Water, in all its forms, tops 2008 weather news

Whether it was frozen, flooding or falling, water and its many incarnations were at the heart of Canadian weather woes in 2008, according to Environment Canada's annual roundup.
Residents of Vancouver's north shore shovel out their cars following several snow storms in late December. Vancouver saw its fifth white Christmas in the last 50 years. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
Whether it was frozen, flooding or falling, water and its incarnations were at the heart of Canadian weather woes in 2008, according to Environment Canada's annual roundup.

The year's No. 1 weather issue hearkens back to the summer, when the season of sun was anything but for eastern Canada. Rays of sunshine were replaced with reams of rain as provinces from Ontario to Newfoundland and Labrador endured the wettest summer on record.

What was good for gardens, senior Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said, wasn't so great for enjoying the patio.

"It was the classic water torture test — drip, drip, drip," he said Tuesday.

Ice sliced

Running second on the list of the year's top climate stories is Arctic ice loss, a sequel to last year's No. 1 most notable weather story and an issue that has attracted attention beyond Canada's borders.
The midnight sun shines on the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in July. The Louis takes an annual voyage through Canada's Arctic that includes patrols through the Northwest Passage, which was open to ice-free navigation for the third year in a row in 2008. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The navigable routes of the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage (over the top of Russia) were simultaneously free of ice for the first time in recorded history, while the summer of 2008 marked the third consecutive year ships could navigate the Northwest Passage without confronting sea ice.

While more ice disappeared in 2007 than this year, Phillips suggested the trend's perseverance is even more worrisome than the quantity lost. Permanent or thick multi-year ice now comprises just 11 per cent of Canadian Arctic waters, compared with 16 per cent last year.

"What's worrisome," Phillips said, "is this happened following the coldest winter in eight years."

Winter of discontent

Indeed, the "never-ending winter of 2008," as he called it, was one of the longest, snowiest winters in eastern Canadian history, and provided a frigid foreshadowing of the "pre-winter shockers" suffered across the country earlier this month. Last winter served up three of Environment Canada's top 10 weather stories of the year.

In Quebec and Ontario in particular, snowfall totals — upward of 500 centimetres in half a dozen locations — were just shy of breaking records at the end of last winter. Residents of Ottawa didn't see bare ground for 143 days straight between the end of November 2007 and April 2008, the longest stretch of snow cover ever noted for the city.

Not long after complaints that last winter didn't end soon enough had settled, Mother Nature served Canadians a quick backhand with a massive cold wave that engulfed all of western North America in the second week of December. For the Prairie provinces, which were coming out of one of the balmiest Novembers in memory, the sting was sharp.

Winds dragged temperatures down so low it felt like –45 C with the wind chill in some places; the low temperature of –36 C in Edmonton on Dec. 14 made Alberta's capital city colder than the North Pole. As the weather swept west, perhaps the most astounding sight was in Vancouver, which made a rare claim to its fifth white Christmas in 50 years.

On Vancouver Island near the cities of Duncan and Nanaimo, snowfalls ranged from 40 to 50 cm — likely one of the heaviest snowfalls there at any time of the year over the last 61 years, according to Environment Canada.

"Even in Canada, the snowiest and second-coldest country in the world, it's rare for the entire country to be blanketed in snow and engulfed in cold Arctic air — all before the first full day of winter," Phillips notes in his report, which ranks the early-winter whack the No. 5 weather story of the year.

Water, water everywhere

Flooding, hail, hurricanes and ice storms all elbowed their way onto the list, too.
Workers turn off the water supply to a flooded house in Fredericton in May. The St. John River reached near-record flood levels, leaving several streets in the New Brunswick capital impassable. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

In New Brunswick, the Saint John River swelled with some of its worst spring flooding in 35 years, providing the year's No. 4 weather story, according to Environment Canada's rankings. Record snowpack in Maine, northern New Brunswick and parts of Quebec softened under April's sunny skies and above-zero temperatures, giving way to huge flows of water that overwhelmed regional rivers and streams.

An estimated 1,600 properties were affected, resulting in $50 million of damage to homes, farms and small businesses.

In the year's No. 6 climate tale, farmers from B.C. to Ontario had their own wounds to lick after a string of summer hailstorms battered crops and orchards. Across the Prairies, the Canadian Crop Hail Association offered record levels of compensation — more than $341 million — to Western producers. Not a single Ontario orchard was spared from hail in 2008, according to the Ontario Tender Fruit Board.

Holy Hurricane!

While they didn't elicit the kind of destruction and even fatalities seen in parts of the Caribbean, Central America and United States, hurricanes that spun up the Atlantic Coast dumped copious — and consecutive — amounts of rain on Quebec and parts of Atlantic Canada at the end of the summer, making for the year's No. 8 weather story.
A man struggles with his umbrella in the wind and rain along St. Laurent Boulevard in Montreal in April. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Hurricane Hanna, the first in a series of three tropical storms that had the most impact on Canada, delivered 104.4 millimetres of rainfall in Saint John on Sept. 7, earning it the title of fifth-wettest day ever in Canada.

Hanna's successor, Ike, was equally sopping and prompted humidity levels so dense they shut down the Montreal subway system, as condensation on electrical equipment caused a major malfunction.

The top 10 list was rounded out by last winter's ice storms in P.E.I., which knocked down 300 hydro poles and knocked out power to 95 per cent of Islanders, at one point.

Environment Canada's top Canadian weather stories are rated based on the impact they had on Canada and Canadians, the extent of the impact, their economic effects and popularity in the news. The list is compiled annually.

"I don't think I've ever heard any more complaining about the weather from so many people," Phillips said of this year's rankings.