Top ten weather stories for 1999

Table of Content

  1. Toronto's Snowstorm of the Century
  2. Another Hot Hot Hot Year
  3. B.C. gets Wet and Windy - But Where's the Flooding?
  4. Sloppy Spring Slows Prairies' Seeding
  5. Record-Low Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin Water Levels
  6. Atlantic Canada: Another Drought and Plenty of Hurricanes
  7. A Summer of Discontent in the West... Content in the East
  8. New Year's Avalanche Kills Nine in Quebec
  9. Weather-Related Highway Disasters
  10. Storm-Quiet Summer

1. Toronto's Snowstorm of the Century

By the first day of winter in 1998 (December 21), Toronto had recorded only 4 cm of snow - the second lowest amount in 155 years of weather record-keeping in the city. But just 12 days later, a series of storms stalked the downtown core dumping nearly a year's amount of snow in less than two weeks. The worst storm hit on January 2, when much of southern Ontario - from Windsor to Kingston - was buried in snow between 20 and 40 cm, affecting more than five million people. In total, at least eleven people died and  thousands of passengers at the Toronto airports were stranded on one of the busiest days of the year.

Four additional storms ensured the snowiest two-week period since 1846. In all, the downtown station recorded the greatest January snowfall total with 118.4 cm and the greatest snow on the ground at any one time, with 65 cm. Toronto's Mayor requested help from the military, and 400 troops descended on the city. Civilian reinforcements, including 100 veteran plowers from Prince Edward Island, helped haul away one million tonnes of snow from the downtown area. In total Toronto's snow-clearing cost $70 million, more than twice its budget for the entire year. Further, the city lost nearly $2 million in parking ticket revenue. While Torontonians struggled with snow as high as buses and slop as deep as boot tops, it seemed that the rest of Canada was enjoying the city's plight, chortling in national unison, "Hey Toronto, this is Canada. It's winter!"

2. Another Hot Hot Hot Year

With just days left in the year, 1999 is likely to be the second-warmest year on record since 1948 (when Environment Canada began keeping nation-wide weather records). Atlantic Canada led the way with its warmest spring and summer ever, and its second-warmest fall. For the rest of eastern Canada, it was the second-warmest year in more than a half-century. There have now been 10 consecutive seasons with above-normal temperatures, with one of the most remarkable stretches of warm weather being recorded at Toronto's Pearson Airport. At that site, no average monthly mean temperatures have been colder than normal since November 1997.

A warmer Canada is in step with the rest of the world. This year was the 21st consecutive year with above-normal global surface temperatures and the fifth warmest on record since 1880. Although yet another warm year is not of itself evidence of climate change, an unprecedented increase in global temperatures in the past twenty years has added to the concrete and compelling evidence that global warming is clearly underway. Globally, the 10 warmest years in the past 140 years have all occurred since 1983 - 7 since 1990. The 1990s were the warmest decade dating back to 1860, and in the northern hemisphere, the 20th century was the warmest century over the last 1,000 years. As we approach the end of this century, global temperatures are about 0.7° C above those at the end of the 19th century.

3. B.C. gets Wet and Windy & But Where's the Flooding?

The combination of warm waters along the east coast of Asia and "chillier than usual" waters in the eastern North Pacific steered more wild storms northward into British Columbia. The result? The windiest, wettest and most drab winter in several decades in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

Between November and March, winds of more than 60 km/h bashed Vancouver on 18 days (10 more than normal). Winter storms caused 118 ferry sailing cancellations on the most popular routes in and out of Vancouver, compared with only 20 the year before. The city also had more wet days than ever before - 116 compared to the old record of 108 days set 50 years ago. It also had the second highest winter precipitation total ever - 1,048 mm. While hard to accept for the residents of Victoria, their city recorded even more rain than Vancouver during the "wet coast" monsoon.

In B.C. mountain ranges, the snow pack broke records and was twice as deep as normal, raising fears of avalanches and flooding. Concerned authorities stockpiled up to 5 million sandbags and spent $5 million on flood proofing. The threat of wide-scale flooding was ultimately up to the spring weather, and luckily, cool temperatures and small amounts of rainfall enabled the snow to recede gradually.

4. Sloppy Spring Slows Prairies' Seeding

In southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan, cool wet spring weather prevented farmers from seeding nearly three million acres of some of the most productive farmland in Canada. The water problems were not from overflowing rivers but from overland flooding - too much water in too short a time. For example, Brandon received 201 mm of rain in May, more than half its normal yearly rainfall. Going into the spring, the soil was already saturated from late fall rains and a heavy snow pack. There was no place for spring rains to drain, leaving farmland submerged for at least two months. Farmers had trouble putting their crops in the ground until late June, thereby risking a killing frost before the crop could mature and exceeding the normal crop insurance deadline. The rest of the Prairies had a good growing season with canola production surpassing the record set last year and total wheat production exceeding the recent five-year average.

5. Record-Low Great Lakes and  St. Lawrence Basin Water Levels

Few people can remember water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin being so low. At the end of 1999, the levels of all of the Great Lakes and  St. Lawrence Basin were below the 80-year average and, with the exception of Lakes Superior and Ontario, were down from their levels of a year ago. The last time Lakes Michigan-Huron, St. Clair and Erie held this little water was in 1966.

More astounding is that the lakes are emptying faster than ever before. Lakes Michigan-Huron experienced their largest year-to-year drop since water levels were first recorded in 1860, and Lakes Erie and St. Clair experienced their second largest drop.

As well, water levels on many inland rivers, lakes and wells were lower than they have been in decades. Groundwater levels in the Grand River basin in southern Ontario dipped to their lowest mark in 130 years. Not surprisingly, at the Waterloo weather station, 27 of the past 32 months (since June 1997) have recorded below-normal precipitation. Over that period, the precipitation shortfall amounted to nearly 550 mm.

After two dry years, the Great Lakes and  St. Lawrence Basin are emptying rapidly. The loss is due to lower precipitation totals, less runoff from rivers and streams, and more surprisingly, huge evaporation losses. Both water and land surfaces in the basin have been unseasonably warm year-round, resulting in increased water losses through evaporation. To put this in perspective, the recent drop in water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin over the last 12 months is equal to the amount of water which flows over Niagara Falls for 658 days, 24 hours a day.

6. Atlantic Canada: Another Drought and Plenty of Hurricanes

For the third summer in a row, drought conditions and intense heat wilted crops, endangered the health of livestock and forced open-fire bans in parks and forests in parts of the four Atlantic provinces. 

Even May, often damp and sometimes cool, brought record warmth and extreme dryness that continued until July. Rainfall totals in May and June at some weather stations in the Maritime provinces were at their lowest in 50 years. The prolonged spell of warm, dry weather in the spring and early summer, combined with low winter snowfalls and a lowering water table, meant usually-reliable water sources from streams, reservoirs and deep wells became scarce.

The drought ended in September when heavy rains from tropical storms soaked crops and plants, and replenished wells and ground water reserves. Unfortunately for P.E.I. potato growers, the deluge swamped fields, delaying the harvest for more than a week, making a bad situation even worse. Up to a quarter of the province's potato crop was lost to water damage.

Forecasters foresaw an active hurricane season in the Atlantic region for 1999. In the North Atlantic, 12 tropical storms formed, 8 reaching hurricane strength and 5 considered intense. The year continued what has become the most active five-consecutive years of tropical storms on record. 

Five tropical storms also hit Atlantic Canada this year. In late August, Cindy was churning well out in the mid-Atlantic, but a rogue wave drowned two swimmers off the coast of Nova Scotia. And while eastern Canada nervously readied itself for an onslaught from Hurricane Floyd, it was younger brother Harvey that packed the biggest punch. From September 21 to 23, the moisture from tropical storm Harvey fed a storm passing over Halifax. The intensifying low caused "1-in-100 year" rainfalls and strong winds. Several weather stations along the Fundy coast of  New Brunswick received over 200 mm, and up to 302 mm fell in northern Nova Scotia, making for the worst flooding in 30 years.

The next day, Labrador felt the remnants of Harvey when between 50 and 100 mm of rain fell. On September 23, the remnants of Hurricane Gert sank at least five boats docked in a harbour on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. Winds reached up to 120 km/h over the Grand Banks, and waves peaked at nine metres. A month later, Hurricane Irene blew into southern New Brunswick with a steady, gentle rain and gale-force winds.

7. A Summer of Discontent in the West & Content in the East

Calgarians called it "the lousiest summer ever." And it wasn't just because July had more snow than February or that every weekend from the first of the summer to Labour day was wet. Overall, the summer was one of the wettest ever and hit the top ten this century for the coldest and cloudiest. In Edmonton, the thermometer failed to reach 30°C for only the second time in 38 years. 

For most Albertans, it was La Nina's fault. A progression of low-pressure systems from the Gulf of Alaska kept most days, particularly weekends, soggy and shivery. Vancouver shared in Alberta's misery, setting a new record for the most number of days in summer with rain (40) compared to the normal 24. Only once in June did the city have two consecutive days without so much as a trace of rain.

In sharp contrast, Eastern Canadians either enjoyed or endured bouts of high heat and humidity. The Ontario Ministry of Environment issued five air quality advisories covering a total of nine days, including one of the earliest ever in May. In Toronto, it was the hottest June-July combination since record-keeping began in 1840. Parts of central and eastern Canada gasped for air in frequent sauna-like conditions, straining utilities to provide interruption-free energy. Between May and September, many cities in southern Ontario and Quebec had twice their normal number of hot days with temperatures greater than 30°C. For example, Ottawa had 26 hot days, compared to a normal yearly total of 12.

8. New Year's Avalanche Kills Nine in Quebec

Just minutes before midnight on January 1, in the tiny Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quebec (a remote coastal village of 650 on Ungava Bay, some 1,700 km northeast of Montreal), a wall of snow swept down and crushed a school gymnasium, where more than half the town's residents were heralding in the New Year. Rescuers battled fierce winds and lashing blizzards, kicking and digging by hand through three metres of snow in a frantic effort to free dozens of people trapped under mounds of snow and debris. Nine people, including five children under 8 years old, died and twenty-five others were injured.

9. Weather-Related Highway Disasters

On the Friday before Labour Day, dense early-morning fog enveloped sections of Highway #401 near Windsor, contributing to one of the worst road disasters in Canadian history. The horrific accident killed eight people and injured thirty-three others. In all, the chain-reaction pileup destroyed 82 vehicles, many of them fused together in the intense heat. Just moments before the crash, visibility was reduced to about a metre by the sudden occurrence of dense fog just after sunrise.

Later in September, black ice conditions led to a 90-vehicle pileup in Calgary, closing the highway for 20 hours. The previous afternoon, snow melted on the road and then quickly froze as temperatures dropped around dusk. Some stretches of the road had 2 cm of ice. More than 27 ambulances responded to the crashes.

On December 12-13, the first snowstorm of the winter across southern Quebec brought heavy snow and strong winds to mostly eastern parts of the province. Slippery roads and poor visibility led to scores of highway accidents and the death of 13 people.

10. Storm-Quiet Summer

The summer was noteworthy for its scarcity of severe weather events - namely heavy thunderstorms, twisters and hailers. There were no strong tornadoes reported this year, and convective storms that did break out were generally weak and short lived. For the 12th consecutive year, no one in Canada was killed by a tornado, although lightning killed several persons and others were killed by falling trees. 

There were some exceptions to a "storm-quiet" summer, however. On May 18, three tornadoes west of Saskatoon came dangerously close to the city. On June 7, a 15-second microburst touched down in a Toronto suburb leveling a strip plaza and flipping a few cars. Miraculously, no one was injured. On June 25, a massive, violent thunderstorm raced across southern Manitoba and into northwestern Ontario. The rainstorm dumped a record 144 mm of rain in 13 hours on Kenora. The storm and ensuing floods washed out roads and railway lines, flooded basements and damaged graves. Some 350 insurance claims amounting to almost $4 million were filed in the days following the storm.

On July 5, stifling heat and humidity in central Canada triggered a spectacular line of severe thunderstorms that stretched across eastern Ontario, the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The storm packed winds of 100 to 120 km/h with gusts to 160 km/h and heavy rains, cutting a wide swath and felling tall trees, crushing vehicles, tearing down power lines and shearing off roofs. More than 600,000 households in Montreal and the Eastern Townships were without power - some for up to a week. Hydro Quebec reported the wind and rain storm cost the utility about $15 million.

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