Canada's top 10 weather stories for 2014: runners-up

1. Early January Storm Cripples Atlantic Canada

In a winter that was technically just beginning but had already worn out its welcome, there came a powerful Cape Cod storm the day after New Year’s that inflicted a crippling blow to Atlantic Canada. The storm began with heavy snow that morphed into a blinding blizzard followed by biting wind chills over the next several days. Precipitation ranged from 40 cm of snow to 47 mm of rain and everything in between, including 5 to 10 mm of freezing rain in some areas of central New Brunswick. Added to the mix were gusting winds of up to 60 km/h that created whiteout conditions, driving rains and drifting snow that caused more problems than accumulations.

The storm hit Nova Scotia particularly hard, with ensuing store closures, travel delays, flight cancellations and dangerous driving conditions. Most universities, college campuses and libraries were also closed, as well as many daycare centres. Buses were taken off the roads and ferry service between provinces was cancelled. Local flooding occurred along Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast near Liverpool because of higher-than-normal water levels and heavy pounding surf. In Prince Edward Island, ice storms left thousands of residents unplugged and in the dark. Once departed, the storm ushered in cold weather with persistent wind chills between -35 and -45, which is unusually cold for the Maritimes. The freezing cold came close to breaking a low temperature record in Saint John on January 2 when the thermometer reached -26.3°C with a wind chill of -39, and did set a record in Edmundston when temperatures hit a low of -38.1°C. Record lows were also set in Bathurst, Charlo, St-Leonard, Moncton and Fredericton.

The bad weather played havoc with New Brunswick’s power system as freezing rain, wind and rain knocked out electricity to thousands of homes and businesses. This was the second major ice storm in two weeks. Combined, the pre-Christmas and post-New Year’s storms cost NB Power $12 million in overtime to repair power lines and infrastructure damaged by foul weather. They were the most damaging storms to hit the provincial power grid in decades, and far exceeded the magnitude and cost of the infamous Eastern Canadian ice storm in 1998.

The fierce storm that pounded the Maritimes brought even more weather misery to Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula in the days that followed. St. John’s residents woke up to nearly 40 cm of snow dumped by the big storm. Although it was a hit and run, lingering powerful winds of 111 km/h whipped the snow into monstrous drifts and created blowing snow and whiteouts that resulted in treacherous driving and walking conditions. The storm caused flight cancellations, interrupted public transit and closed roads, government offices, universities and businesses. But it was the power outages that came in the midst of some of the coldest weather in years (-35 wind chills) that hurt the most. To mitigate the impact, officials opened warming centres across the province. Ironically, in the days leading up to the storm, the provincial power authority had implemented periodic rolling blackouts to avoid crashing the system. So what started as a power-plant breakdown then moved to rolling blackouts and culminated in full-out power outages that left 90,000 customers shivering in the dark and buried in snow for days. At the peak of the power outage, about 190,000 customers were in the dark forcing schools to close for a week.

2. Severe Ice and Higher, Colder Waters on the Great Lakes

With an early onset to winter and the intensity of the cold throughout, it was no surprise that the Great Lakes ice cover in 2013-14 was thick, expansive and lasted well into spring. The first sign of a thick and early ice season came with the sighting of icebreakers in mid-December - a good two to three weeks earlier than normal. Over the winter, shipping channels became so choked with ice that Canadian and American Coast Guard icebreakers logged four times more hours than average for the same period in recent years. Some breakers worked non-stop for 55 days trying to clear paths for vessels hauling essential cargo such as heating oil, salt and coal. It was so cold in January that the Great Lakes became a virtual ‘ice machine’, refreezing as soon as ice breakers opened up leads in ice floes. According to Environment Canada’s Canadian Ice Service, it was one of the most prolific ice seasons on record for the Great Lakes with records dating back over 40 years. Statistics attributed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reveal that the Great Lakes reached a high of 92.2 per cent ice coverage on March 6.  The last time there was that much ice was in 1978-79 when coverage hit a record high of 94.7 per cent. By comparison, 2012-13 winter’s coverage peaked at about 40 per cent. Statistics for the individual lakes included: 95 per cent or more for lakes Superior, Huron, Erie and St. Clair; 93 per cent for Lake Michigan; and 61 per cent for Lake Ontario. The final sign of a remarkable ice year came in the first week of June when the last of the ice in Lake Superior melted, making it the latest date on record for last ice on the Great Lakes.

Connected to the head of the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway was also impacted as its 56th shipping season did not fully open until March 31 - nine days later than the previous winter and its latest start since 2009. Once open, the heavy ice conditions meant it took five more weeks for traffic flow to reach normal levels on Lake Superior. Ports and terminals were also closed longer. The late start added stress and costs on shippers and customers, especially Prairie grain farmers who were eager to begin shipping last year’s bumper crop to overseas markets. On a positive note, a thick and stable ice cover helped many aquatic species of plants and animals to survive through winter.

Also positive to many was the continuation of rising water levels in the Great Lakes. Among the contributing factors were: record-setting snowfalls and snowpack; long-lasting intense cold that bred nearly full ice cover; a cold beginning and lukewarm ending to spring; and a cooler-wetter summer. The fact that much of the snow came from outside the Great Lakes watershed also helped boost lake levels. Further, the water content of the snowcover was the highest in a decade on lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. And for the first time since 1998, all of the Great Lakes were above their long-term (1918-2013) monthly average levels in September. The most remarkable rebounds were on lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, where water levels rose to those not seen since the late 1990s. Given that lakes Michigan and Huron were at record low levels ever in January 2013, a full 72 cm below the 1918-2013 average, the water level rise since has been astonishing as levels reached as high as 17 cm above average by November 2014. Also noteworthy is that the seasonal decline of lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron water levels, which typically begins in mid- to late-summer, was delayed until late fall on Lake Superior and not seen yet on lakes Michigan and Huron. This was due in part to continued wetter-than-normal conditions. According to Environment Canada, there have only been seven years since 1918 that levels on lakes Michigan and Huron reached their annual peak after September. Among those benefiting from higher water levels were recreational boaters, beach-front cottagers, tourists, commercial fishers, shippers and freighters, and hydro-power authorities. It was also a plus for freshwater habitats and spawning and nursery grounds.

The Great Lakes weren’t just fuller than usual, waters were colder too. In the middle of lakes Ontario and Huron surface water temperatures were about 6°C colder on Canada Day 2014 than they were the year before. And on the August long weekend, Lake Superior had surface temperatures of 2.9°C cooler than the previous year.

3. The Return of Sea Ice

After several years of lower-than-average sea ice concentrations along the East coast, the ice was back in a huge way in 2014 as it jammed into the Strait of Belle Isle and extended southward all the way to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and along Maritime coastlines. On the Atlantic side, the ice extended far out into the ocean from Labrador all the way down to Trinity Bay on the Avalon Peninsula. The last time the Canadian Coast Guard encountered such heavy ice conditions in eastern Newfoundland was in 1993-94. Icebreakers had a difficult time keeping ferries unstuck and allowing commercial ships and oil tankers to continue travelling through ice-infested waters. In mid-February, following weeks of cold and unusual calmness, sea ice began to build up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where ice thickness ranged from 30 to 75 cm. Prevailing westerly winds shoved the ice against the western coast of Newfoundland in one-metre floes. Such thicknesses hadn’t been seen in early March in over 25 years and were 10 per cent more than the 30-year average. At the end of March, the Gulf of St. Lawrence was almost entirely covered by one-metre-thick ice. According to Environment Canada’s Canadian Ice Service, 2013-14 had the second highest ice year in 20 years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In April, hundreds of passengers aboard ferries off Cape Breton Island became stuck for days by wind-driven ice. It was a tough two weeks of significant delays for Marine Atlantic owing to severe weather systems and heavy ice in the Cabot Strait. In early May, lobster fishermen found it a challenge to set traps. Along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast, a bumper crop of icebergs - the most seen in more than 10 years and reaching 500 km further south than normal - excited tourists but worried mariners, especially those hidden in the fog or bobbing up and down in rough seas

Heading north, summer air temperatures in the Arctic were almost a degree warmer than normal. June was slightly cooler than normal, but July air temperatures rose 2.0 to 4.0°C above average over the central Arctic Ocean. The excess warmth and favorable winds forced sea ice to retreat rapidly. By the end of July, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in the United States, sea ice extent was the fourth lowest since satellite observations began 36 years ago. Weather patterns changed in August with cooler air conditions and a shift in winds that spread out the ice.  NSIDC reported that on September 17 the Arctic sea ice shrank to its sixth lowest extent, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. At this time of minimum extent, Arctic sea ice covered 5.02 million square km. This was 1.6 million square km above the record minimum extent of 2012 and 1.2 million square km below the recent 30-year average minimum or 19 per cent below average. In the Canadian Arctic, Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait were mostly ice-free in mid-summer. In the Parry Channel, there was 64 per cent ice cover - slightly greater than normal and more than in the last 10 years. Unlike most recent years, the Northwest Passage remained closed and choked with ice, whereas the Northeast Passage along the coast of Siberia remained open with little ice near most of the shipping channel.

Exciting news for Canadians was the discovery of the HMS Erebus, one of the lost ships from the Franklin Expedition of nearly 170 years ago. Behind the scenes, uncleared sea ice from Victoria Strait played a factor by severely limiting search efforts.

4. Flooding from East to West

In early April, mounds of snow were beginning to melt rapidly, temperatures were rising and rain was on the way, causing major concerns about potential flooding across the Maritimes. Prince Edward Island had received two times the normal amount of snowfall in March, with water content 36 per cent higher than normal for that time of year. And March temperatures five degrees below normal across the three provinces had kept snows from melting onto still-frozen ground with a reduced capacity for absorbing excessive spring rains. By April 9, as ice began moving on most rivers, water levels along the Kennebecasis and Nashwaak rivers in New Brunswick reached flood stage. The sudden spring thaw, spring rains and flooding led to road closures, filled basements and forced hundreds to leave their home. By mid-April, river water was spilling onto farm fields and into yards, flooding more basements and damaging recreational properties and trailers. Floodwaters also ripped out roadbeds, cut off key arterial roads and dislodged bridges off their abutments, causing millions of dollars in damage to New Brunswick’s highway infrastructure.

Across southern Quebec, April showers with daily amounts of 25 to 45 mm of rain and a rapid snowmelt on still-frozen ground meant huge discharges into rivers and lakes. In the town of Beauceville, where there was a kilometre-long ice jam along the Chaudière River, public safety authorities gave evacuation orders to several dozen residents and businesses. About 100 km north of Montreal, near Morin Heights, a rain-fed landslide destroyed several summer cottages. The hillside terrain became unstable when melting snow and a steady deluge of rain saturated the ground and dislodged massive chunks of earth. In Sherbrooke, the Saint-François River reached a record water level of 7.6 m on April 15, dividing the city. Firefighters suggested 600 people vacate their homes. Flooded downtown streets quickly froze when morning temperatures dipped to -8°C. On April 15, torrential rains caused the Sainte-Anne River in St-Raymond, just west of Quebec City, to rise at breakneck speed, flooding the downtown core.

In southern Ontario, spring flooding was almost a sure bet when a thick layer of pre-Christmas ice coated the ground, followed by deep snows that stayed all winter and cold temperatures that lasted well into spring. When heavy rains fell at spring freshet it was enough to prime rivers into flooding. In April, Belleville and other towns along the north shore of Lake Ontario came under a state of emergency when water levels rose on several streams and rivers, including the Moira, Salmon and Napanee rivers, and in the Lower Trent and Rideau Valley Conservation regions. During a 10-day flood threat, 1,600 volunteer sandbaggers in Belleville worked frantically as water on the Moira River reached the same levels as 2008 - the last time a major flood occurred. Damage to infrastructure was in the millions of dollars and states of emergency were declared in Central Hastings and Tweed in eastern Ontario. On the swelling Rideau River, water was at its highest level in more than five years. Rising waters also prompted flood warnings on the Grand River in southern Ontario.

Moving to the eastern Prairies, the mid-winter snowpack in southern Manitoba was twice its average but its moisture content was surprisingly low, which minimized the potential risk of spring flooding. Also favourable were the drier than normal soil conditions going into winter that meant the ground had some capacity to absorb spring snowmelt. What worried officials was that the depth of frost had reached almost three metres below the surface - enough to cause overland flooding. Ice jamming was also a worry because river ice was 30 per cent thicker than normal. What saved the day was the cold. Ironically, the frigid temperatures that residents cursed all winter also kept the snow dry and, through sublimation, reduced its water content. Further, cool spring temperatures slowed the rate of the spring melt. In the end, it stayed so cold for so long in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that spring flooding looked after itself. The one exception was the Fisher River that runs through Peguis First Nation. For the seventh time in five years it spilled its banks, swallowing roads, flooding properties and forcing residents to leave home.

Then there was Alberta. With the one-year anniversary of the province’s “flood of floods” just days away, a slow-moving storm on June 17 brought fears of déjà-vu as soaking rains hit portions of southern Alberta. A heavy rainfall warning calling for as much as 200 mm of rain raised the anxiety level in several communities in the area, especially when high streamflow advisories were issued for the Bow, Oldman, Milk and South Saskatchewan rivers. In the end, storm rainfall totals were less than warned but still high (peak rainfall for the storm reached 175 mm at West Castle) and the area affected was not as widespread as a year ago. While Calgary was spared the deluge, several towns and cities to the south were hard hit. Forty homes were flooded in Claresholm and states of emergency declared in a dozen communities, including Medicine Hat, parts of Lethbridge County, High River, Crowsnest Pass, Willow Creek and the Blood Indian Reserve. In Lethbridge, rainfall totals exceeded 246 mm between June 10 and 19, with 171 mm falling in three days between June 16 and 18. Lethbridge’s average yearly rainfall is 276 mm. As a result, the Oldman River rose 3.5 m and left 350 homes with flooded basements. On the Blood Reserve, 20 families were forced from their homes and 200 homes reported damage, most of which was caused by overland flooding and sewer backup.

5. Wicked Winds across the West

Riding a fast-moving air stream from the Mackenzie Valley, warm Pacific winds pushed across the Prairie provinces in mid-January. The super-charged ‘breeze’ was a welcome respite to what was becoming an extremely cold winter. Dozens of warm temperature records fell, including ones in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. At Edmonton, for example, the temperature rose to 9.1°C, breaking the previous record by two degrees. Saskatoon’s high of 7.5°C on January 15 was the highest temperature recorded in the city since record-keeping began in 1892. Meanwhile, winds clipped along at hurricane-force speeds of 120 km/h, also breaking records along the way. The wicked winds rattled and broke windows, shook cars and inflicted millions of dollars in property damages. The blustery blows blew over semi-trailers, tore away signs and awnings, ripped away downtown building facades, knocked down pedestrians, bent cell towers, crushed grain bins and twisted traffic lights. Flying debris became a hazard for both motorists and pedestrians on roads and walkways. From northern British Columbia to eastern Manitoba, thousands of customers went without power due to toppled trees that downed power lines. The January thaw was short-lived and the ensuing weather turned into nasty snow squalls, blinding blizzards and freezing rain, with the occasional thunderstorm thrown in for surprise. The unusual weather kept school buses off the roads and students inside for the day. The blowing and drifting snow and slick ice led to numerous highway closures and contributed to two traffic fatalities in Alberta.

6. April Fool's Storm in Atlantic Canada

An end-of-March storm that developed off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States inched its way southeast of Nova Scotia to become an April Fool’s storm for those who thought maybe, just maybe, it was spring in Atlantic Canada. New Brunswick residents faced yet another massive power outage with more than 75,000 customers losing electricity due to freezing rain, ice pellets and heavy snow. Warming centres were opened in several locations and some rural areas experienced water shortages. Fredericton was once again covered in a thick coat of ice that felled trees onto power lines, toppled power poles and blew transformers. Total costs to NB Power exceeded $3 million. By April 1, Fredericton, which would normally have about 5 cm of snow on the ground, had 68 cm - the deepest snow cover ever measured at the capital in April. Plow operators worked around the clock as snowdrifts on some streets measured two metres deep and highway ramps were blocked by snow and stalled transport trucks. Deer were exhausted and weakened trampling through deep crusty snows and became easy targets for predators. In the harbour in Sydney, strong persistent northeasterly winds pushed sea ice up to three metres thick in places delaying Marine Atlantic ferry crossings for days. And for the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, the 15 snow days this year was nearly double the number from last year.

Prince Edward Island seemed to be the hardest hit, digging out of another record snowfall. The storm pounded the Island for more than 30 hours. Maritime Electric compared this mix of snow and freezing rain to the infamous ice storm that hit the province in January 2008. In 2013-14, the snow dumps were frequent and heavy. Charlottetown had fiveour storms in excess of 25 cm or more in one day, including 48.54 cm on March 26, for a total of threefour more heavy snow days than average. Across the province, plows were called off secondary roads and schools were closed for a week as blowing snow and ice pellets continued to pelt the Island. In March, some students had more snow days than school days leaving the novelty of a snow day far behind.

The early April blast was also one of the worst in a ‘“winter of storms’” for Newfoundland and Labrador, generating a prolonged period of strong northeasterly winds with a mix of snow, ice pellets and freezing rain for southern Newfoundland. Heavy snows combined with strong winds created major drifting and whiteouts. In and around St. John’s, treacherous driving conditions led to the closure of many schools and businesses.

7. Severe September Storm in Ontario

Following one of the hottest and most humid summer days on September 5, a severe thunderstorm tracked through southern Ontario from west to east. Trigged by a cold front, it packed heavy rains and strong winds. London took the brunt of the storm, where winds toppled trees and wires, triggering power failures in and around the city. An evening concert was also cancelled when Western Fair organizers shut down the exhibition. Ottawa took a direct hit as well with downed trees, flooded streets and intersections, water-filled basements and the temporary stoppage of the Ottawa Redblacks football game due to lost power. On Christian Island, northwest of Midland, the storm damage looked suspiciously like a weak tornado that was later confirmed as an EF0 with winds of 90 km/h. Experts also confirmed that an EF1 tornado touched down in Udney, about 20 km east of Orillia, where winds damaged buildings, including a barn, shed and clubhouse. In Orillia, wind damage was consistent with a downburst as wind blasts felled dozens of majestic trees in the city’s downtown lakeside park. In the vicinity of Six Mile Lake, there was also tree damage due to straight-line winds with speeds in the range of 90 to 110 km/h. Recorded peak winds were strongest at Windsor (96 km/h) and Lagoon City (85 km/h). Rain totals were also a concern, with St. Thomas getting soaked with 75 mm that led to local flooding. Other wet spots with 60 to 90 mm of rain were Grand Bend, Tillsonburg and Fergus. On a tragic note, the storm was responsible for the loss of two lives - the first happened early in the day when a University of Waterloo student was struck by lightning after taking shelter underneath a tree; the second occurred in Orillia when a cyclist hit by falling tree branches was found unconscious and later died.

Just five days later, on September 10, another powerful storm tracked across the same area and into central and northern Ontario with similar rainfall amounts. After two heavy rainfalls in less than a week, officials issued high water and flood warnings for low-lying areas. High winds also wreaked havoc near and south of London. In Windsor-Amherstburg, with a second storm of 60 to 100 mm, several residents faced a recurrence of wet basements. The deluge of rain also affected London again, swallowing streets, choking traffic, toppling trees and turning basements into indoor pools. And for a second time, Western Fair officials closed the fair grounds. Combined, the two storms dumped rains of 123 mm in London, 108 mm in Tillsonburg, 117 mm in Waterloo, 126 mm in Fergus and 113 cm in St. Thomas.

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