Runner-up stories for 2006

Table of Contents

A Warming Canada

That the year began with the mildest winter on record was remarkable in its own right. But what followed was truly phenomenal - the warmest spring and the second warmest summer. Only a less spectacular fall, the 13th warmest on record, prevented 2006 from being the warmest in 60 years of weather-record accounting.

Temperatures for the 12 months December 2005 to November 2006 inclusive averaged 2.3°C warmer than normal and only a fraction below the warmest year in 1998. It was also the tenth consecutive year with above-normal temperatures. Seven of the warmest ten years have occurred since 1998. The story was similar across the country. Every region was warmer than normal, with the Arctic being the warmest year on record and the Mackenzie basin, the boreal forest, and Atlantic Canada, the second warmest. While El Nino undoubtedly contributes to the warming in some years - and was certainly a strong contributor to 1998 being the warmest year - this year's El Nino began late in September and therefore could not account for much of the warmth in 2006. Canada's warm fall continued a trend of above-average readings that has lasted for more than ten years. Over the past 40 seasons in Canada, only two have registered colder-than-normal: Spring 2002 and Spring 2004.

Temperature highlights across Canada for 2006

  • Winter 2005/2006 was the warmest in Canada since nation-wide records began in 1948, logging in at 3.9 degrees C above normal. The entire country experienced above-normal temperatures, with most of Canada at least 2 degrees above normal. Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories all experienced temperatures greater than 6 degrees above normal. Besides beating the previous winter anomaly by almost a full degree, winter 2005-2006 set the new high mark for temperature departures for any season.
  • Spring 2006 was 3.0 degrees above normal, with most of Canada at least 2 degrees above normal. Northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, southern Nunavut, southern Northwest Territories, and northern Quebec all had temperatures at least 5.0 degrees above normal. Moreover, the Arctic tundra and the eastern boreal forest experienced their warmest spring on record.
  • Summer 2006 was the second warmest on record at 1.4 degrees above normal. No region had temperatures below normal and much of Canada was at least 1 degree warmer than usual.
  • January to October 2006 was the warmest ever, some 2.2 degrees above normal, and slightly higher than 1998, which eventually became the warmest year.

Arctic Sea Ice Continues Its Decline

In each of the last five years, the Arctic sea-ice cover has dipped sharply to the smallest area dimension since it was first measured by satellites in 1978. The average sea-ice extent at the end of September 2006, when ice usually reaches its smallest extent, was 5.9 million square kilometres, the second lowest on record missing the 2005 record by 340.000 square kilometres. Including 2006, the September rate of sea ice decline is now about –8.6 per cent per decade. Scientists suggest that the summer ice cover has reached a "tipping point" beyond which there is no return and will likely continue to decrease until the ice disappears sometime in the 21st century, marking the first time in a million years the Arctic Ocean is ice-free.

In 2006, the eastern half of the Canadian Arctic - Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay had the lowest amounts of sea ice since ice reconnaissance observations began in 1971. In Hudson Bay, the total amount of ice over the summer season was one third less than the normal accumulation taken from the period 1971-2000. The lack of sea ice in Baffin Bay and along the Labrador Coast had a significant impact on tourism in Newfoundland-Labrador. With minimal sea ice to protect icebergs from eroding waves, few icebergs could survive the long drift southward in open water. None drifted as far south as St. John's for tourists to view. In the western half of the Canadian Arctic, sea ice returned closer to normal after three low years causing several ice breakers to get stuck briefly in the ice off the Alaskan coast in July.

Earth Warming Continues

A warmer Canada is in step with the rest of the world. Globally, 2006 was the 28th consecutive year with above-normal temperatures and the sixth warmest year on record. 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 0.7°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.

Spring Flooding on the Red and Red Deer Rivers

Following a heavy snowfall in early March, a well saturated snowpack and above-average spring moisture, Manitoba's Red River was primed for flooding. Further, there was a carryover effect from summer 2005 when the region had its wettest summer on record followed by a wet fall. At the end of March 2006, the flood situation went from 'nuisance' to 'potential disaster' overnight. Forecasters began warning that flood waters could match the 1996 conditions when the Red River spilled its banks.

As it turned out, April showers had minimal impact on the flooding because either rainfall totals were less than expected or storms simply missed the Red River watershed entirely. Fortunately, Winnipeg had its second warmest April on record and total precipitation was about half of normal - a perfect antidote for minimizing a flood threat. The bloated Red River crested on April 19, below forecast flood levels, but with the second-highest crest experienced in Winnipeg since the floodway began operations in 1969. The highest crest occurred during the Flood of the Century in 1997. Not insignificantly, this year's flood was the fifth worst flood in a century.

The area hardest hit was between Emerson and Morris, where the Red grew to 15 kms wide and covered nearly 40,000 hectares of farmland. Some farm families were forced to use boats to access their properties and move animals to higher ground. Wind gusts up to 60 km/h generated waves nearly a metre high. The main highway to the USA was submerged for more than a week. Flooding costs exceeded $10 million not counting losses to farm land.

Further north in Eastern Saskatchewan, spring flooding was especially severe along the Carrot and Red Deer Rivers. Following a wet fall, a cold February-March that kept a deep and growing snowpack intact, heavy spring snowfalls, and an early and sudden rush of snowmelt contributed to an escalation in flooding. On April 15, the Carrot River near The Pas rose to near-1997 flood levels, five times its normal volume. Also, the nearby Red Deer River had never been higher in 50 years of stream gauging. Flooding on the Carrot River forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents from the Red Earth First Nation. Even more disastrous were the waterlogged fields that never dried out in time for seeding. By late May, farmers in the Porcupine Plain area of Saskatchewan were still unable to seed their crops. Spring flooding had taken 1.2 million hectares out of production or between 25 to 40 per cent of agricultural land.

Freak Friday 13th Snowstorm

A powerful pre-winter snowstorm on Friday, October 13 buried communities in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario in 30 to 50 cm of wet snow. The surprise snow dump forced the closure of the Peace Bridge crossing to the United States. Officials in Fort Erie and Port Colborne declared states of emergency. The heavy snow and strong winds of up to 90 km/h caused snow- and leaf-laden tree branches to snap onto power lines leaving more than 155,000 customers without electricity. In some pockets of the outage, it took up to five days to restore service. The amount of snow so early was historic. No snow had ever fallen at Fort Erie before October 13 and the previous heaviest October snowfall was a scanty 4.5 cm on October 31, 1993. In one day, it became the earliest and heaviest snow ever in October. At Welland, where weather records date back to 1872, the snowiest day prior to October 13 was 10.4 cm on October 11, 1906. The greatest October single-day accumulation was 20.3 cm on October 31, 1873. Back to 2006, the rain that night left hapless hydro crews feeling like drowned rats. The next day afternoon temperatures rose to 8°C, bringing a new set of problems from pools of melted snow, localized flooding and backed-up sewers.

A Winter Storm with Everything

A large but not powerful storm struck southern portions of Ontario and Quebec from Windsor north to Sudbury and east to Gaspe on February 16-17. Its impact was enormous because the storm featured an array of severe weather conditions: high winds, a flash freeze, brutal wind chill, black ice, whiteouts, drifting and blowing snow, a rare thundersnow, and an incredible variety of precipitation types: rain, freezing rain, wet snow, ice pellets and a congealed mixture of all of the above. The nasty weather led to massive multi-vehicle crashes killing at least five people and leaving highways strewn with a trail of smashed cars and trucks. The worst of the chain-reaction crashes occurred on Highway 417 just east of Ottawa, where four people died. Some 37 vehicles, including several tractor-trailers, slammed into one another on icy roads buffeted by high winds and blowing snow. The police called the wall of snow the "ultimate whiteout". In western Quebec, a flash freeze with a temperature drop of 15 degrees in 3 hours, a -40 wind chill, and freezing rain and whiteouts made surfaces treacherous. Another massive chain-reaction pileup killed one man about 50 km northeast of Montreal. In total, 80 people were treated for injuries in what provincial police called the worst traffic accident in Quebec history. Hydro-Quebec reported outages to 157,000 households and claimed it was the worst day of weather-related electricity interruptions since the 1998 ice storm. Winds reached up to 110 km/h blowing a freight train off its tracks and ripping a section off a school roof.

Glorious Fall? Damp, Dark and Depressing

Residents in southern Ontario and Quebec can be forgiven for having a bad case of the blues after enduring what was truly one of the most miserable wet and grey falls on record. But what made the situation doubly depressing was that it robbed residents of arguably the best time of the year - the glorious fall and Indian summer. Milder temperatures and late, scanty snow were the positive aspects of fall, but it was the eternal rains and sunless skies - the sheer monotony - that was a psychological downer. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence basin had its wettest fall on record (almost 42 per cent more precipitation than normal) and continued what was looking like the wettest year on record with more than 15 per cent above normal. The last year that was so wet was 1972. More than the rainfall amount was the frequency. If it wasn't raining, it was looking like rain - too much like Vancouver! Sixty per cent of the days were wet. Furthermore, around Labour Day, the sun took a hike and stayed away for most of the season. In Toronto, the sunshine deficit in the fall amounted to more than 130 hours. It was persistent gloom with more than 40 per cent of the days having less than one hour of bright sunshine. Ontario's vintners had been forecasting one of their best crops in years, estimated at 46,000 tonnes (nearly double that in 2005) due to perfect weather: moderate rain in the spring and hot, dry conditions throughout the summer. Not so fast! What followed was the dullest, most overcast fall in 29 years. With more wet days than dry days, it became the less-than-ideal harvest vintners had been counting on.

Early Winter - Most in the West and Least in the East

While westerners were feeling the effects of an early winter, easterners were asking where was winter. Much of Western Canada was in the clutches of an extremely large and dense pool of cold air that sat over Yukon during the last two weeks of November. The last time it was really that cold in November was about 10 years ago. On November 25 in Saskatoon, football players bravely competed in the Vanier Cup for supremacy of the Canadian college football championship. Even braver were 13,000 fans facing wind chills of -30. That same day Albertans awoke to -45 wind chills. Despite the bone-chilling weather, nearly 100,000 Alberta Progressive Conservatives ventured into the deep freeze to cast a vote in the first round of the leadership campaign for the province's next premier. Cold exposure contributed to the deaths of four people. Heating companies were run off their feet and social agencies scrambled to find accommodations for Alberta's homeless population.

By the first official day of winter, most Easterners still hadn't experienced any significant cold or snow. It was clearly one of the slowest comings of winter seen in some time. People were now more likely to be booking tee times than buying lift tickets. By the first day of winter, less than a centimetre of snow had fallen in Toronto, whereas 41.6 cm had fallen in 2005. Similarly, Montreal had 8 cm compared to 75 cm by winter's first day in 2005. Other than a few cold days during the first week of December, the temperatures had been mild averaging 4 to 5 degrees above normal in late November and December. Not all temperatures were records, but what was unusual was the persistence of warmth for three weeks or more.

On the 15th of December, balmy temperatures made downtown Montreal feel near-tropical. Temperatures soared to a record 11.8°C, beating the old record of 10°C in 1975. What really freaked out Christmas shoppers was a thunder and lightning storm unusual but not rare for winter.

In snow country, a steady rain washed away opening of local ski resorts in Sault Ste. Marie and cancelled Canada Winter Games ski trials in Timmins. The OPP advised the public to stay off the ice. Some good news the warm weather prompted some home gas companies to drop their prices owing to lower consumption.

West Nile Virus Flares Up

A mild winter followed by a wet, mild spring, and a forecast of a warmer than usual summer - ideal mosquito surviving and breeding weather - had experts worried about a severe outbreak of West Nile virus in 2006. Special concern was expressed over the possible extra generation of Culex tarsalis mosquitoes; the species that carries the West Nile virus.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported 127 confirmed cases of human West Nile virus in 2006: Alberta 24; Saskatchewan 11; Manitoba 50; Ontario 41; and Quebec 1. Of those cases, two resulted in death. In the United States, the first 10 months of 2006 saw 3,752 human West Nile virus cases with 117 deaths.

Manitoba was the focus for West Nile virus in Canada. In late July, when mosquitoes carrying the disease invaded parts of Winnipeg, the city rolled out the fogger equipment. In southern Ontario, hot humid weather at the end of July and beginning of August ushered the virus back into the province. Officials identified more than 100 birds in Ontario infected with the virus. The total number of confirmed West Nile cases in Alberta was 24 - by far the biggest increase since 2003.

A Spring Full of Wheezing and Sneezing

For nearly five million Canadians who suffer from seasonal allergies, the spring sneezing season seemed much worse. Allergists were quick to blame an early start to the allergy season on a milder-than-usual winter and the sudden onset of spring. Experts explained that while trees normally shed pollen in a staggered pattern, this year was definitely an exception. Trees all started pollinating in unison - coniferous, birch, oak and cedars, followed by elm, oak, maple and birch. All heavy pollinators came on stream together, contributing to an explosion of tree pollen early and at elevated levels. Further, favourable winds helped blow the pollen around in sky-high concentrations causing people to sneeze earlier and longer. Even people without allergies were feeling tickles in their throat and some inflammation. The more afflicted were complaining about itchy eyes, a runny nose, frequent sneezing and occasional wheezing and coughing.

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