Environment Canada climatologist says 2018 was 'smorgasbord' of bad events
Published Thursday, December 20, 2018 5:34AM EST Last Updated Thursday, December 20, 2018 10:38AM EST
Choking from smoke, sweltering in the heat or cursing early or late snow, Canadians could be forgiven for asking just what the heck happened to the weather in 2018.
"It was almost a smorgasbord of everything that could go wrong," said David Phillips, senior climate scientist for Environment Canada. "I don't think there was anything missing."
Smoke, said Phillips, was Canada's top weather story this year.
A cold spring delayed the start of fire season. But once it warmed up, it didn't take long for sparks to strike.
There were more than 250,000 lightning strikes in southern British Columbia between April and August. On one day alone there were 20,000.
The resulting huge wildfires thickened skies from coast to coast with smoke that could be detected as far away as Europe.
Alberta cities may have been the darkest.
Calgary recorded 478 hours of smoke and haze. One smoke spell lasted almost six days. The normal count for the entire summer is 12 hours.
Edmonton only had 230 hours of smoke by comparison, but that was still more than double the usual.
While factors including forestry practices and urban spread influence the effects of wildfires, Phillips said it comes down to weather.
"This is too dry, too hot, for too long."
Speaking of hot, Canada took full part in a global heat wave that involved four continents.
It was Phillips's No. 2 story.
"It's a big country, Canada, and you don't often see people experiencing the same weather from Vancouver Island to Bonavista (in Newfoundland), but this year we saw that with record temperatures."
Halifax shattered a record from 1876 with 18 straight days that reached at least 25 C.
In Quebec, 93 people died from heat-related causes.
July 1 in Ottawa set records for heat and humidity and the conditions cut Canada Day attendance to 6,000 from an expected 20,000.
Moose Jaw, Sask., reached 42.3 C one day in August.
It was dry, too, especially on the Prairies where crops suffered when barely half the normal amount of rain fell between April and August.
"There's never been, in Regina, two drier years in a row in 131 years," Phillips said. That includes the crushing droughts of the Great Depression.
The arid conditions hurt livestock producers, too. Hay crops in some areas were barely one-seventh of normal, far less than needed for winter feed.
But it wasn't all smoke and heat. Phillips said the No. 3 story was the disappearance of spring and fall.
Winter careened into summer, then summer careened back to winter, said Phillips, referring to what he calls "weather whiplash."
"(It's) the almost non-existence of the transition seasons."
A long, cold spring kept frost in the ground as deep as two metres in some places, which meant a late start to the crop year for farmers. Then, with the fields ready in August and a nice start to the harvest, unprecedented snow crushed hopes.
More than $4 billion worth of crop was flattened under record snowfall.
In Edmonton, September was almost seven degrees colder than normal. The city received more than 38 centimetres of snow in a month where the norm is one.
Calgary shared the pain in October when a 38-centimetre dump over two days broke a 138-year record.
Like most climatologists, Phillips is circumspect about blaming any one weather event on climate change, but he did say that despite a long, colder-than-normal winter, Canada was again slightly warmer than usual -- the 22nd year in a row of above-normal temperatures.
He also pointed out that Environment Canada scientists say the risk of western fires since 2015 has at least doubled due to human-induced warming and could be up to six times higher.
"Scientists have kind of shown the fact that these things are directly related to human activity," he said.
Phillips has been drawing up Top 10 weather lists for 23 years. Some years, he confesses, there wasn't much to talk about.
"There weren't a lot of things happening back then. Summers were hot, winters were cold.
"In 23 years, it has changed," he said.
"The weather's gotten weird and wild and wacky and variable. The climate has changed."