Runner-up stories for 2004

Table of Content

Canada and the World Still Warming

While it didn't always feel warm, Canada had the 16th warmest year out of the last 57 at 0.4°C warmer than average. It was also the eighth consecutive year with above-normal temperatures. Last year was much warmer at +1.1°C above normal and the warmest ever was in 1998 at +2.5°C. Nationally, both spring and summer 2004 were cooler than normal, making it the first time since the winter/spring of 1996 that two consecutive seasons had at or below normal temperatures. Spring/summer 2004 was the fourth coldest such period in 26 years. And we had the first summer since 1992 with temperatures at or below normal.

A warmer Canada is in step with the rest of the world. Globally, 2004 was the twenty-sixth consecutive year with above-normal temperatures and the 4th warmest year in the temperature record since 1861 and just behind 2003. The average global temperature was +0.44°C above the 1961-1990 annual average (14°C). Late in the year, a weak El Nino developed in the Pacific Ocean, but it had little effect on the year's warmth.

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.

Active Hurricane Season … Quiet in Canada

Forecasters correctly called for another active Atlantic hurricane season with predictions of 12 to 15 tropical storms, 6 to 8 of them hurricanes. The final tally was 15 named tropical storms and nine hurricanes of which six were major storms featuring winds in excess of 178 km/h. The busy storm season reflected a continuation of above-normal activity that began in 1995. Since then, all but two Atlantic hurricane seasons (1997 and 2002) have been above normal. The total of eight tropical cyclones reaching storm intensity in August broke the previous record of seven set in August 1933 and 1995. Eight is double the normal number. Further, only twice has the first tropical depression formed later than July 31, one being this year. So the season began slowly, grew to record activity and died as quickly as it began. Among factors contributing to the active season were: a continuation of warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures across the tropical Atlantic; higher ocean heat content; favourable winds and an upper air circulation that encouraged easterly winds; and an absence of competing winds that would rip apart the developing storms.

Florida was a hurricane magnet in 2004 with an unprecedented four hurricanes (three major) and one tropical storm. In one three-week period, Florida was struck by three hurricanes with Jeanne nearly duplicating the path of Frances. In total, tropical storms inflicted a record loss of $30 to $40 billion on the sunshine state.

Five tropical storms affected Canada but none had a significant impact on people and places.

Hurricane Alex blew harmlessly past Nova Scotia on August 5. It packed winds of 200 km/h and created 10-metre seas off southern Newfoundland. Accompanying the tropical storm were heavy rains and one-metre high sea swells. Alex became a Category 3 storm as it passed south of the Maritimes. It is extremely rare for such a strong hurricane to reach so far north in the Atlantic so early in the season.

Heavy rains from the remains of tropical storm Bonnie helped raise water levels in the St. John River in New Brunswick on August 14. Fredericton got a total of 75 mm of rain during the event. Just a few hours prior to the remains of Bonnie affecting the southern part of the province, a frontal system producted heavy rains in northern New Brunswick. Edmundston got the brunt of the storm when as much as 90 mm of rain fell in western Madawaska and Restigouche counties. In addition to contribute to the death of a motorist, the heavy rains in both parts of the province raised water levels in the St. John River to those only seen during the springtime.

On September 9, tropical storm Frances dropped record rainfalls as it tracked across western Quebec. In Ontario, Cobourg received 82.2 mm, Kingston 137.0 mm, Ottawa 135.4 mm and Trenton 111.8 mm. In Quebec, L'Assomption was hit with 96 mm, Gaspe 83 mm and High Falls 100 mm. Floods turned roads into rivers, filled basements and uprooted trees. Hydro crews who had been dispatched to Florida were ordered home to restore power to their own communities. In Ontario, parts of Highway 401 came under water. One school district cancelled classes at four schools - the first time in recent history that so many schools have had to close outside of winter. Of note, Ottawa got more rainfall than any other day since weather records began in 1872 leading to the evacuation of over 50 families in Kanata. If it hadn't received that rain, Ottawa would have set a record for the driest September on record.

Moisture from the remains of Hurricane Ivan helped fuel another strong fall storm that buffeted Atlantic Canada on September 20-21, causing power outages and delaying ferry service. The high winds churned up Sydney Harbour, canceling the first Canadian docking of the Queen Mary 2. Seas in the Cabot Strait reached five to eight metres. As many as 20,000 customers on Cape Breton Island were without power during the height of the storm. Utility crews had to endure unrelenting rain and 90 km/h winds to repair power lines felled by the storm. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the storm contributed to six deaths as it tracked northeastward. Strong winds, gusting as high as 143 km/h, also pounded the island, particularly along the northeast coast.

Tropical storm Nicole merged with an intense storm system about 600 km southwest of Nova Scotia on October 11. All four Atlantic provinces experienced winds of 90 km/h with gusts to 100 km/h, although Western Cape Breton felt the brunt with more pounding winds gusting to 130 km/h from the southwest. The storm complex dumped 40 to 60 mm of rain in parts of Nova Scotia. The strong winds and rough seas caused authorities to cancel ferry crossings between Port aux Basques and North Sydney and to impose restrictions on truck traffic crossing the Confederation Bridge. The high winds uprooted trees and ripped down electrical wires, while the storm caused flooding in parts of eastern New Brunswick. The Annapolis Valley was also hard hit right in the middle of the apple harvest.

Wildfire Season… Busy in the West, Quiet for the Rest

The Canadian International Forest Fire Centre reported a below-average fire year in Canada in terms of the number of fires (6,328 by mid-September, 83% of normal), but with slightly more hectares of forest consumed (3.1 million hectares or 10% more than average) when compared against a recent 10-year average. The east to west contrast in the wildfire season was dramatic. Saskatchewan through to Quebec experienced cool damp conditions with little or no wildland fire activity. Ontario set a new low for the number of fires across the province. Between April and October, the province recorded 426 fires, 110 fewer than the previous quietest year in 1928. Quebec also experienced a quiet fire season with the fewest number of fires and the least amount of forest burned in recent years. In fact, the total area consumed by fires in Quebec, 3013 ha, was less than 1% of the total area burned on average.

In British Columbia, Alberta and Yukon Territory, the fire season began early and was extremely active. [see Top Ten Weather Story Number 5 for more on BC and Yukon]. Alberta wildfires consumed 20% more territory than the average of the past 10 years. Most of the activity was early in the spring, a legacy of too many warm and dry years. Fortunately, cool and wet weather early in June tamed the situation.

Record Sea Ice Reductions in Canadian Waters

Sea-ice extent in the Arctic remains well below the long-term average. In September 2004, it was about 13% less than the 1973-2003 average. In concert with observations of declining sea ice all over the Northern Hemisphere, the ice in the Canadian Beaufort Sea was much less extensive and thinner than normal. Five hundred kilometres off the Yukon coast, where there is usually only thick, hard ice several years old, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent found only weak melting first-year ice. Much further south, in winter/spring, the Labrador coast had the least amount of sea ice since the Canadian Ice Service began keeping records in 1969. There was less than half the average amount of ice, due in part to above-normal air temperatures and persistent onshore winds that prevented the sea ice from growing eastward.

Transport through ice-infested waters was not easy everywhere though. Winter was one of the roughest in recent memory for ferries operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At the end of February, passenger ferries between Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland were stuck in ice some 80 km from shore for more than 48 hours. It had been about 8 to 10 years since Marine Atlantic had experienced a comparable delay on the ferry route. The delays backed up traffic considerably at the Port aux Basques and Cape Breton ferry terminals. Nearly 300 vehicles were lined up in North Sydney; it took three days to clear the backlog. And the waterways of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago experienced near-normal ice conditions that caused several shipping delays.

Nature Makes Up With Warm Fall

An incredibly long run of benign weather in October and November - mild temperatures, clear skies, sunny and dry weather - helped many Canadians forget their miserable summer. In western and central Canada, temperatures averaged two degrees warmer than normal and in places precipitation was about one third of normal. On the Prairies, farmers worked long and hard to get the harvest completed this year. Golf courses appeared busier than at any time during the summer. September was especially mild, dry and sunny, ideal weather for grapes to sweeten. Further, fall foliage was finally spectacular after two or three disappointing years.

Open weather continued well into November on the Prairies. Compared to the frigid weather a year ago, Regina's average November temperature was 10°C warmer than last year's. One construction worker said he had never before been able to pour cement in November and some ranchers were able to finish off baling and raking hayfields.

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