Alberta's 'stormy summer' clocks record tornado and hail reports

The province is seeing an uptick in severe weather reports — and strange happenings of waterspouts, multiple tornado warnings and even three hikers struck by lightning in the same weekend.

Thunderstorms nearly double the average extreme weather events

This summer, Albertans have seen heavy rain, hailstorms and tornados — and in Cold Lake, even this waterspout turned up. (Ryan Baldwin)

Tornadoes are swirling and hail's falling around Alberta more often than usual this summer.

The province is seeing nearly double the average severe weather reports — and the strange happenings of frequent tornado warnings, lightning that hit three hikers in the same weekend, and the rare appearance of a waterspout.

This unusual weather — albeit in the province's thunderstorm season — isn't just anecdotal. Environment and Climate Change Canada carefully records hail, heavy rain and tornadoes, and the counts are tracking higher than normal.

"We've had a stormy summer so far," meteorologist Kyle Fougere said Friday.

Fougere crunched the data and found the counts of severe weather events so far in 2019 have already surpassed the entire year of 2018 and nearly doubled the 30-year averages, based on data collected from 1986 to 2015.

Alberta typically sees 50 hail events a year, the data shows, but so far this year, hail has fallen 92 times.

For tornadoes, the yearly average was 12 for that 30-year time period. This year, 22 tornadoes have been reported — the highest number since the year 2000.

This photo shows the storm that prompted a tornado warning southwest of Sylvan Lake, near Range Road 31 and Township Road 380, at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday. (P.Y. Howard/Twitter)

The international scientific consensus is that extreme weather events will increase as the climate changes — one of the reasons why many scientists are pushing for immediate action to address global warming.

The changes being seen so far, Fougere said, haven't yet provided a large enough sample size for researchers to determine the exact extent to which extreme weather reports in Alberta will increase.

"It's not clear how that's going to change as our climate changes," he said.

Work on that front is ongoing. A study published Friday found a western European heat wave was made more intense by human-caused climate change. Other new research has suggested that Earth's natural cycles can't account for the recent and truly global warming

More lightning bolts possible

Environment Canada tracks lightning strikes, too, and recently upgraded its sensors, making them more sensitive. 

So while the technology upgrade was welcomed, it may explain why Alberta, on paper, appears to have had dramatically more lightning strikes than normal this summer. 

Alberta averages just over 405,000 strikes a year. But in July alone this year, the sensors picked up a whopping 602,000 lightning strikes.

"Absolutely, lightning is a major concern in Canada. We do have an average of 10 people killed a year from lightning," Fougere said. "We have a saying, when thunder roars, go indoors … if you can see lightning or hear thunder, then it's close enough to impact you."

The federal weather authority issued severe thunderstorm watches for central Alberta on Friday. Anyone who's camping this long weekend should develop a plan in case severe weather strikes, Fougere said.

That includes ensuring you can receive weather alerts while away from home and searching for the closest nearby shelter, in case a tornado or thunderstorm strike.

For those staying close to home, identify the most sheltered room in your home, such as the bathroom, closet or basement.

'Supercell' thunderstorms

A "persistent" upper trough — essentially a long low pressure system — has led to the stormy weather from the middle of June to present, bringing with it above-average rainfall and thunderstorms from north to south.

The storms form in the Foothills and move east. Some develop into what are called "supercell thunderstorms," which have a rotating updraft that causes wind to spin at different directions near the ground and in the air.

Those typically create hailstorms, and in roughly 10 per cent of cases, tornadoes, he said.

Alberta is in the midst of its standard thunderstorm season, which is expected to decline by mid-August.


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