Top ten weather stories for 2008: story one

Table of Contents

1. The East's Big Summer Soak

Map of Canada with affected regions highlighted

At times this summer Canadians from Ontario to Newfoundland were not just complaining about the amount of rain or its intensity but that that it rained almost every day! Easterners even borrowed a "wet coast" expression, "If it isn't rainin', it's lookin' like rain." At times, the rainfall was sporadic and localized but always nearby, creating the impression it was a record wet summer. In Toronto it really was record wet; Sherbrooke was even wetter; and in deluged Quebec City the 400th anniversary celebrations were marred by close to 500 mm of rain – the second rainiest summer in 65 years.

Toronto Pearson International Airport eclipsed its rainiest summer mark with more than three weeks left to the season. The total rainfall of 396.2 mm shattered the former high water mark by more than 60 mm, and was three and a half times greater than the total rainfall of last summer. But it wasn't just Torontonians cursing the wet summer. Sarnia, Ontario did not have a single dry day in July. And Hamilton had the dubious honour of being the sound and light capital of Canada in 2008, with thunderstorms on 28 days and for 77 hours – well above the average of 16 days and 23 hours.

Residents and visitors to Montreal and Ottawa also voiced disgust over the soggy summer. Yet, rainfall totals between June and August in both cities were below normal by about 5 per cent. It was the classic water torture test…drip, drip, drip. Ottawa tied its previous record for the most number of days with rain or traces of rain for June and July. People there had to wait until the end of August for some decent summer weather. Even the first smog day didn't occur until summer's end. It seemed that heat-starved Easterners were willing to accept the occasional high humidex or smog day – at least it felt like a summer day.

For Canadians, the notion of what makes a summer lousy or great depends on the frequency of dry or wet weekends. In Montreal, there were only two weekends from May 31 to September 14 when both days were dry and seven weekends that were considered total washouts. With only 2 dry weekends out of 16, it's not only frustrating, it magnifies the wetness. Adding to the inclemency, Montreal experienced only five days when the temperature was above 30°C. The year before, there were 17. Across Quebec, a record number of wet days in June, July and August were counted in Montreal, Quebec, Val d'Or, Sherbrooke and Roberval. Surprisingly, sunshine totals and the number of sunny days were not far from normal, which goes to the heart of what was frustrating and fickle about the summer – a wet day and sunny day on the same day.

What was behind all the meteorological misery? An upper-air disturbance stalled over northern Ontario-central Quebec, blocked from moving off the continent by a persistent ridge of high pressure over the North Atlantic. The stagnant low settled in from late May until mid-August, trapping the East in a repetitive cycle of rain, drizzle, cloud, fog, relatively cool temperatures and the occasional sunny interval.

The incessant rains disappointed golfers, campers, fair-goers and picnickers. Golf course revenue was down by more than 15 per cent. And the normally vibrant patio scene at bars and restaurants in urban Canada saw business plummet 25 per cent. At times, heavy rains flooded basements. In one incident in Toronto, a deluge in excess of 50 mm led to the fiery destruction of an apartment building's hydro vault, leaving 1,000 residents homeless for several weeks. Roofers and plumbers were never busier, but house painters sat it out or worked inside. For people allergic to pollen, ragweed, mould and other air-borne maladies, it was a terrible summer of wheezing, sneezing and sniffling. Excess moisture not only boosted volumes of grass pollen and ragweed, it also extended the growing season.

There were some who enjoyed the moist, temperate conditions because grass was lush, gardens were luxuriant and trees were healthier and less stressed than in recent years, leading to some spectacular fall colours. Forest fires were the lowest in number in 25 to 50 years. Wet weather helped reduce the threat of smog days and air conditioning bills were lower than in recent years. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region experienced its third-wettest summer since 1948 – nearly 30 per cent more than normal. Lake levels were up compared to recent years when levels were well-below average – a help for shipping, recreational boaters, marinas and hydro generation. Water levels in the St. Lawrence River were close to the 10-year average, but as much as half a metre higher than last year.

Maritimers complaints came a little later in the season. Halifax got more rain in the first week of August than in June and July combined, and its June-to-September rainfall total (563.1 mm) beat last year's total by 11 mm – a close second to the all-time record of 571.3 mm in 1977. With nearly three times its usual August rainfall, Charlottetown, P.E.I. had the wettest month in its history with 240.2 mm. At 252.6 mm, Sydney, Nova Scotia was even wetter. August was the city's wettest month of summer ever and rainfall was three times the monthly average. The situation worsened in September with the passage of tropical storms Hanna and Kyle. For most of the Maritimes, it was the tale of two summers: sunny and warm through the first half, then grey skies and relentless rains in the last half.

The rain spelled ruin for many growers in Eastern Canada in 2008. There was no question it was the worst year ever for hay growers. In Eastern Ontario and parts of southwestern Ontario, the first hay crop came in mid-August or later, never so late before and of poorer quality. In Cape Breton, hay production was down 50 to 80 per cent. Potato blight emerged. Blueberries were knocked off the vines, vegetables were bursting with too much water and grain crops lay flattened. At times, farmers in Atlantic Canada were up to their ankles in water, unable to drag machinery through the muck. Partial compensation helped Maritime farmers offset millions in losses. Quebec's major commercial crops, which earn more than $1 billion for the province's farmers, were adversely affected by the excess moisture. Because of frequent rains and limited sunshine, summer staples such as lettuce, strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes were big losers.

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