mess of snow, timber and other debris. The slides were so powerful that the snow front crossed the valley floor and climbed up the other side. Thousands of truckers and motorists had to wait up to four days for the highway to re-open.

9. Alberta Spring Whitewashers

Urban people cursed it, but rural folk blessed it. On April 26 and 27, a spring storm stalled over southern Alberta and brought heavy snow to much of southwestern and central Alberta. Snowfall amounts of 50 cm or more were common, along with 60 km/h wind gusts, producing extensive whiteouts across southern Alberta, the nearby foothills and the mountain parks. The snow followed a day with 25 to 50 mm of rain. Generally, Albertans receive their biggest dumps of snow in April and May (and occasionally June). With plenty of cold air around in spring, slow-moving moist Pacific storms clash with the cold Arctic air, sometimes burying communities in deep snow well after most residents think winter is over.

In Calgary, approximately 50 to 80 cm of snow fell in less than 12 hours - about three or four months worth. At the airport, 32.2 cm of snow fell on April 26. It set a record for the day and came within 5 cm of the all-time heaviest snow dump recorded in 1986. The heavy rain and thigh-deep wet snow caused havoc in and around the city, halting airport operations, and stranding vehicles in snow drifts and along curbs. Tree limbs snapped by heavy snow and high winds littered city streets and, in outside communities, caused widespread power outages. Emergency services responded to a record 263 calls, 100 more than usual. Calgary's mayor called it the worse winter storm in 100 years. Spring snows kept gardeners and golfers indoors and cancelled a slew of soccer matches. The only talk in town was about the miserable weather.

For farmers and ranchers, though, the sopping wet snow was pure white gold. Earlier, they voiced concern that winter snows hadn't sunk into the soil because of the frozen ground. Now, a single storm could become the turning point in a drought that had plagued Alberta agriculture for four years. The welcomed snow was a substantial moisture infusion, helping to restore soil moisture, fill dugouts and recharge pasture land.

And that wasn't the end of the Prairie whitewashers. Snowfall in the month of May offered million-dollar relief to farmers in central and eastern Alberta. In Calgary, it snowed on eight consecutive days - from May 2 to May 9. The city's total spring snowfall topped 105 cm, compared to a normal of 47 cm, making it the fourth snowiest spring on record. Edmonton recorded 32.4 cm of snow in May, making it the second snowiest May on record. Total spring snowfall in the Alberta capital was 99.4 cm (almost three times the normal amount), hitting a new record.

10. Ice Age in Badger

Badger, NF knows flooding - having been submerged at least three times in the past 25 years, but nothing could compare to the ice flood of 2003. For a week or more in mid-February, Canadians stared at spectacular footage of the tops of cars and the cabs of trucks frozen in time and a small Newfoundland town encased in a mammoth ice sheet. The disaster began when a massive ice blockage caused the Exploits, Red and Badger rivers to burst their banks sending floodwaters through the streets of Badger and invading hundreds of homes and businesses. Water levels rose 2.5 m in one hour, leaving 1100 townspeople homeless. A state of emergency was declared and the entire town was evacuated with many residents fleeing to temporary shelters in Grand Falls-Windsor. Given the speed of the event, it was a miracle that no one was injured.

Following the flood, a combination of high winds, blowing snow, and bitter cold made the situation worse. For a week, temperatures remained below -20°C, entombing much of the town in ice more than a metre thick. Belongings bobbed for a while in the water before freezing solid. Massive slabs of ice, estimated to weigh a total of 1.3 million tonnes, smashed through windows and doors of buildings and buckled walls of homes. A dirt road had to be built into town because flooding washed out access to the Trans-Canada Highway, which itself was down to a rutted one-lane through Badger.

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