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Top Ten Canadian weather stories for 2004
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Canadians had plenty to "weather" in 2004 as Mother Nature either froze, buried, soaked, blew or frightened us at various times throughout the year. We endured flash floods, weather bombs, humongous snowfalls and killer frost. And we once again proved our mettle as a winter people by beating back brutal cold and three record snowfalls.

Canadians had plenty to "weather" in 2004 as Mother Nature either froze, buried, soaked, blew or frightened us at various times throughout the year. We endured flash floods, weather bombs, humongous snowfalls and killer frost. And we once again proved our mettle as a winter people by beating back brutal cold and three record snowfalls. So what weather caught us off guard in 2004? A couple of thunderstorms of the "once in 200 years" variety that showed us just how vulnerable we are to the growing incidences of wild weather extremes.

Edmonton played host to this year's number one weather story with a torrential rain and hail deluge that caused horrendous flooding. A few days later, elements of that same storm triggered a flash flood in Peterborough, Ontario. Both storms were estimated to be 200-year events with combined property damage costs exceeding $300 million. Unbelievably, no one died in the floods.

Other top weather stories included two record snowfalls in Nova Scotia - one that was a world's record of sorts; a summer in disguise over most of Canada; a nation-wide January cold snap with a -60°C wind chill; a record May snowfall on the Prairies that set the stage for a colder than ever spring/summer; and costly wildfires in British Columbia and Yukon sparked by frequent dry lightning and record warm and dry weather. Out on the farm, it was yet another year of weather woe including a devastating billion-dollar frost.

The news wasn't all bad though! In 2004, we were spared deadly tornadoes, devastating hurricanes, drought and plagues. Our air was cleaner, there were no summer blackouts and we experienced less weather-related personal injuries and fatalities. Best of all, there were fewer mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus. And many might not believe this, but it was another warm year for Canada (although not as warm as it has been over the past seven years).

From a regional perspective, it seems that one area of the country always gets more than its share of bad weather luck through the year. In the recent past, Alberta and Quebec have suffered that misfortune but now it looks like Nova Scotia's turn. The last two years have been especially punishing and painful for that province with a costly record rainstorm, Hurricane Juan, White Juan and the earliest winter blast ever.

As a country, the fallout from weather extremes appears to be having a much greater impact on us from both a societal and environmental point of view. Scientists can't say yet that the increased weather severity can be directly linked to a warmer world, but it would certainly be consistent with our expectations of climate change. That aside, even pre-climate change weather extremes would be catastrophic for modern societies because of our larger communities with more people, buildings and other targets for destruction. Today, more than 80% of Canadians live in cities with a population of over 10,000 people. To accommodate this growth, we have paved over land and built on wetlands creating impervious surfaces unable to absorb even ordinary rainfalls. With or without climate change, we are becoming more vulnerable to extreme weather. This past year provided clear examples in Canada that our urban infrastructure can't stand up to it. Our communities must become more resilient, not only for what lies ahead but for the climate we've already got.

Canada's Top Weather Stories for 2004 are rated from one to ten by considering factors such as the degree to which Canada and Canadians were impacted, the extent of the area affected, economic effects and longevity as a top news story:

Top Ten Weather Stories for 2004

  1. Storm Drowns and Pounds Edmonton
  2. White Juan Buries Halifax
  3. Summer's Cold Shoulder
  4. Peterborough's Flood of Two Centuries
  5. BC and Yukon - Warm, Dry and on Fire
  6. January's Nation-wide Deep Freeze
  7. A Billion Dollar Frost
  8. Weather Picks on Nova Scotia Again
  9. Snow Dump Smothers Prairie Spring
  10. Weather Cures the West Nile Virus

#1 Storm Drowns and Pounds Edmonton

During the first week of July, two slow-moving weather systems soaked Edmonton. That paved the way for a storm the next week that was to become the province's worst over-land flooding event in history. Rains on July 2 and 3 exceeded 50 mm in places, with most falling in just a short time. Four days later, another cold summer storm dropped an equal amount of rain on an already sodden city. Then, in mid-afternoon on July 11, the atmosphere unleashed the biggest deluge and hailer ever seen in the Alberta capital. The storm, which began over southwestern British Columbia, intensified as it moved into central Alberta. It even spawned a couple of tornadoes north and east of the city. At its worst, the small but spectacular storm dumped more than 150 mm of rain in the southern and western parts of Edmonton in less than an hour (as detected by radar), likely making it the wettest moment in the city's history. With all that rain, flooding seemed inevitable but it was actually the golf ball-sized hail that clogged city storm sewer drains with ice, leaves and broken branches. Icy drifts lined city streets and turned backyards into snowbanks. Snowplows had to be called out to remove the piles of hail 6 cm deep.

The city's super-saturated clay soil and beleaguered sewer system could not take any more water. Mud and water poured down streets and through windows. The record flash flood, estimated to be a 1-in-200 year event, washed out roads, filled underpasses, and flooded basements to the rafters. Rising water made instant rivers out of streets and turned countless intersections into lakes as water lapped up to the door handles of many vehicles. The enormous water pressure blew hundreds of manhole covers sky high and pinned several trees to the ground.

Of special interest, the pounding storm ripped holes in the roof of the West Edmonton Mall's indoor amusement and ice rink, sending water cascading to the floor. For the first time in its history, officials evacuated the entire 800-store complex at Canada's largest shopping centre. Remarkably, there was no loss of life, yet there were countless close calls. Insurers paid out close to $160 million in over 12,000 claims. For the rest of the city, uninsurable damage to residences and small businesses, and infrastructure losses to roads and bridges were pegged at an additional $16 million. For many water-weary Edmontonians, it was the second or third time in less than 10 days they had to deal with nature's wrath.

#2 White Juan Buries Halifax

Forecasters called it an old-fashioned nor'easter but for most Maritimers it was Hurricane Juan in sheep's clothing. They dubbed it White Juan - a hurricane disguised as a blizzard. Late on February 17, an ordinary winter storm centred over Cape Hatteras, North Carolina suddenly intensified over the Gulf Stream before striking the Maritimes. Its central pressure, one mark of a storm's intensity, plunged 57 mb in 42 hours, making it one of the most explosive weather bombs ever - even more powerful than its namesake Hurricane Juan that struck the same area five months earlier. Huge, lumbering White Juan packed quite a weather wallop - heavy snows, fierce winds gusting to 124 km/h and zero visibility.

Snow fell at a phenomenal rate of five centimetres per hour for 12 straight hours. Blowing snow and high winds maintained blizzard conditions for a day or more and created monstrous drifts as tall as three metres. Halifax, Yarmouth and Charlottetown broke all-time 24-hour snowfall records, receiving almost a metre of snow. For Halifax, the 88.5 cm of snow on February 19 nearly doubled its previous record for a single day. More significantly, with over 300,000 people, it is now likely the largest city in the world to ever receive such a dump of snow in one day. Buffalo, Fargo and Boise move over! Halifax is the world's new snow king.

Almost at once, the southern Maritimes became a winter wasteland. For the first time in history, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island declared province-wide states of emergency lasting four days. Halifax issued a nightly nine-hour curfew over three days for all but essential workers in order to give them a fighting chance to clear the snow - estimated to weigh six million tonnes. When Toronto was hit with its "storm of the century" it called in the army, but hardy Maritimers organized neighbourhood work parties to dig themselves out. Streets were deserted for days. Huge drifts reduced four-lane boulevards to narrow walking paths. The Confederation Bridge was closed to all traffic for only the second time ever. The volume and density of the snow was so heavily packed that plows hit mounds of snow and literally bounced back. It took almost a week before bus and ferry service resumed and schools re-opened, leaving students with a record year for the number for lost days due to weather (up to ten in some districts). Miraculously, there were no serious injuries or deaths, just a million unforgettable stories.

#3 Summer's Cold Shoulder

Across much of Canada, the weather during the May long weekend - our unofficial start to summer - was "the pits". It rained often and a lot almost everywhere except the Yukon, which enjoyed a pleasant Victoria Day holiday. As it turned out, that weekend would set the tone for the season ahead: "The Summer that Never Was."

By Labour Day, Canadians from Calgary to Corner Brook were asking the same thing, "What happened to summer?" It was either too cool, too wet, or too cloudy during a May to October that seemed to bypass summer altogether. To make matters worse, Environment Canada had predicted yet another warm and dry summer. Rightly or wrongly, Canadians felt cheated. Enduring our long, dark winters makes most of us feel entitled to a decent summer, but no one ever said nature was fair. To remind us of what we were missing, Mother Nature did throw in the occasional stretch of good summer weather but nothing that lasted longer than three days. It may help to know that we were in good company, however. July was the coldest worldwide since 1992. That year's coolness was precipitated by the eruptions of the Philippine volcano Mount Pinatubo. For 2004, the culprit was a residual of cold Arctic air in the Canadian tundra - the third coldest spring in 57 years of records - that became a ready supply of cool air driven south by an upper air Arctic vortex that was stationary for much of the spring and summer over Hudson Bay. East of the Rockies, a persistent northwesterly flow effectively blocked any warm air streams penetrating from the south.

In actuality, it wasn't that it was so cold but rather that it wasn't very hot! Torrid days with maximum temperatures above 30°C generally numbered one or two at most. And the lack of sunshine gave the impression of much cooler temperatures. At times in June, places north of the Arctic Circle were warmer than those in southern Ontario. As it happened, the longest heat wave was in the Yukon. Whitehorse had eight consecutive days in June above 30°C, about all that Ottawa, Toronto and London could muster collectively all summer.

Summer plainly forgot residents of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Across the West, it was the coldest May to August on record over the past 57 years. In fact, Winnipeg's summer was the coldest since probably the last ice age. With records dating back to 1872, May to August averaged 13.4°C in the Manitoba capital, almost a full degree colder than the previous record. The summer's worst moment might have been on August 18, when snow pellets fell in downtown Winnipeg and winds blew at 80 km/h. But, by then, most Winnipegers had given up on summer anyway. Luckily, September turned out to be warmer than either June or August - a first for Winnipeg! Summer also was disappointing in the East. In Ottawa, the summer's warmest day was 30.7°C. That was on May 14! In Toronto, total sunshine between May and August was down by almost 200 hours and wet days outnumbered the dry.

Canadians were at first restless, then frustrated, and finally resigned that summer was missing in action. The frustration factor came from weather that was so inconsistent it was maddening. For the majority of cities, precipitation totals were down while the number of wet days was way up. Incredibly, the number of days when it was both sunny and wet on the same day was a record high - making them the rule rather than the exception. For example, between late May and mid-September, Montreal had 128 days with some sunshine but only five without sun, yet more than half of those "sunny" days were wet. If it wasn't raining, it was threatening.

The mixed bag of weather seemed to change often, even by Canadian standards, making it difficult to plan the day. Campers and beach bums stayed away in droves. People spent more time indoors and were generally less active. In urban areas, bars and eateries felt the heat of fewer sunny days that translated into less customers spending money. It was not a great year for air conditioners or swimsuit sales either. On the other hand, video rentals, movie theatres and tanning salons had many repeat customers. And while the weather was lousy for vacationers and day trippers, it was good for those with breathing difficulties who tend to suffer during smog and heat alerts. Gardens and lawns stayed lush and green and nobody had to turn on the sprinkler. For Christmas tree farms, it was one of the best growing seasons in years.

Did summer really pass us by this year? Not if you talk to residents on the far coasts. Pacific British Columbia enjoyed long bouts of sunny, mild and dry weather with record warmth and dryness for much of the summer. On the east coast, St. John's had one of the nicest summers in Canada - almost a degree warmer than normal - and half of its normal precipitation (the driest summer since 1967).

#4 Peterborough's Flood of Two Centuries

Following torrential rains early on July 15, a flood swamped Peterborough's downtown. Elements of the large weather system could be traced back to the storm that flooded Edmonton five days earlier. That storm worked its way slowly across the continent and locked in just east of Peterborough on July 14. Energized by cool air from the north and re-supplied by cargoes of moisture from the south, the storm unleashed an intense thunderstorm that continued for several hours.

Not surprising, official rainfall amounts were quite variable ranging from 100 mm at the airport to 240 mm at Trent University. Much of the rain fell in less than five hours in the early morning, forcing many residents out of bed and into the street. Bucket surveys using exposed plastic pails, garbage cans and other previously empty vessels revealed rainfall totals exceeding 235 mm in many neighbourhoods - more than a summer's worth of rain. And it didn't stop! Rain fell for the next five days. Observers at the Trent University weather station recorded a whopping 409 mm of rain in July, smashing the total precipitation for any month of the year.

The volume of water proved too much for Peterborough's drains and sewers, some of them built a century ago. However, few cities in North America could have handled the phenomenal 14 billion litres of water that splashed on Peterborough in under five hours. That's enough water to flow over Niagara Falls in about 40 minutes or to fill almost nine SkyDomes. It was one of the wettest days ever in Canada east of the Rocky Mountains and likely the wettest day ever in Ontario, estimated to be a one-in-200-year event. At the height of the Peterborough storm, water in the city's wastewater system was five times the average capacity. With backed up storm sewers, much of the downtown core and a third of the city proper became a virtual waterworld under a metre or more of murky water. The Mayor declared a state of emergency that stayed in effect for 15 days. Hundreds of residents fled to shelters when roofs collapsed or water filled basements to waist-deep. Muddy waters turned streets into rivers, closed businesses and left cars floating. Power and telephone outages lasted for days and the clean up took weeks to months. Some roadways and sidewalks had to be completely rebuilt.

An early estimate of insured losses exceeded $88 million. In addition, the Province of Ontario provided $25 million for emergency repair and restoration costs for city infrastructure. Consultants recommended that Peterborough spend upwards of $30 million for possible storm water and sanitary sewer system improvements over the next five years. For those who endured personal losses such as rare books, picture albums and other family keepsakes, however, there was no way to fix a price for what was gone and could not be replaced.

#5 BC and Yukon - Warm, Dry and on Fire

Never had the forests of British Columbia been so dry so early in the year. A persistent high pressure system, anchored near the Pacific coast for most of April through July, encouraged a southerly flow with clear skies and record warm temperatures that blocked storms from reaching the coast. Records for that time period over the last 57 years showed it had never been drier and only once warmer than in 2004. Precipitation amounts were nearly half of normal and temperatures were more than two degrees warmer than normal. Even more telling, five of the last six years have been drier than normal with the last three being the driest on record across British Columbia. Victoria boasted the second warmest and driest April on record. Alarmingly, it was also the second driest December-to-April period on record, and it just got warmer, drier and sunnier in May, June and July. Osoyoos was the nation's hot spot in 2004, a scorching 40.5°C on June 21.

All indicators were lined up for the province to burn. With negligible moisture in the air and ground, and lots of extreme heat and dry lightning, the woods of British Columbia became a tinderbox. Wildfire managers feared a repeat of last year's fire season - the most expensive forest inferno on record. The drought code that the provincial forest service uses for determining soil moisture content registered 476 last year, which is dry. This year, the code reading was bone dry at 667. High lightning activity day after day soon overwhelmed firefighters, resulting in escaped fires that required them to seek assistance from across Canada and the United States.

The conditions spawned multiple starts and large fires with extreme behaviour, resulting in galloping fires requiring constant attention. One of BC's biggest fires was the Town Creek fire near Lillooet. Steep inaccessible terrain made battling the fire on the ground difficult. Nearly 5,000 residents were under a one-hour evacuation alert. Another huge fire in Lonesome Lake started in June but exploded in mid-July when whipped by strong winds. The fire destroyed several historic native grounds, including aboriginal graves and cultural sites within Tweedsmuir Park. Its massive plume of smoke and ash clouded the skies over Vancouver Island - some 400 km away - and hung over Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, discolouring the sun and casting a hazy hue over the region.

As it turned out, the number of wildfires in 2004 totaled 2,311 burning 227,339 hectares of BC forests. Unlike the wildfires of 2003, residential and business properties were spared for the most part, keeping costs much lower than last year's wildfires ($100 million compared to $325 million for 2003). The number of forced evacuations was also much lower, numbering in the hundreds this year versus 50,000 the year before. In addition, the 2003 fire season worsened as the summer wore on; this year it started much earlier but lessened in August.

Aside from forestry, the excessive warmth and prolonged dryness impacted ranchers in the interior who had to truck water because creeks, springs and reservoirs had gone dry. Dairy farmers irrigated their fields earlier than normal. And the massive kill-off of sockeye salmon in the northwest Pacific was partly blamed on the 60-year high temperatures of the Fraser River - approximately 22°C in 2004. The prolonged heat and dryness also hurt sport fishing, recreation and landscape touring. At times this summer, smoking was banned in Stanley Park, cooking in picnic areas stopped and hiking trails on the North Shore mountain closed.

Fortunately, timely rains and cool temperatures from August through November saved British Columbia from a second disastrous forest fire season and brought much needed moisture for what had become a water-starved province. Rainfall in Victoria and Vancouver totaled more than 40% above normal, with Vancouver experiencing its third wettest such period in 68 years of observations.

The Yukon was also a tinderbox with dry conditions and a record warm May to August, tying 1989 as the warmest such period on the books. Wildfires numbered more than double the territory's average - a record at 273 - but only accounted for 4% of the wildfire starts reported in Canada this year, even though the area burned amounted to more than 60% of the national total. The total charred area in Yukon was over 18,000 square km or three times the size of Prince Edward Island. Conditions were set by June when the fire danger rating in the Yukon took off following the longest heat wave ever recorded. Lightning started fires somewhere in the territory almost every day in early summer and officials had to ban all outdoor burning. At one time in late June, smoke darkened the skies in the afternoon prompting the use of streetlights and vehicle headlights. People with respiratory problems and allergies were advised to stay indoors. Thick smoke created such poor visibility that pilots couldn't land in Dawson City. By the end of July, cooler temperatures and ample precipitation quieted the wildfire situation considerably.

#6 January's Nation-wide Deep Freeze

Years to come, the 2003-4 winter from December to February might be thought of as an easy one. Nationally, it was the sixteenth warmest winter in over half a century, some 1.5°C warmer than normal. Across the south, total seasonal snowfall was about three quarters of the usual accumulation. What the numbers don't tell is how a five-week pocket in the middle of the December through February time period hit us with bone chilling, teeth chattering, brutal cold that left most Canadians begging for spring.

Across central Canada, the year got off to a promising start with temperatures on January 3 at an unseasonably balmy 12.3°C. There were more golfers than skiers in southern Ontario. Others enjoyed in-line skating, outdoor basketball games, licking ice cream cones and drinking beer on front steps. That was to be the last mild day until February. The sudden onset of winter and the massive, deep cold shocked most Canadians. By the end of the first week of January, one super-sized, super-charged Arctic air mass filled the entire country at once, something you don't often see. At times in January, it looked like the entire country was being punished by every conceivable type of severe winter condition: raging blizzards, freezing rain, piles of snow, stinging ice pellets, numbing wind chill, black ice, flash freezes, and bouts of severe cold. The huge block of cold air was so thick and heavy that it filled every nook and cranny from coast to coast. Even across the normally balmy BC coast, dense, heavy cold air occupied valleys and coastal inlets dropping temperatures to -20°C in places. Vancouver dipped to -12.2°C with a wind that made it feel like -20°C, the coldest day there in seven years. By the end of the first week of January at least seven deaths across Canada were attributed to the cold.

On the Prairies, temperatures were brutal and wind chills unbearable. At Saskatoon, for example, the air temperature on January 28 dipped to -45°C, the coldest in 33 years. Add the wind and it felt more like -59°C. Exposed skin froze in less than 10 minutes. At times in January, even the planet Mars was warmer than Canada. The rover Spirit recorded a night-time minimum of -15°C on the Red Planet while in Key Lake, SK (some 570 km north of Saskatoon) it dipped to -52.6°C on January 29 making it the coldest place on Earth. Mercifully, there was no wind chill. By comparison, Vostok Antarctica (reputed to be the coldest place on Earth) was a balmy -28°C. In Eastern Canada, most cities recorded minimum temperatures in January no higher than the mid -20s. Add in a blustery wind and it felt closer to -40°C. While not the coldest temperatures ever recorded, both the duration of the cold and the chin-numbing wind chills made the deep freeze truly memorable. In mid-January, almost all of Quebec was engulfed in bone-rattling cold air producing some of the lowest temperatures of the winter. La Grande IV Airport saw -50.3°C on January 14 with worse wind chills. Sherbrooke had the coldest January ever at -17.9°C, some six degrees colder than normal.

Millions of Canadians struggled to stay warm as customers cranked up the thermostat to beat back the cold. The demand for energy soared across Canada with most provinces setting single-day records for peak and daily electricity consumption. The homeless crowded shelters. Hospitals were pushed to handle many more cases of frozen toes and ear. Vets reported cats' ears and noses were falling off. Farmers struggled to save newborn livestock. School "snow days" became a regular happening everywhere, either because of too much snow, brutal wind chills or frozen water pipes. Concerts, bingos, hockey games and other events were postponed then cancelled. Homeowners flooded city hot lines complaining about burst water pipes and frozen toilets, and motorists kept auto clubs hopping with calls for repeated boosts during the worst of the cold snap. It was so cold that even ink in ballpoint pens froze.

Some good news? Crime - especially car theft - was way down, video rentals way up and cabbies weren't complaining about the extra fares. Because it was too cold to skate or ski, travel agents compiled record bookings to anywhere as long as it was warm.

#7 A Billion Dollar Frost

At the beginning of the growing season, much of the West was facing yet another year of drought. Fourteen of the past eighteen seasons, dating back to the fall of 1999, had been drier than normal and this spring's soil moisture capacity was less than 50% of normal across Saskatchewan, Alberta and southwestern Manitoba. By mid-August, though, farmers were gleeful. Fields were green and healthy. A wet and cool beginning to the growing season ended any chance of drought and staved off a predicted plague of grasshoppers. Add in some real July warmth without the heat stress and it was looking like the best crop in years.

Of course, until the crop is in the bin you can never be too sure. This growing season, about the only thing that could prevent a bumper crop would be an untimely frost - a real threat considering that an unusually cold and snowy start to the season had curtailed planting and significantly delayed crop growth. By August 15, farmers still needed another five to six weeks of frost-free weather to ripen the crops. Considering the normal first frost in the southern Prairies averages between September 15 and 20, farmers were cautiously optimistic.

Sadly, disaster came early on August 20 when a widespread killing frost struck parts of south and central Saskatchewan and Manitoba, making it one of the earliest major frosts in 50 years. The combination of cold air, light winds and clear skies - the deadly three ingredients for hoar frost - were just right for a white sheath to coat rooftops, windshields and lush fields. Low temperature records spanning over 100 years were broken at, among others, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Yorkton. Broadview was the coldest spot at -2.9°C. The duration of frost and the immaturity of the grain made the crop especially vulnerable. "What a year," said one farm expert. "Frost has appeared each and every month somewhere in the southern Prairies."

From there it only got worse. Desperate for warmth and sunshine, farmers instead faced hard driving rains, dew, fog, hail and snow, cloud and cold, and more killing frosts. In Winnipeg, the average total rainfall in August and September totalled 214 mm - about 68% more than normal. Rain-sodden crops rotted in the fields. Machinery became bogged down in mud. Across the eastern Prairies, the harvest was only 10% complete by mid-September, compared to a usual average of 50%. Poor weather meant damage to the quality of wheat and barley crops from mildew, sprouting and bleaching. A leading farmer-directed agri-business said that poor end-of-summer weather might have cost Canada's grain industry close to $2 billion in lost revenues. Certainly, the harvest was one of the poorest qualities on record. For example, 60% of Saskatchewan wheat typically comes off the field rated at Number 1 for quality. In 2004, however, only 6% achieved that grade. What crops were harvested contained a high moisture content necessitating costly artificial drying.

The only bright spot to the fall harvest this year was an exceptionally mild and dry end to the season with only scattered light precipitation into November. Grateful farmers went flat out in order to finish the harvest, reaching about 98% completion before the arrival of colder temperatures at November's end.

#8 Weather Picks on Nova Scotia Again

Just after Remembrance Day, Nova Scotia was hit by a surprise first blast of winter with a thick blanket of wet, slushy snow that many residents would just as soon forget. For some it turned out to be a bigger blow than White Juan nine months earlier. The large storm deepened off New England, then tracked south of Nova Scotia where it stalled for two days before moving on to Newfoundland. Because temperatures hovered near zero, a fine line separated rain and snow. Areas such as the Northumberland Strait coast and along the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia reported mostly rain. Inland, the snow was heavy at times with an occasional mix of rain and ice pellets.

The following snowfall record totals were logged over the two-day storm
  November 13 November 14 Total
Halifax International Airport 24.8 13.0 37.8
Shearwater Airport 35.2 15.2 50.4
Greenwood 27.6 5.4 33.0
Yarmouth 53.4 8.6 62.0

The storm was interesting in many ways. For example, it was the heaviest dump of snow on record so early in the season. At Shearwater, there have been six huge two-day snowfalls with snow accumulations of over 50 cm in the past 60 years. Two of those six occurred in 2004. And never has a 50+cm snowfall over two days occurred before February 2-3 until this year. For a single-day snowfall accumulation over 35 cm, there have been 14 such events, but, again, none as early as November 13. Yarmouth had a whopping 53.4 cm in one day - only the second time that station has ever recorded a snowfall above 50 cm. The last time was on March 10, 1964 when 50.8 cm of snow fell.

Of more significance was the character of the snow and accompanying winds. The heavy snow was especially wet and sticky, with probably twice the adhesion of the snow from White Juan. Adding in rain, light freezing drizzle and ice pellets, along with close air and dew-point temperatures, created weighty snow accretion on wires and towers of 10 to 15 cm thickness. But that's not all! Push those thick sheaths of snow with strong gusty winds at 75 km/h and you get an enormous stress load on trees, power lines, and transmission towers. The result produced a failure of 15 towers and thousands of kilometres of cable and wire across Nova Scotia. With substantial damage to the province's power grid, 110,000 customers lost power. By comparison, Hurricane Juan took down only three main transmission towers. Further, this time it was much more difficult to assess and repair the damage.

The November storm hit hardest in the Annapolis Valley, the Halifax region and northeastern Nova Scotia between Truro and the Canso Causeway. Residents in the country were left in the dark without running water and telephone service for the better part of a week. Nova Scotia Power felt the heat from customers who had to endure the third major power outage in just over a year. By mid-day on November 14, the provincial power grid was in the worse shape it had ever been in. The utility received more than 250,000 calls in just 12 hours. Two hundred emergency crews, including 55 from New Brunswick and Maine, worked around the clock to restore power.

The storm also darkened Halifax International Airport where at least 48 flights were suspended. On the roads, traffic was surprisingly heavy as people who would otherwise stay home headed out in search of friends and relatives with heat and light. Some communities declared states of emergency, closed businesses and schools, and created comfort centres.

With power restored, Nova Scotians began asking what they had done to deserve such wrath from Mother Nature. From the worst rainstorm in Atlantic Canada's history, one our country's most destructive hurricanes, a world record snowfall and another snow storm of the century, the weather had certainly been punishing to the province over the last two years.

#9 Snow Dump Smothers Prairie Spring

For Westerners, 2004 was a reminder that spring might just be the cruelest season of all. On May 11, a wicked Colorado storm swept across the West dumping mounds of wet snow from Calgary to Kenora. Farmers welcomed the white moisture, as the growing season was about to get underway. But, for winter-weary city folk, especially golfers and gardeners, it was like having to live with winter all over again.

The storm featured a medley of precipitation: ice pellets, patchy freezing rain, rain, snow, and some thunder and lightning for good measure. Among the top snowfalls over two days were: Alberta's Mountain View at 48 cm and Cardston at 32 cm; Saskatchewan's Rock Glen at 45 cm, Midale at 33 cm and Estevan at 23 cm; and Manitoba's Neepawa at 40 cm, Portage at 30 cm and Brandon at 29 cm. In Winnipeg, the 31 cm of snow over two days was a record for May. In other areas, the storm dumped a load of rain. Sprague, MB, for example, got 97 mm of the wet stuff.

Travel became a nightmare. Snowploughs were brought out of storage to clear blocked city streets. Most just rode up on top of the snow piles, unable to clear the slush turned cement. The long line-ups of deserted cars and trucks on the Trans-Canada Highway had the effect of crippling road transportation coast to coast. Delays of 500 to 600 trucks in a single stretch of highway for the better part of 48 hours cost the transportation sector in Canada millions of dollars. In southern Manitoba, it was the latest ever closure of the Trans-Canada Highway due to winter conditions. At the Winnipeg International Airport, cancelled flights due to snow had never been logged that late in the spring. The weight of the wet snow knocked down hydro poles from Alberta to Ontario, leaving several thousand homes and businesses without power. School buses in rural areas did not run for at least two days. Businesses couldn't remember a worse beginning to the pre-summer season. For market gardeners, it was the latest start in more than 20 years.

In northwestern Ontario, the storm dumped huge amounts of both rain and snow, forcing highways and schools to close. For Kenora, Dryden and Sioux Lookout it dropped close to 40 cm of snow followed by 40 mm of rain. The heavy snow and ice pellets toppled trees over hydro lines, knocking out power to almost 5,000 customers from Kenora to Nakina.

An indirect impact of the spring whitewasher was that it probably helped to ensure a record cold May and then some. Many Prairie cities had their coldest May to August on record. Beginning with this huge dump of snow, westerners can't be faulted for believing that they somehow missed spring completely and that summer lasted maybe a day or two at most.

#10 Weather Cures the West Nile Virus

The bummer of a summer wasn't all bad: clean air, significant energy savings and fewer mosquitoes were a few of the benefits Canadians enjoyed. Predictions of 2004 as the "Year of the Mosquito" - in particular, the one carrying West Nile virus - fell flat. The Culex taralis mosquito thrives in hot and dry weather. Summer 2003, with its excessive warmth and high humidity, saw 1,400 Canadians in seven provinces sickened with the West Nile virus and 14 deaths. The number of infected dead birds nationwide exceeded 1,630. But for 2004, May to August was the second coolest such period in 27 years across Canada. Mosquitoes hate cool temperatures, especially in early summer when their favourite victims - migrating birds - are in abundance. In cooler weather, mosquitoes become less active and don't breed as often. Further, the inclement weather meant fewer people spent much time outdoors. When we did venture out, pants and long sleeves were the norm (especially in the evenings) helping make everyone less of a target. Instead of the feared epidemic, the West Nile virus all but disappeared as a threat in 2004. In total, 400 virus-positive dead birds were found in four provinces, leading to just 29 clinical cases of West Nile virus and no deaths.

Although it was an important factor, the weather can't take all the credit for sidelining West Nile. Other considerations, like greater community and individual preventative programs and greater resistance to the virus itself were also at play. Through years of exposure, a higher proportion of humans and birds likely carry antibodies to the virus, and have, therefore, built up an immunity to the disease.

Runner Up Stories

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.


Deadly Crash, Search and Rescue Surrounded by Bad Weather

A small plane crashed immediately after take-off from Pelee Island on January 17. Weather conditions around the time of the accident were poor and caused difficulties during search and rescue attempts as rain, freezing drizzle, icing, snow and low visibility impacted these efforts. The crash killed all 10 people onboard. Divers, who spent the following week searching the water among shifting ice floes, were at risk from sudden wind shifts that could cover their entry holes with ice. A preliminary accident report found that the plane was overloaded. A second cause of the crash - icing on its wings - was also suspected.

Highway 401 Whiteouts

Ontario's biggest winter storm occurred on January 26-27. Between Toronto and London, it was a significant 40-hour snow event with 10 to 20 cm of snow on the first day and a similar dump the next day. The nasty weather delayed planes, cancelled trains and spun automobiles into ditches and guardrails. Icy conditions, drifting and whiteouts triggered a rash of accidents on Highway 401. According to the Ontario Provincial Police more than 700 accidents related to the weather occurred on the Highway, compared to a normal day's total of 30.

A New Record for the World's Longest Skating Rink

On February 29, the National Capital Commission closed Ottawa's Rideau Canal to skaters for the season. The canal remained open for 46 consecutive days, breaking the previous record of 43 straight days set in 2000-2001.

Ontario Gets Drenched in May

Going into the Victoria Day long weekend, Essex County in southwestern Ontario was being deluged by a slow-moving rainstorm. More than 100 mm fell on Leamington on May 21, prompting the issue of a flood advisory in the county. As it turned out, May was a soaker in Windsor too. Rainfall totals amounted to 191.6 mm of rain, a close second to the wettest May ever in 1943 at 194.8 mm.

More than 130 millimetres of rain fell in the Orillia area - the most ever recorded on the May long weekend. Many citizens reported flooded basements and washed out roads. Around London, a month's worth of rain also fell on the holiday weekend - filling basements and waterways and frustrating farmers. Police warned boaters and children to stay away from swollen rivers and creeks. In Hamilton, 137.6 mm of rain fell in May breaking the 2003 record of 129.4 mm. For farming communities, it was the third year in a row spring weather had hit hard. Heavy rains, little sunshine and few warm days in May left fields across Ontario soggy and muddy. Many farmers had still not planted and several growers decided it was best to switch to soybeans instead of more profitable corn.

Twin Tornadoes

In a rare happening, two tornadoes struck southwestern Ontario on May 19 within minutes and just a few kilometres apart. The tornado that touched down at Gads Hill, near Stratford, might have packed winds of 350 km/h likely the fiercest to hit Ontario in eight years. It was a miracle that no one was hurt. The other tornado, hit about the same time near Mitchell with winds of 180 to 240 km/h. The Gads Hill tornado ripped the roof off one farmhouse and most of its second storey, damaged the farm's silo and destroyed a barn. Some injured cattle had to be destroyed. The storm also uprooted humongous trees and picked up a truck from a driveway, spun it around and dropped it about 10 metres away on a lawn. Power was cut to areas from Walkerton to Alymer.

Falling Trees Kill Two

A band of intense thunderstorms ripped through parts of Ontario on June 9 and a confirmed F1 tornado tore down trees and power lines. Near Gananoque, strong downburst winds felled a tree that crushed and killed a man standing on his front porch. Although a tornado occurred just minutes later, it was determined that straight-line winds not twisting winds felled the tree leading to his death.

In November, a young boy died on a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton when a falling tree struck and fatally injured him. The tree was 10 metres tall and a metre around at the base. It had been windy and cold that morning, but the weather was not severe. Sustained winds were clocked at 44 km/h, gusting as high as 52 km/h.

Highway Washouts in the North

On October 22, a significant system north of Lake Superior soaked the region around Nipigon and Red Rock with rainfall amounts between 75 and 100 mm. The rain damaged portions of major highways and roads, forcing officials to close four sections of Highway 17. Within a week, another section of Highway 17 east of Nipigon collapsed making it the fourth major washout in one week. CP Rail also worked to repair a 30-metre section of track near the highway that washed out in the flood. Winds blew at 83 km/h, uprooting 300 trees that swept down the Cypress River onto the shore of Nipigon Bay.

Worst Smog and Latest Smog on Record

On October 26, the air quality index climbed to 103 in downtown Hamilton - the worst smog level ever attained in Ontario and the latest smog advisory in the year ever issued by the province. The pollutant was primarily fine particulate matter coming from vehicles, industry and road dust. A reading of 100 or more is considered very poor and hadn't been recorded in Ontario since the government began monitoring air quality more than a decade ago. Other Ontario cities were clear and sunny. Between the escarpment and Lake Ontario, a mass of sinking warm air trapped all the city's pollutants in the downtown core.

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