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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories for 2011

A Year in Review

From the death and destruction following the Japanese earthquake/tsunami to extreme weather in the United States that killed more than 1,000 people through the course of the year, Mother Nature seemed to be on the warpath. All told, it was the second costliest year on record for weather catastrophes globally, with 2005 still holding the number one slot. But while Canadians had plenty to “weather” in 2011, being either buried under snow, soaked, drowned or frightened at various times through the year, we were still quietly thankful for living in a country that – while not immune to Nature’s wrath – remained fairly unscathed compared to the plight of some of our global neighbours.

For those in Canada who were impacted by severe weather events, it was the stuff of biblical scripture or Hollywood catastrophes. And for the third year in a row, the Canadian insurance industry faced billion-dollar losses due to weather-related catastrophes. As was the case globally, Canada also had the second-most expensive year for weather losses. Dominating this year’s top Canadian weather stories were floods in three provinces – not the flash type, but more the slow-motion and long-lived type that takes its toll mentally as well as physically. Moving from West to East, British Columbia fared best while Prairie residents faced record floods, fires and furies. Eastern Canada also got more than its share of bad weather throughout a wild year of twisters, hurricanes, floods and big blows.

Historic flooding across Saskatchewan and Manitoba logged in as the number one weather story in Canada. Everything about the flooding, including its size, magnitude and duration, was unprecedented. It was also one of Canada’s few billion-dollar disasters. Alberta owned two of the year’s top weather stories, including story number two: a wildfire that almost destroyed the entire town of Slave Lake – the second-most expensive insurance loss in Canadian history. Flooding along the Richelieu River in Quebec took the number three spot when it spilled its banks for 69 days in spring. While not the worst natural disaster in the province, it was surely the longest.

At the top of the world, Arctic sea ice continued to disappear, reaching its second-lowest seasonal minimum and the least volume on record. While more climate-related in nature, shrinking ice continued to have a profound impact on the environment at home and abroad. The Atlantic Ocean had an active hurricane season in 2011 with 19 named storms. Although a disproportionately large number of the tropical storms were relatively weak, seven were categorized as hurricanes, and all three that were considered “major” were felt in Canada. Irene was the deadliest and most destructive storm of the season. For Canadian farm producers, this year’s dichotomic weather was especially challenging. Everywhere, growers faced a very wet spring and a month-long delay to the start of the growing season. Yet their worst enemy turned out to be their best ally when summer weather extended well into the fall, saving what would have been a crop disaster. As always, given the reality of long, often cold and snowy winters in Canada, we think nature owes us a nice summer. For those in the middle of the country, payback was sweet with a “summer of summers,” while on the coasts summer didn’t show up until vacations were all but over. Also on the list of this year’s top Canadian weather events were a Groundhog Day blizzard that hammered North America from New Mexico to Newfoundland, a strong tornado that pummeled parts of the picturesque town of Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron and powerful Chinook winds that ripped through downtown Calgary at hurricane-force speeds causing millions of dollars in property damages.

Among the runner-up stories in 2011 were: a one-two storm punch in March that buried Quebec in 70 cm of snow; a record wet spring in Ontario and Quebec; three fierce storms in Ontario that could have been catastrophic; and a deluge in Gatineau that rivaled the billion-dollar Saguenay flood in 1996. The forest fire season was mostly quiet across Canada except at Slave Lake and in northwestern Ontario, where huge tracks of timber were burned in some of the largest fires on record. The news wasn’t all bad, though!  Nature tried to make amends for all the weather misery by offering a spectacular Thanksgiving week for millions of Canadians.

Globally, it was the 10th-warmest year on record over the past 160 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This was in spite of the fact that it was also one of the strongest La Niñas in 60 years, featuring a relative cooling effect that lasted almost half the year. According to the WMO, the global average temperature has risen about three times faster since 1976 compared to the rate for the past 100 years. Additionally, the 13 warmest years on record have all occurred in the last 15 years. In Canada, it was another warm year – our 15th year in a row. From January to November, the national average temperature was about 1.2°C above normal. Every region except British Columbia was warmer, especially the Arctic tundra, which experienced its fifth-warmest January-to-November period on record.

The following Top Canadian Weather Stories for 2011 are rated from one to 10 based on factors that include the impact they had on Canada and Canadians, the extent of the area affected, economic effects and longevity as a top news story.

  1. Historic Flood Fights in the West
  2. Slave Lake Burning
  3. Richelieu Flooding … Quebec’s Longest-lived Disaster
  4. Down on the Farm: Doom to Boom
  5. Tornado Goderich in a Wild Week of Weather
  6. Good Night, Irene…and, Katia, Maria and Ophelia
  7. Summer: Hummer or Bummer?
  8. Arctic Sea Ice near Record Low
  9. Groundhog Day Blizzard: Snowmageddon or Snowbigdeal?
  10. Wicked Winds from the West