Canada's top ten weather stories of 2012

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Table of Contents

Runner-up stories for 2012 (Chronological order)

Winter’s Last Hurrah in the East

After an unseasonably warm start to spring, Eastern Canadians were shocked when a nasty spring storm in the final week of April brought rain, snow, ice pellets, freezing rain and strong cold winds. An intense and moisture-laden system raced up the United States eastern seaboard, curved northwestward into eastern Ontario and Quebec, and then spread its canopy of wintry precipitation into Atlantic Canada. In parts of southern Ontario, the slushy surprise crushed early blooms and nipped blossoms while snowfall on elevated terrain reached 30 cm. The snow combined with high winds produced hazardous driving conditions, with blowing snow cutting visibility to nil in many areas. In Montreal, the storm dumped 25 to 40 mm of heavy rain, while the Laurentians and Mont-Tremblant saw a combination of 15 to 25 mm of rain and 10 to 15 cm of snow and ice pellets. Hydro-Québec reported more than 28,000 customers were without power. In the Maritimes, it was all rain including: 116 mm in Saint John; 94 mm in St. Stephen; 86 mm in Fredericton; 56 mm in Yarmouth; and 79 mm in Brier Island. .

$100 Million Storms Across Ontario and Quebec

A series of severe thunderstorms raked parts of southern and eastern Ontario and western Quebec during the third week of July inflicting $100 million in property losses. Heavy downpours combined with hail and fierce winds to bring down trees and power lines, rip away roofs, dent vehicles and house siding, and trigger flash floods. Close to 30,000 hydro customers in eastern Ontario and another 70,000 in Quebec lost service during and after the storms. Many people welcomed the wet weather after weeks of hot and dry conditions, but the highly localized and intense downpours were not quite the rains hoped for. On July 22, the Hamilton International Airport weather station recorded 66 mm of rain although an unofficial gauge recorded 140 mm of rain. The next day, more hot and sticky air with a passing cold front triggered another round of thunderstorms across the region. During the late morning hours, there were several reports of tree damage in communities north of Lake Nipissing and towards Mattawa. In the afternoon, the storms spawned additional bursts of damaging winds through Renfrew County in and around the community of Calabogie. Most damage was caused by straight-line winds associated with intense downburst winds of 110 km/h. Despite rumours, there was no evidence of a tornado touchdown. Golf-ball-sized hail dimpled the hoods and roofs of hundreds of cars, broke windows and shattered side mirrors. At local campgrounds, countless trees were uprooted and several boats and trailers flipped over. With the long storm path extending through a large expanse of woodlands, winds felled tens of thousands of trees. Luckily no serious injuries were reported. The severe thunderstorms crossed into Quebec bringing strong winds, hail 4 cm in diameter and rainfall rates between 50 and 100 mm/h. The storms inflicted significant property damage, especially in Montérégie and the Laurentides. Nearly 70,000 Quebec properties were left without electricity. Rounding out the week, 30,000 bolts of lightning triggered nighttime fires at homes and rural outbuildings between London and Toronto on July 25 causing extensive damage.

Early Start to Forest Fire Season

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, the number of wildfires in Canada exceeded 6,400 or twice the total last year and higher than any average for 5, 10, 20 or 25 years. On the other hand, total hectares of consumed forest weighed in less than in 2011 but close to 10- and 15-year averages. With an unusually warm and dry winter-spring across Canada, fire fighters were put on guard much earlier in 2012.

At the beginning of March, Alberta’s forest floor was dangerously dry and free of snow prompting the province to declare an early start to the fire season. By mid-May, forests north of Edmonton were bone dry, humidity was low and winds were strong and gusty, raising the wildfire threat from high to extreme. Soon after, fire-breeding conditions triggered a sweeping fire ban across most of the province’s forests – from Waterton Lakes National Park in the south to north of Fort McMurray. Across northeastern Ontario, May’s hot, dry and windy weather also led to an early start to the fire season. By the Victoria Day weekend, dangerous hot spots were popping up everywhere with the largest fire burning near Kirkland Lake. On May 25, another wildfire spewed choking smoke and falling ash on the outskirts of Timmins. Officials declared a state of emergency and started evacuating 800 residents from cottages, campgrounds and camps surrounding the city. Strong winds impeded efforts to douse the flames and pushed the heavy haze closer to Timmins before shifting winds two days later eased the threat. In New Brunswick, unusually dry conditions meant the province’s Forest Fire Watch began two weeks earlier than scheduled. Continued drying into July increased the number of grass fires. In total, fire starts in the province were above both the 10-year and 20-year averages and exceeded burned hectares over the last 10 years. Further east, hot and dry weather heightened the forest fire threat throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. On June 23, more than 1,800 people from two Labrador communities north of Goose Bay were ordered to evacuate due to advancing flames. Province-wide, 192 wildfires burned 137,000 hectares of woodland in 2012 compared to the 20-year average of 114 fires and 28,000 hectares, respectively.

After months of relative quiet, authorities in British Columbia began seeing numerous fires spring up following the onset and persistence of hot dry weather between mid-July and October. On September 9, a fire started on the outskirts of Peachland in the Okanagan Interior. Strong winds caused it to spread rapidly, destroying four homes. About 1,500 families and businesses were under an evacuation order as a veil of thick white smoke and ash blanketed one-third of the community. In total, British Columbia had 17 per cent more fires than normal in 2012 but burnt wildland was less than average.

Glorious BC Summer Book-ended by Wetness

Grey skies and cool-wet conditions dominated the weather across British Columbia through spring and early summer, especially in June (a.k.a. Junuary), leaving some residents wondering if the sun would ever show up. It didn’t help that the East was boasting a non-winter, March mildness and the early arrival of a hummer summer. When summer did officially arrive on the Pacific Coast its first days offered up more of the same leaden skies and damp streets. Weather-suffering residents grew frustrated then resigned as the wet weather continued over the Canada Day long weekend. The prolonged overcast had a detrimental effect on outdoor recreation. Gardeners spent their time battling slugs. And some farmers had to replant seeds that simply failed to germinate due to the damp or cold, or both. Crops that did take experienced delayed development by two to three weeks, especially strawberries and blueberries. A steady occurrence of North Pacific weather seemed to nail Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland day after day. In Victoria, between May 20 and June 18, 23 of 30 days were wet. And this was supposed to be the dry season. In Vancouver, no records were set in June but the statistics were depressing: more rain (40 per cent higher than average with 19 wet days); lower temperatures; and far less sunshine than average (only 157 hours in total and six days with nary a minute of sunshine).

In British Columbia, it is said that patience with June gloom will be rewarded with a glorious summer. Many of those same people believe September is the nicest month along the Pacific Coast. Both proved true in 2012 with spectacular warm dry weather that stretched from early July to the second week of October. August and September went down in history as the driest in 105 years in Vancouver with a paltry 5.9 mm of rain (7 per cent of normal). In addition, temperatures soared into the high 20s and beyond setting records across the province. And there was no shortage of sunshine. The delightfully monotonous weather was thanks to a strong persistent ridge of high pressure that stayed over the province, encouraging a southerly flow with clear skies and record warm temperatures that effectively blocked any storms from reaching the coast. Victoria and Nanaimo also experienced their driest August to September on record. Victoria had just 3.8 mm of rain in those months – less than the previous record of 5.0 mm in 1974. In that same period, Nanaimo saw 7.0 mm compared with 9.1 mm in 1998. The prolonged dryness put several coastal communities under severe water restrictions. Drastically reduced water levels on the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island adversely affected returning salmon, drinking water supplies and sewage dilution, and forced temporary job losses at paper and pulp mills. There was real concern that the Cowichan River would dry up if it didn’t start raining soon.

During a near weather-perfect 100 days between July 3 and October 9 the sun shone on every day but three. The “non-weather” stretch pleased the province’s winemakers anticipating a banner vintage with high sugar levels. In the northeast at Fort St. John, barely 1.0 mm of rain fell in September, far below the record low of 15.4 mm in 2006 and well off September’s monthly average of 45.7 mm. Rivers across most of Peace River country edged toward historic lows, prompting a low streamflow advisory for the eastern Peace and a suspension of short-term water withdrawals from area rivers for oil and gas operators.

On October 13, Vancouver’s 11-week dry spell came to an end. And when it started to rain, it poured, heralded by strong winds with gusts measuring 158 km/h along the coasts. In 27 days following October 11, 236 mm of rain fell in Vancouver with only 2 dry days; the same period prior to October 12 had 2 wet days and a total of 2.0 mm of rain.

Return of West Nile Virus

The number of reported cases of West Nile virus in Canada in 2012 reached its highest level in recent years. Contributing factors included higher survival rates of infected mosquitoes and birds due to a mild winter, and record heat in spring and summer that offered perfect breeding weather for the Culex Tarsalis mosquito – the species largely responsible for transmitting the virus to humans. The warmer weather also meant more people spent time outside and for longer periods, increasing their exposure to mosquitoes. Up to October 27, there were 450 cases confirmed or suspected by the Public Health Agency of Canada with one-third classified as the debilitating and sometimes deadly neurological syndrome. Ontario led the way with 259 confirmed and probable cases – the highest since 2003. Quebec followed with 133 cases, Manitoba had 39, and Alberta and Saskatchewan recorded 9 each. No cases of West Nile virus were reported in the three northern territories, Quebec, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, with the exception of a single case in Prince Edward Island. To date, six deaths in Canada have also been attributed to West Nile virus in 2012.

From Fire to Ice in Manitoba

There was little to be thankful for in southeastern Manitoba the week before Thanksgiving as the region experienced a range of weather extremes that included wildfires, heavy snow drifts and paralyzing freezing rain. It started with residents in Vita, St. Malo and surrounding communities being forced to flee when grass and bushfires fuelled by strong, warm and dry winds destroyed several buildings and a bridge. Some people resorted to soaking down trees and grass on their properties to prevent flames from spreading. Despite these efforts, four families lost their homes to the fires. Two days later, a winter storm walloped the region and put a quick end to the stubborn flames. On the down side, it also dumped up to 30 cm of heavy, wet snow that resulted in road closures and power outages in a dozen communities. Travel along the Trans-Canada Highway and other roadways was severely restricted with poor visibility from blowing snow as a result of north winds that gusted up to 70 km/h. Adding to the misery was ice 8 cm thick that coated power lines and trees, felling 165 hydro poles and one hydro tower. As utility crews struggled to reach downed lines, up to 6,000 people were left in the dark. In the Interlake region, gusting winds pushed water from Lake Winnipeg into the streets of Gimli.

Record Snows on the Prairies

A couple of powerful weather systems originating south of the border lingered across the Prairies for five days before Remembrance Day. The early bout of winter created misery for motorists and pedestrians from the foothills of the Rockies to northwestern Ontario. The first storm formed over Idaho and Montana on November 7 and travelled north into Alberta. It began as freezing rain in Edmonton but changed quickly to heavy wet snow (30 cm), wrecking havoc on roads and forcing schools to close. Calgary and the rest of southern Alberta also got pounded with 20 to 30 cm of snow. Two days later, a storm from Colorado infused with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico arrived over Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Swirling snow powered by strong cold winds created treacherous driving conditions causing hundreds of collisions across southern and central parts of both provinces. People struggled as they shovelled out from 25 to 40 cm of snow whipped by winds gusting to 50 km/h.

Between November 9 and 11, Regina was covered in 34 cm of snow. The bulk of it – 24 cm – fell on November 9, setting a new daily record. With the official start of winter still a month away, Regina residents were already exhausted from clearing record amounts of snow. In the first three weeks of November, the Queen City received more snow than fell during six months of winter last year. By month’s end, Regina had experienced its snowiest November since record-keeping began in the 1880s. But while city dwellers may have been exhausted, farm folk were exhilarated because the wet snow helped to ease low moisture levels from too many weeks of scanty precipitation.

A change of months did not change the weather. In early December, another storm packing more freezing rain and snow raced across the Prairies bringing hazardous driving conditions along the Trans-Canada Highway. Conditions were also treacherous between Edmonton and Saskatoon. Inter-provincial transportation came to a halt for several hours. The intense winter storm brought only snow to parts of central Manitoba but still made a mess with knee- to waist-deep loads blown into two-metre drifts. Some locations received 40 to 90 cm of snow, breaking their one-day records. Just a few days later, on December 5, another 15 cm of snow fell in Edmonton reducing visibility and snarling traffic yet again. Prairie residents were getting winter-weary, yet the start of the season was still more than two weeks away.

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