Runner-up stories for 2009

Table of Contents

Olympic-Deep Snows in 2008-09

The year before the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Canada’s usually green west coast was buried in snow. Vancouver is well known for its scanty snowfalls, ranking 98 out of the 100 snowiest cities in Canada, with 48 cm annually. But the winter of 2008-09 saw snowfall totals exceeding 114 cm or 230 per cent more than normal. In fact it was the snowiest winter in 19 years, featuring the second snowiest December on record – less than a centimetre from the all-time record of 89.9 cm set in December 1964. Further, Vancouver International Airport had snow on the ground continuously from December 13 to January 8 inclusive, spanning some 27 days, which was the second longest string in 55 years of records. Even more remarkable, following three days with a total of 55 cm of snow, Vancouver had its whitest Christmas morning ever with a 41-cm deep snowcover. The chance of snow on the ground Christmas morning in Vancouver, along with Victoria, is the lowest in Canada (less than 10 per cent), yet the city boasted more snow in 2008 than any other large Canadian city that year, some 41 cm – even more than the North Pole!

Snow-covered sidewalks and slushy roads kept residents, especially seniors, at home. On heavy snow days, retail sales fell by almost a third. Vancouver hospitals treated several patients with heart attacks, as well as injuries to backs and other orthopedic trauma. City crews worked tirelessly clearing drains, catch-basins and intersections. Some residents went without garbage collection for more than three weeks because side streets and alleys were inaccessible. Needless to say, snow shovels and bags of salt were soon depleted with no re-supply possible. Early in January, another 5 to 10 cm of snow descended on Vancouver causing numerous car crashes, knocking out power to thousands and playing havoc with travel schedules. Vancouver's mayor said his city never prays for rain, but was in need of some higher intervention to help rid it of its excess snow. As if on cue, the rains came – up to 150 mm in 48 hours – leading to several roof collapses. As it warmed up, torrential rains and rapid snowmelt forced rivers to gush their banks triggering mudslides, washed-out roads and flooding. Now, with the 2010 Winter Games on their doorstep, Vancouver residents might well be praying for the white stuff they were trying to get rid of a year earlier.

January’s National Deep Freeze

January was a bitterly cold month with more snow than normal in the East and barely a thaw anywhere. For Eastern Canada, it was good old-fashioned Canadian cold – the second coldest January in 15 years. The year began in a deep freeze in the North and West. By the second week of the month, the fierce Arctic cold front had made its way east into Manitoba and thenswept through Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada joining the country in a national deep freeze. It then spilled into the U.S. Northeast and headed south to Tennessee. In Saskatchewan, residents were exposed to face-numbing wind chills of -50 or lower and the additional hardship of either digging out from 25 cm of snow or being shrouded in ice fog. The duration of the cold was impressive. At Saskatoon, the bitter cold was likely the longest streak of numbingly low temperatures below -25°C since record-keeping began in 1892. The 24-day streak started on December 13 and lasted through January 5, beating out the infamous cold streak of January 1950, which featured temperatures that dipped to -46.1°C and a cold streak of -25°C or below that lasted “only” 21 days. Winnipeg's Portage and Main intersection laid claim to being the coldest corner in North America, as the weather office recorded a temperature of -37°C on January 14 with a wind chill hitting a frigid -51 – colder than both the North and South poles. A wind chill of -35 or colder can freeze exposed skin in as little as five minutes.

The brutal cold was as thick as molasses, filling every nook and cranny as it moved east across Canada. On January 16, Environment Canada issued a province-wide wind chill warning for New Brunswick. In Edmundston, the “real” temperature dropped to a bone-chilling -43.6°C early in the morning, setting an all-time record for the city and nearing the coldest temperature ever recorded in the province. That was -46.7°C in Chipman on January 18, 1925. In Ottawa, it was a January without a hint of a thaw. The -0.6°C high on January 13 was the warmest moment of the month. With records back to 1938, the city’s airport has missed a January thaw only four times and yet those thawless Januarys were warmer than this one. Another weather oddity; there was no rain in January – an Ottawa first! With no rain and the colder temperatures, the snowcover grew in depth. At month’s end, there was 69 cm on the ground. Total winter snowfall by February 1 was 196 cm which is about 47 per cent more than normal. Add to that a 53-day long city-wide bus strike in the dead of winter and it was a January that most in Ottawa would like to forget.

The cold wave was particularly intense in eastern parts of Quebec. In January, consumption of fuel to heat homes and businesses was 10 to 15 per cent higher than normal in the region and 25 per cent higher than during the last three winters. The unpleasant cold cost many dearly. With record usage of power in the province, Hydro-Québec asked its residential and industrial customers to reduce consumption. Rolling blackouts were also used to keep demand below critical thresholds. The extreme cold led a number of people to use other energy sources for heating, such as high soot oil-fire heaters and wood stoves. Wide use of those heat sources, coupled with stagnant air, lowered air quality levels to poor for 22 days during January – a record since the existence of an anti-smog program.

The national deep freeze also took a human toll. For the homeless, the bitter cold made a hard life even harder. Hospitals reported numerous cases of frostbite and hypothermia. For the first time in five years, schools in Moncton closed due to extreme cold. Water mains cracked across the country as the deep enduring cold put added strain on old pipes buried in shifting ground. In Winnipeg, many of the city's electronic parking meters were too frozen to accept money. At retail stores, the big sellers were space heaters, weather stripping and hot water tanks. Despite the recession and low dollar value, relative to the American greenback, large numbers of Canadians tried to escape the cold to warm sunny destinations. Unbelievably, the country as a whole averaged warmer-than-normal temperatures in January by 1.3°C. But how could that be? Somewhere in Canada, January had to be warm. And it was! From the Yukon to Nunavut, January was more than 3°C warmer than normal.

Deadly Avalanche Season

Unusual weather patterns made winter 2008-09 especially treacherous and deadly for backcountry outdoor enthusiasts in the mountainous regions of British Columbia and the Alberta Rockies. A relatively cold and dry beginning to winter with intermittent snowfalls left a fragile, sugary base of snow. In December, record cold with frequent storms piled layer upon layer of highly volatile slab snow onto a weak surface layer. Ideal snow conditions enticed many more snow keeners to remote areas, especially during the holiday period in late December and early January. Experts cautioned the public over some of the worst avalanche conditions in a century – a virtual “house-of-cards” effect. Further proof? Twenty-four fatalities made it one of the deadliest seasons for Canadian avalanches – almost double the yearly average of the past decade and the most since winter 2002-03 when 29 people were killed. The season's worst fatal accident occurred on December 28, 2008, when eight snowmobilers were asphyxiated under nearly four metres of snow near Fernie, B.C. It also marked the first time that fatalities among snowmobilers outnumbered those of backcountry skiers and snowboarders – 19 to 5.

Ice Flooding Along the Saint John River

Following last year's spring flooding along the Saint John River – the worst in 35 years – more heavy rains in April 2009 and a massive spring runoff led to concerns over repeat flooding. Unlike last year, it was the ice-choked Saint John and its tributaries that threatened to push waters over their banks onto nearby fields and roads. During a two-week span between late March and early April, double-digit high temperatures robbed the snowpack of 25 to 35 cm. Rapid snowmelt combined with 40 to 70 mm of warm rain during the first week of April combined to swell water courses. Nervous residents along the Saint John River and its many feeder tributaries anxiously watched water levels rise ominously as ice jams grew. River watchers hadn’t seen such ice jamming in quite some time.

On April 7, huge blocks of ice struck and damaged the bridge at Hartland – the world's longest covered bridge. At Perth-Andover, the flood waters rose 10 cm an hour forcing 200 residents to briefly evacuate their homes and businesses. At Fredericton, water levels crept past the flood level of 6.5 m, submerging the low-lying portions of the city. Fortunately, a return to cooler temperatures in mid-April slowed the melt and stabilized water levels. The most heavily damaged areas were in northwestern New Brunswick.  The flooding was minor in comparison to last year, when at least 2,100 people were affected by waters that spilled over the banks of the Saint John River and its tributaries, inflicting $50 million or more in damages to homes, farms and small businesses.

More Quebec Tornadoes

Quebec was witness to eight tornadoes in 2009 – three more than average and the most since 2004. The first tornado occurred relatively early in the season near Normandin in the Lac Saint-Jean region on May 1. It was a weak F0 tornado but strong enough to snap several utility poles. In July, several F0 and F1 tornadoes occurred across the province. On July 11, an F1 tornado struck the residential area of Boisbriand where it downed trees and branches, picked up and tossed gazebos and patio furniture, and ripped off countless roof shingles. It was powerful enough to tear off a restaurant roof and pick up a pontoon moored at a wharf, tossing it 100 metres. At the same time, a parallel storm touched down near Montreal Mirabel International Airport, but it was a weaker storm with a damage field that was confined and minimal. The last week of July brought a couple of F0 tornadoes. One twister struck the town of Ste-Christine on July 27, uprooting trees and destroying small farm buildings. Two days later, a line of severe thunderstorms brought heavy rain, hail and strong winds from Gatineau to Quebec City to Shawinigan. At Duberger, a weak tornado uprooted several trees and did some roof damage.

The season’s most powerful tornado occurred on August 4 along a track from Déléage (just east of Maniwaki) through Aumond to Mont-Laurier in the upper Laurentians. It blew away roofs, pushed over walls, tossed cars around, snapped utility poles and downed power lines leaving 4,000 people without power. Among the 40 damaged homes in Mont-Laurier, 28 were rendered uninhabitable. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries. The tornado caused about $6 million in insured losses. Witnesses reported the accompanying weather was without rain, hail or thunder, making the phenomenon even more dangerous since it took people by surprise. The tornado’s path through Mont-Laurier was 300 m wide, but its 40-km track was an unusually long distance for a tornado in Quebec and a strong indication of the storm’s severity. The last time a stronger tornado touched down in the province was on the same day in 1994 when an F3 tornado destroyed more than 400 homes in Aylmer. A couple of F0 tornadoes finished off the season in late August – one twister north of Grand-Remous and another at La Tuque.

Quiet Forest Fire Season Outside British Columbia

Apart from British Columbia and at times Alberta, the 2009 forest fire season in Canada will be remembered for what it wasn’t. Steady spring rains, cool temperatures and minimal lightning strikes combined to produce one of the quietest forest fire seasons on record. According to the Canadian International Forest Fire Centre, the 2009 wildland fire season in Canada was slightly below average for number of wildfires but well below average for area consumed when compared to the 20-year average. Only 45 per cent of the total area normally consumed was set ablaze by wildfires. As of November 30, Canada recorded 7,136 wildfires burning 779,820 ha for the 2009 season.

Of note, a fast-moving, wind-swept bush fire started on the outskirts of Halifax on May 1 damaging a dozen homes, forcing the evacuation of close to 1,200 residents and blackening up to 1,000 hectares of woodland. Billowing clouds of smoke could be seen clearly from downtown Halifax. As with all recent wildfires in the province, the leftovers of downed trees and ignitable brush from Hurricane Juan in 2003 were contributing factors. A heavy three-day downpour starting on May 5 dumped 43 mm of rain, enabling firefighters to get the large fire under control.

Also early in May, grass fires fanned by strong, warm winds and fuelled by dry conditions plagued rural areas surrounding Edmonton, forcing dozens of people to evacuate their homes. In mid-June, dry lightning sparked several fires in northern and central Alberta and Saskatchewan. A fire in Prince Albert National Park was especially worrisome because it threatened the historic home of Grey Owl – one of Canada's first conservationists. The fire was among more than 80 blazes in the two provinces sparked by lightning strikes. Much of the forest north of Edmonton was tinder-dry because of minimal snowmelt and negligible spring rains. Warm weather and a vast number of lightning strikes – 70,000 in one weekend alone – combined to make the region a potential powder keg. Before the first day of summer, there had been 30 per cent more fires and 40 per cent higher area burned in Alberta compared to the average. The most extensive fires were in Slave Lake and Lac La Biche. Smoke from massive wildfires forced the closure of one of northern Alberta’s busiest highways and threatened to isolate Fort McMurray – Canada’s oil sands capital. On July 7, out-of-territory fire fighters arrived in the Yukon as it faced continuing hot, dry weather that threatened to ignite more wildfires. Out-of-control fires raged in Carmacks, Dawson City, Mayo and Ross River with smoke from these fires drifting into Whitehorse.

Also of note, Manitoba had its lowest number of fires since 1959, New Brunswick had one of the quietest fire seasons on record and Ontario experienced another quiet fire season with significantly less than the 10-year average for fire and area consumed.  The country's largest and most destructive wildfires were in British Columbia, where the record cost of fighting fires alone approached $400 million. Nearly half the total fires and hectares burned in Canada in 2009 occurred in British Columbia (see story #2 of the Top Ten).

Quiet and Gentle Hurricane Season

Meteorologists foresaw an average hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, forecasting between 9 and 14 tropical storms with 4 to 7 reaching hurricane status. As it turned out, the season was the quietest in a dozen years with nine named storms and hurricanes. This was due, in part, to a strengthening warm El Niño that helped suppress tropical storm formation and intensification in the Atlantic Ocean. El Nino’s shearing winds halted the rotation of brewing thunderstorms in the Atlantic, snuffing them before they could grow. Adding to the suppression of tropical storms, an influx of drier air stunted the growth of would-be hurricanes, and a Bermuda High positioned further east kept tropical systems harmlessly in the open waters where they were not even a danger to fish. Cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean also worked to keep storm development at bay because tropical storms depend on warm water to develop and build up strength. For the United States, Cuba and the Caribbean – countries that suffered mightily from frequent and severe hurricanes in recent years – 2009 was a welcomed reprieve for residents and insurers alike. At season's end, there were nine named storms from Ana to Ida and three hurricanes. Two, Bill and Fred, became full-blown major hurricanes with maximum winds above 200 km/h. The last time an Atlantic hurricane season produced only three hurricanes was 12 years ago.  Besides fewer storms, they were short-lived compared to recent years. Also unusual this season? The Gulf of Mexico, South Florida and the Carolinas didn't have a decent scare and no hurricane made landfall in the United States, leaving Canada to experience more storm activity than its southern neighbour.

Hurricane Bill was the season’s first Atlantic hurricane and the most powerful, reaching Category 4 intensity with winds above 210 km/h. On August 22, its massive reach threatened Bermuda before speeding rapidly toward Nova Scotia at 48 km/h. The hurricane accelerated as it headed across Atlantic Canada, brushing the south coast of Nova Scotia the next day as a marginal category 1 hurricane and making landfall as a tropical storm near the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador early on August 24. By moving faster, it didn’t have time to dump as much rain as it could have on Atlantic Canada, but its arrival coincided with the highest and lowest tides of the year threatening coastal property with storm surges and flooding.

At Halifax, the storm dumped between 60 and 70 mm of rain with overland wind gusts of 87 km/h. Out to sea, a marine buoy off Nova Scotia recorded winds of 130 km/h and another buoy about 200 km southeast of Yarmouth recorded a maximum wave height of  26.4 metres. Bill's steady downpour and fierce winds drenched everything in sight and knocked out power to 40,000 residents. More than a dozen flights from Halifax International Airport were cancelled and ferry services were suspended between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Its pounding waves crashed into beaches, flooding nearby roads and strewing them with rocks and seaweed. Emergency measures authorities were concerned because, while most residents in coastal Maritime towns and cities hunkered down as the storm passed, many onlookers placed themselves in potential danger hoping to catch a glimpse of crashing waves and surge. In Newfoundland and Labrador there were road washouts and some localized flooding.

A week later, with the ground still well saturated, tropical storm Danny dumped buckets of rain on Atlantic Canada causing more flooding and power outages. Storm Danny was positioned off the coast of North Carolina on August 29, tracking rapidly northward toward the Bay of Fundy. Before it arrived in the Maritimes, Danny fizzled out and was absorbed by a larger low-pressure system following in its wake. The hybrid storm picked up Danny’s leftover moisture and dumped in excess of 100 mm in Saint John, Moncton, Charlottetown and Sydney (among other places), swamping streets, cutting power to thousands and forcing residents to evacuate their homes. In the Wreckhouse region of southwestern Newfoundland, Danny blew two camper-trailers off the highway when wind gusts topped 152 km/h. Combined insured losses from Bill and Danny were estimated at $35 million.

The season’s final storm, Hurricane Ida, killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador during the first week of November. It later weakened to a tropical depression, making landfall in Alabama on November 10 and lashing the southeastern United States from Louisiana to Florida with winds and rain. Heavy rains associated with the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved through New Brunswick on November 14 and 15 before racing toward Newfoundland and Labrador. Before fizzling out, the storm left anywhere from 50 to 90 mm of rain across parts of Atlantic Canada.

November's Record Warm a Real Gift

After a miserable summer and a disappointing October, the weather gods aligned to bring one of the nicest Novembers ever across Canada. Except for residents along the west coast, it was hard to utter a disparaging word about November’s amazingly warm, dry, sunny, snow-free weather. Given that October was unseasonably cool, wet and cloudy, and November is typically a gloomy month with plenty of active weather, the atmospheric gift was an especially pleasant and welcome surprise. Mild El Niño-like air pushed across the country for almost the entire month keeping Arctic air penned well to the North. Not a single weather station in Canada reported colder than normal temperatures, and anomalies ranged from: 1 to 2 degrees warmer-than-normal in B.C.; 5 to 6 above in the Prairies; 3 to 4 in Ontario and Quebec; 2 to 3 in Atlantic Canada; and about 2 degrees above in the North. Across Canada, November was the warmest in 62 years of records dating back to 1948. On the Prairies, day-time highs on some days ran an astounding 12 to 15 degrees warmer-than-normal. In Winnipeg, November’s afternoon average temperature was the highest on record with measurements dating back to 1872 and more than 1.5 degrees warmer than the previous record. Besides the unseasonable warmth, Winnipeg registered its second driest and third least snowfall in November. Want further proof of how unseasonably grand it was? Just ask anyone who tried booking a tee time. With temperatures soaring under sunny skies across the Prairies, farmers were able to finish the much-delayed harvest. In fact, more harvesting was done in the first ten days of November than in the whole month of October.

The breadth of the unseasonably warm conditions was truly amazing, stretching from Cranbrook to Corner Brook. In southern Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, it was tough to imagine a nicer November weatherwise. Many said it was the October we never had. For a normally active weather month like November, there was a near total absence of weather watches and warnings. In Ontario, for example, only two weather warnings were issued all month. Both were for snow squalls – one near Wawa and the other for areas near Georgian Bay – and were issued on the last day of the month. This is very rare and almost unheard of in November. In Quebec, several locations such as Val-d’Or and Sept-Iles reported their mildest November on record. For Quebec City and Montreal, it was the second sunniest month on record.

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