Fires and rain, rain, rain: Canada's tormented spring

As floods ravaged parts of southern Quebec, forest fires threatened northern Saskatchewan. They were typical of the contrasting weather that Canada has been seeing this spring, says an Environment Canada climatologist.

Spring was both the wettest and driest depending on where you live

Céline Bourassa drags a kayak along a street immersed in flood waters in the town of St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, Que., on May 30, 2011. Parts of Quebec on Ontario had their wettest spring on record this year. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

As floods were ravaging parts of southern Quebec in the spring of 2011, forest fires were engulfling areas in northern Saskatchewan.

The weather extremes were typical of the contrasting conditions that Canada saw this spring — sometimes in the same province. asked Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips to weigh in on these opposing weather patterns and put them in the context of what a usual spring looks like in Canada.

"What's really different about this spring is the fact that there are these amazing contrasts from one part of the country to the other and within regions," Phillips said. 

"We've seen forest fires in Alberta; we've seen floods in Alberta. We've seen terrible floods in Quebec and also southern Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan.

"We've seen some of the coldest spring ever in parts of coastal British Columbia. We've seen wet weather generally over many parts of the country."

Wet or dry

As Phillips says, it's rare for different parts of the country to set such diverse records, at the opposite ends of the weather spectrum, in the same season. 

"If you look at the map of precipitation, there are two basic colours that show up: deep brown showing drier than normal and bright green showing wetter than normal, and very few shades in between," he said.

Forest fire damage in Slave Lake, Alta., which was one of the northern Prairie communities that suffered from unsusually dry weather this spring. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

Although Environment Canada's official analysis of our recent weather won't be out until later in June, it's clear the season was not your typical spring.

While the region stretching from Windsor, Ont., to Quebec City known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands had its wettest spring in the 64 years that records have been kept, parts of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the northern Prairies had the driest spring on record.

"That's really an enormous kind of thing," said Phillips. "Typically, you'd say one was the wettest and the other was within a tenth of the driest but it didn't make it to No. 1."

Prairie provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta saw both extremes: drought and floods.

Spring flooding in the southern parts of the provinces damaged infrastructure and delayed seeding while dry conditions in the north set off dozens of forest fires that devastated communities such as Slave Lake in Alberta and Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan. The flooding continued, and by June 22, 26 communities in the province had declared flood emergencies.

Following weeks of rain, hundreds of people in the southeast part of Saskatchewan have been displaced from their homes — for a few days in some cases, but for longer in others.

No real 'severe weather'

Although spring was a season of contrasts, it was not a season of severe weather per se.

There were not many violent windstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes or deadly lightning storms, said Phillips. What's more, the precipitation that some parts of the country saw was not necessarily more intense than usual.

"The heavy rains that we saw were not brought by a Texas gully washer with a one hour of rain that flooded intersections," said Phillips. "They were more slow-motion kind of floods through many, many days and weeks and months of too much precipitation."

In the Prairies, despite the flooding in southern areas, spring turned out to be drier than normal overall.

Last year, 2010, was the wettest year on record in that region, said Phillips, and it was the effect of that and the snow that fell this winter that caused the recent flooding, not this spring's rainfall.

Flood waters from the Assiniboine River near Newton, Man. Manitoba saw some of the worst flooding this spring. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

"All this water in the rivers and the sloughs and the lakes is a result of last year's weather, not this year's weather," Phillips said.

The unusual aspect of the rain that plagued eastern parts of the country this spring was that it came in long stretches rather than short bursts, so that even though there wasn't more of it, its impact seemed greater.

"I've always said that the best thing about weather in Canada is that it hits and runs. It doesn't stand around and torment you," Phillips said. "Yet this spring, we saw these long spells of weather."

Between the beginning of April and the end of May, Toronto had 12 days in a row of rain followed by one day without and then five more of rain, he said. Halifax saw 30 straight days of rain out of 31 days between mid-April and mid-May.

Toronto also came out of April and May 170 hours short of the usual amount of sunshine for that period.

"We'll never make that up," lamented Phillips. "You can make up precipitation; you can make up warmth. You can never make up sunshine. That's why Toronto was depressed, why Ontario and Quebec were depressed. Where was the sun? It was like Vancouver weather in January."