2018 was a year of weather extremes that spared no section of the country.
British Columbia experienced its worst fire season in the province's history, while dry and hot weather sparked menacing forest fires in Ontario, more than 1,000 by mid-August, including Parry Sound 33 that scorched over 11,000 hectares and forced the evacuation of several communities.
The heat was unrelenting in southern Ontario, with humidex values in the mid 40s during the Canada Day weekend.
Most places in Simcoe County recorded 32 days where the temperature topped 30 degrees through the summer.
There was also an F-0 tornado in August that struck a part of Oro-Medonte before moving out over Lake Simcoe.
ENVIRONMENT CANADA'S TOP 10 LIST
1. Record wildfires and smoky skies
Across Canada, the wildfire season started slowly, owing to the long, lingering winter that in some regions lasted into May. Despite the late start, national statistics showed that there were more fires than ever last year, and the total area burned was double the longer term averages.
In British Columbia, spring flooding led to increased vegetation, which dried out in the hot dry summer, turning it to kindling. For the second year running, British Columbia faced a province-wide state of emergency. Nearly 2,000 wildfires ignited across the province. Though the season started late, it made up for lost time. By August 8, there were 460 simultaneous wildfires—more than any single day in 2017—with 25 of notable size.
May was one of the hottest and driest on record, across British Columbia’s interior and south coast. A damp June eased the wildfire concern temporarily, but, by July, things were ramping up. Lightning on July 18 ignited forests in the Okanagan. Gusty winds and intense heat created fast-moving and aggressive fires that prompted evacuations and a state of emergency. As air temperatures soared and humidity dropped, fires spread quickly, becoming uncontrollable, going wherever winds took them. Firefighters from across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand were joined by the military to battle back the blazes.
By August, more than 10 million Canadians, from Victoria to the shores of Lake Superior, were breathing in the smoke from Western fires. Across the West, air-quality alerts became a fact of life for weeks, the smoke-polluted air endangering the health of the elderly, very young, and anyone living with respiratory disease. Downwind of the fires, residents in several western cities gasped and wheezed for a record number of hours as if sitting by a smouldering campfire. Alberta’s cities were especially dark and dirty, with Calgary recording 478 hours of smoke and haze (normal summer count is 12 hours) with one bout, between August 14 and 20, lasting 141 consecutive hours. Edmonton experienced 230 hours of smoke and haze, more than double its previous smokiest summer. Beautiful British Columbia didn’t look so beautiful, and, in Prairie Big Sky Country, you couldn’t see the sky for much of the summer.
2. Canada affected by global summer heat wave
Across the globe, summer 2018 was the third warmest on record. Torrid heat stretched from Japan to Great Britain to California, and Canada was also affected. May brought an early summer that persisted relentlessly through August, even longer in the East. For millions in the southern part of Canada, it was the third-warmest summer on record. On some days, heat warnings prevailed, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, with some regions hitting a humidex in the mid-40s. It’s rare for a heat-humid wave to grip so much of the country for so long, but two semi-permanent blocking highs persisted on either side of the country throughout the summer—a Bermuda High parked over the Atlantic Ocean and a California High stalled over the Pacific Coast. The result was a dome that blocked in the hot summer air and kept wetter weather out.
Millions in the East sweated it out through a sweltering heat wave that hit in time for the Canada Day long weekend, lasting from late June to the end of the first week of July—the longest and most intense heat spell in years. In Ottawa, it was the second-warmest Canada Day ever, with records going back to the 1880s. Further, the humidex reached a high of 47 on the humidex, the highest ever recorded in the nation’s capital. Across the Ottawa River, in Gatineau, the humidex reached a record 48. It was likely the worst combination of heat and humidity ever experienced in the National Capital Region. Understandably, attendance at afternoon celebrations on Parliament Hill dropped from an expected 20,000 to 6,000. In Montréal, Urgences-santé experienced a 30 per cent increase in emergency calls. Across Quebec, 93 people died from heat-related complications.
July and August combined were the hottest on record in Atlantic Canada, and the humidity only added to the discomfort. In July, cities in all four Atlantic Provinces recorded highest-ever average temperature, including Halifax, which had more than two straight weeks with maximum temperatures of 25 °C, shattering the previous record set in 1876. In Saskatchewan, three cities broke all-time high temperature records—Regina set an August record with a high of 41.3 °C on August 11, with records dating back to 1883. On the same day, Moose Jaw’s temperature rose to a record 42.3 °C—two degrees away from Canada’s warmest high ever recorded. But it was Calgary’s new all-time record on August 10 that made national headlines as the temperature hit 36.5 °C, with records dating back to 1881.
3. Hot and dry to snow-filled skies blunt the Prairie harvest
Prairie growers and ranchers faced enormous challenges during a tough growing season. With the frost line two-metres deep in places, the long, cold spring kept farmers off their fields until mid-May. Then came drought through the southern and central Prairies where, between April and August, they received less than 60 per cent of the average rainfall. In some places, rainfall totals were the lowest in at least 40 years. For some producers, it was the third dry year in a row. In Regina, back-to-back drought years in 2017 and 2018 were the driest on record spanning 135 years.
When sweltering heat arrived in July and August, crops shrivelled. Cattle producers and dairy farmers faced dwindling stocks of feed grain and rising prices, forcing some to sell off their cattle and dairy cows prematurely. In Val Marie, Saskatchewan, rainfall in the growing season was a paltry 72 mm—less than a third of normal. At a farm near Val Marie, the hay yield was 32 bales per acre, compared to 210 last year, and amounted to less than a third of what would be needed for winter.
The seasons jumped from summer to winter as temperatures plunged and rain changed to snow when a cold-air mass out of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories invaded the Prairies in the second week of September and didn’t budge until mid-October. September frost is normal, but six weeks of cold and snow is unprecedented. A vast majority of the crops, upwards of $4 billion worth, was still on the fields and was flattened by record snows that made it impossible to combine. Farmers watched their crop quality being downgraded day by cold day until it bottomed out at feed grade. The miserable harvest weather was nowhere worse than in Alberta. Undoubtedly, Edmonton had its most miserable September on record. Afternoon temperatures averaged a record 6.6 °C colder than normal and a record 38.4 cm of snow fell compared to a normal of 1 cm. October was Calgary’s turn for weather misery. During the first two days of the month, a total of 38 cm of snow fell at the airport, breaking the record for any October day in 138 years.
4. Powerful May winds cost $1 billion
On May 4, a fast-moving squall line of thunderstorms raced across southwestern Ontario around noon, went through the Greater Toronto Area around 4:00 p.m., and sped into Montréal and Québec City by evening. Hurricane-force gusts produced record wind speeds for May: 126 km/h in Hamilton; 122 in Kitchener-Waterloo; 119 in Toronto; and 117 in Montréal. Power lines were toppled, leading to widespread power outages. In Quebec, 285,000 customers lost power, while in Ontario, where winds severed 350 hydro poles, 300,000 customers were impacted. With such fierce winds, fences, signs, shingles, siding, patio furniture, and bus shelters took flight. Straight-line winds speared tree branches into vehicles and homes, caused high-rise buildings to sway, and construction cranes to crumple. At some intersections, traffic lights crashed to the street. In Toronto and surrounding areas, GO train service was stopped. Along the shores of eastern Lake Ontario, strong winds and high waves destroyed docks. In Quebec, waves breached break walls and eroded the coastline. Tragically, three workers were killed during the storm. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, it was the country’s costliest storm in five years with total losses estimated near $1 billion.
5. Ottawa-Gatineau tornadoes on summer’s last day
On September 21, the last day of summer, meteorologists in Ontario and Quebec were busy tallying the season’s severe-weather statistics. It had been a relatively quiet storm season with five tornadoes in Ontario and two in Quebec, which were below the normal of 12 and 7 respectively. At the same time, they were keeping an eye on the possible collision of a warm, humid air mass and a sharp cold front. Things were aligning to produce late afternoon thunderstorms in eastern Ontario and western Quebec.
At 4:17 p.m., a tornado watch that had been issued for much of Renfrew and Lanark counties near Ottawa became a warning. Just before 5:00 p.m., a tornado struck Kinburn-Dunrobin, skipped across the Ottawa River and touched down in the lower Pontiac (Luskville) region of western Quebec, before striking the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood of Gatineau. Less than an hour later, another line of thunderstorms crossed the Ottawa Valley creating another tornado that struck Ottawa from Arlington Woods (Nepean) to Greenboro (Gloucester).
The Dunrobin-Gatineau tornado was classified as EF-3, with maximum winds up to 265 km/h, ranking it as the strongest tornado to hit eastern Ontario since 1903. More noteworthy, it was the strongest storm to strike anywhere in Canada during September in 120 years. The Dunrobin-Gatineau tornado lasted 40 minutes and tore a path almost 40 kilometres long. The Arlington Woods tornado was classified as EF-2, with maximum winds up to 220 km/h. The tornado outbreak also included four other EF-1 tornadoes (between 138 km/h and 177 km/h); one at Calabogie in Ontario; and three in Quebec (Val-des-Bois, near the Baskatong Reservoir, and 25 km north of Otter Lake). In the aftermath of the tornadoes, 430,000 people were left without power.
6. Spring flooding throughout southern British Columbia
For the second consecutive year in British Columbia, widespread spring flooding threatened communities across the province’s south, especially along the Okanagan, Kettle, and Fraser Rivers. It was a snowy winter, and, by spring, the snowpack across the province was the deepest observed in nearly 40 years of recordkeeping, ranging from 160 to 260 per cent more than normal, with a depth over 10 metres on some mountain peaks. When late-spring brought record high temperatures, a shock melt hit the region. Snowpack from alpine peaks to valleys melted all at once, overwhelming river systems and causing prolonged flooding.
Under a stationary ridge of high pressure, hot, dry air ranging from 5 °C to 10 °C above the seasonal average for early May pushed northward, promoting a steady, around-the-clock snow melt. Days later, scattered showers and thunderstorms worsened the situation. Water rose in rivers to levels not seen in more than half a century, causing devastating floods and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. A total of 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, 200 firefighters, and hundreds of volunteers spent an exhausting week bailing, bagging, and battling rising waters. Nearly 5,000 residents were evacuated and another 7,000 were put on standby alert as states of emergency were declared across the interior. Two days of heavy rain pushed rivers to levels higher than those recorded during devastating floods 70 years ago. The charred forests, devoid of vegetation from last summer’s wildland fires, were especially vulnerable to flash flooding, mudslides, and debris flows. Back-to-back bad flood and wildfire years are not yet a trend but a worry because each can increase the risk of the other.
7. Flash flooding of the Saint John River
Flooding along the Saint John River is a rite of spring in New Brunswick—sandbagging duties are to be expected. But nothing was expected about this year’s flooding. Even the most seasoned flood experts were taken by surprise. The snowpack had been deep but not record-breaking. There were early warm days but no record heat. Heavy rains fell but nothing out of the norm. None of the flood triggers were remarkable in and of themselves, but together they combined to create a flood that breached the banks of the Saint John River for over two weeks. In early April, Edmunston was covered with 50 cm to 80 cm of snow. Over a 48 hour period, temperatures in the province soared to 29 °C, turning the Saint John basin from slush to sweat. Then, heavy rainstorms began to roll though, with rain falling on 31 of the following 32 days, totalling 152 mm. The result was a fast two-metre rise above flood levels on the Saint John River. The hotter it became, the faster the snow melted and the higher the floodwaters rose. Down river of Fredericton, water levels exceeded 2008 levels and historic 1973 levels, making 2018 the largest, most impactful flood in modern New Brunswick history. Throughout the province, rivers filled with raw sewage, motor oil, propane tanks, and drowned animals. Water levels were so high that the famous Reversing Falls stopped reversing. Adding to this were several days of high wind that created significant waves and related erosion. The Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Moncton was closed along with over 150 roads, bridges, and culverts across the province. The Canadian Army and Coast Guard came in to assist with flood relief efforts.
8. Toronto’s August deluge
Late in the evening of August 7, a compact storm blossomed near York University, in suburban Toronto, before crawling southward to unload its moisture on the city centre. A downtown weather station recorded 58 mm of rain while Toronto City Centre Airport received 72 mm. Incredibly, Toronto Pearson International Airport, in Mississauga, and Buttonville Airport, in Richmond Hill, got less than 6 mm of rain; other weather stations didn’t record a drop. Downtown, the flash flood swamped roads and underpasses, submerging cars and forcing drivers and passengers to scramble to safety. Water poured into underground buildings, even trapping two men in an underground elevator. Power had been lost in their office building during the flood and, as water rapidly rose in the elevator, police scrambled to swim to their rescue. When the men were finally released, only 30 cm of air space remained in the elevator. Water flooded parking garages and subway platforms, wreaking havoc on city transportation. Over the summer, there were other instances where moderate rains led to flooding, signalling a larger issue for urban areas: As cities grow and more surfaces become impermeable, the risk of urban flooding increases.
9. Record cold start to a long winter
Across Canada, winter 2017 to 2018 began in November, deepened in December, paused in January, and came roaring back in February for a further two-month residency. Six months of winter proved to be a tough haul for even the heartiest of Canada’s cold-weather enthusiasts. It started when a dreaded polar vortex weakened, unleashing a dam of frigid air and brutal wind chills. Then, right on cue, December 21, winter’s first day, brought record-breaking Arctic air in over the North Pole and down through Canada. Between Christmas and New Year’s, extreme cold records were shattered, and 2018 dawned with extreme cold weather warnings for a swath of Canada the size of Europe. From Calgary to Cape Breton Island, outdoor New Year’s celebrations were brought inside, and most January 1 polar bear dips were frozen out.
With a lot of winter still to come, by late January, southern Quebec had already reached its average winter number of -20 °C or below days. Edmonton set a record of 127 days in a row with sub-freezing temperatures. In front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa’s “Hockey on the Hill” had to be moved indoors when the cold became too dangerous. Winter’s long, deep freeze had impacts across the country, including delays to rural mail delivery, garbage and recycling collection, and train and air travel, owing to frozen equipment. There were overflows at city shelters as Canada’s vulnerable homeless population sought shelter from the cold.
10. A cruel, cold, and stormy April
Known as the cruellest month, April lived up to its reputation across much of Canada in 2018. Nationally, it was the coldest April in 16 years, and, for millions in Ontario and Quebec, it hadn’t been that cold for 71 years. Some dubbed it “Apriluary” as farmers and golfers waited out frozen ground.
On April 4, a powerful Colorado storm tracked across southern Ontario and Quebec, coating surfaces with freezing rain, dumping heavy rain or snow or both, and buffeting the region with jet-stream strong winds. For almost 20 hours, freezing rain poured down on Montréal and Gaspé. A storm surge in Québec City led to the St. Lawrence River breaching its banks and flooding roads. Then, on April 15, a Texas storm packing twice as much punch rolled into the region bringing days of ice pellets and freezing rain. In just three days, southwestern Ontario was pounded with a half a month’s rainfall. Toronto endured 21 hours of ice pellets, 9 hours of freezing rain, and 24 hours of rain. The gooey mix totalled 7 cm to 12 cm in places. Across southern and eastern Ontario, strong winds blew sheets of snow and ice from buildings, smashing windows both on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, and in downtown Toronto. The CN Tower closed after ice fell and pierced the dome below, forcing the cancellation of a Blue Jays game. Power losses from both storms numbered 500,000 in Ontario and 100,000 in Quebec, with some customers hit with outages twice in less than two weeks.