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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories for 2008

Table of Contents

5. Pre-Winter Shockers

Map of Canada with affected regions highlighted

During the second week of December, a massive cold wave grabbed firmly hold of the western half of North America with some of the most frigid December weather in years – more reminiscent of conditions in the dead of winter than a week before winter's official beginning. The extensive cold air outflow swooped down from Alaska and the Yukon and seeped into every nook and cranny from Tuktoyaktuk to Texas. Prairie residents shivered in temperatures a dozen degrees colder than normal. Adding to the extreme discomfort were brisk winds that generated stinging wind chills below -45. The low temperatures were far from record-breaking but a real shocker after an unusually mild November and early December. In Alberta, temperatures were five degrees warmer than normal in November and soared above 10°C as late as December 6. A minimum temperature of -36°C in Edmonton on December 14 made it colder than the North Pole – too cold for skating, jogging or skiing. In most major cities, the fierce cold drove the homeless into crowded shelters, forced the cancellation of several flights, froze countless pipes and left an icy grip on road surfaces. Being the first cold blast of the winter, towing companies were kept busy servicing motorists who'd forgotten to plug in their block heaters. In Saskatchewan, Key Lake registered the coldest temperature at -42°C on December 14 while Meadow Lake felt more like -53 with the wind. In Manitoba, wind chill warnings were issued province-wide. With an unlimited supply of Arctic cold, the frigid air mass gave no hint of leaving before the end of the year.

The Pacific coast faced its first arctic outflow of the winter along with some strong gusty winds that added to the misery. On December 14 and 15, extreme cold across British Columbia led to a total of 85 temperature records being broken across the province, including some that had been held for more than a century. When an intense storm off Vancouver Island plowed into cold, dense air at the surface, it produced some huge snowfalls over parts of southeast Vancouver Island. Around Duncan and Nanaimo, snow amounts on the weekend ranged from 40 to 50 cm – likely one of the heaviest snowfalls at any time of the year over the last 61 years. Elsewhere along the coast, many communities received enough snow (between 10 and 20 cm) to make a white Christmas likely given that the cold was settling in for an extended visit. In Vancouver, temperatures plunged to -15.2°C hardly Prairie-cold but still dangerous for west coast residents.

Ten days before Christmas, with the west enveloped in teeth-chattering cold, easterners were experiencing temperatures upward of +10°C. But they knew better than to be smug. Forecasts were ominously hinting at winter mayhem and Mother Nature dutifully delivered. Just before the official start to winter, the east was hit with a trio of wintry wallops that smothered a huge swath of southern Ontario from Windsor to Kingston during the busiest travel and shopping weeks of the year. It started with a "warm-up" snowstorm that dropped a nuisance 10 cm of snow on December 17. That was followed two days later by a dangerous dumping of 15 to 25 cm. Powerful easterly winds gusting near 70 km/h blew the fluffy snow into whiteouts and huge drifts. At Toronto's Pearson International Airport, more than a quarter of the day's flights were either delayed or cancelled. On major roadways, hundreds of accidents were reported. The next day offered some short-lived respite – 24 hours to be exact – before a third storm struck the same area and beyond. In the Golden Horseshoe, the third storm brought the area's total snowfall to over 30 cm in five days.

Snowfall amounts from the third winter blast increased eastward: 15 cm in eastern Ontario; 20 to 30 cm in Quebec; 15 to 25 cm in northern Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island; and 30 to 40 cm in New Brunswick. In the Maritimes, the wicked winter weather – featuring snow and hurricane-force winds – created whiteouts and a pounding surf that lead to flooding and damage to coastal infrastructure. Severe winds gusting to an incredible 163 km/h also left 100,000 residents across the Maritimes without electricity and crews facing the impossible task of restoring power.

Even in Canada, the snowiest and second coldest country in the world, it's rare for the entire country to be blanketed in snow and engulfed in cold Arctic air – all before the first full day of winter.