Top ten weather stories for 2006: story five

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5. Prairie Hailers and a Deadly Twister

Weather forecasters and storm chasers had a hectic but exciting summer across the West. The summer storm season started and ended quietly, but from mid-June through mid-August there were only 17 days that did not have severe weather happening somewhere on the Prairies. For four days of the summer, there was severe weather happening in all three provinces.

Extensive hail swaths are a much feared but expected part of Prairie summer weather. In 2006, the "white combine" was worse than ever. At the beginning of the harvest in August, untimely hail was especially destructive. Of the primary severe weather categories for summer - winds, tornadoes, heavy rain and hail - by far the greatest number of reports dealt with large hail, about one-and-a-half times the normal number. In fact, hail events set a record in all three provinces with 221 in total, breaking the record of 179 set only last year.

On July 6, a severe thunderstorm with golf-ball sized hail pummelled Calgary. The next day a two-hour storm produced more windshield-smashing hail and rain so intense it flooded basements and stranded motorists. Also, early that morning, hail trashed crops and gardens near Eckville, AB surprisingly early in the day - even for hailstorm alley! The summer's most devastating hailer occurred on August 10, when a supercell storm in central Alberta produced hail as large as tennis balls. Traffic slowed to a crawl as hail driven by strong winds made driving difficult. Snowplows were taken out of storage to clear highways and airport runways. Outside Red Deer, a hail strip measuring about 30 km long and 12 km wide was 80 to 100 per cent destructive to what was looking like a bumper crop. At Springbrook, AB, damage to 400 homes reached into the millions of dollars. Almost every householder reported holes punched through vinyl siding and broken windows. Trees were denuded. Slushy hail drifts piled up along the highways were still evident the next day. Insurance adjusters were brought from nearby provinces to handle the high volume of claims.

The next day the storm raced into Saskatchewan. Around Regina, near-baseball sized chunks of ice flattened crops, damaged siding and eavestroughs, broke shingles, cracked windows and pockmarked vehicles. Many crops and gardens received a severe beating and lay flat. Thousands of birds died, their skulls crushed by gigantic hailstones falling at speeds of over 150 km/h. Another ferocious hailstorm earlier in the summer hit Wakaw, SK on July 7. In less than 15 minutes, baseball-sized hail and 100 km/h winds wreaked havoc on the community. The Canadian Crop Hail Association reported crop losses of $100 million in Saskatchewan alone, the highest damage payment in more than a decade.

Surprisingly, tornado occurrences were down in Alberta and Saskatchewan with only 5 and 7 tornadoes respectively (normals are typically in the mid-teens). On the other hand, Manitoba had more than its usual number of twisters with 15 (normal is 8). Five thunderstorms struck on August 5 triggered by a cold front that stretched from the northern Inter-lakes region to Minnesota. One tornado devastated the tiny community of Gull Lake, MB 80 km northeast of Winnipeg, uprooting century-old trees, flipping vehicles and boats, and destroying numerous small buildings, a fishing lodge and an eight-person outhouse. It also killed a 64-year-old woman and injured dozens of others. The fatality was the first death from a tornado in Canada since 12 people died at a Pine Lake, Alberta campground in July 2000 and the first in Manitoba since a tornado ripped though Rosa claiming three lives in July 1977. The tornadic outbreak left a grotesque tangle of uprooted trees, trailer debris, crumpled roofs and twisted metal.

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