Year in review 2019: The top weather stories of the year

A man moves a boat full of sandbags to help with the flooding in Constance Bay, west of Ottawa, Ontario, on April 28, 2019. (Photo by Lars Hagberg / AFP)

From dangerous rains, flooding and extreme temperatures, Canadians saw active, and sometimes surprising, weather patterns throughout 2019.

To cap off the year, Environment and Climate Change Canada has curated a list of the ten top weather stories of 2019.

  1. Ottawa River Flood

  2. Atlantic hurricane season - Hurricane Dorian

  3. Fall snow in the Prairies

  4. February’s Polar Vortex

  5. Record heat in the Arctic

  6. Too dry early, too wet later in the Prairies

  7. Halloween rain in Quebec

  8. Spring missing in the East

  9. Saint John River flooding

  10. Fewer wildfires, but more burning in the West

Storms throughout the year caused over three million homes and businesses to lose power, with Manitoba seeing the largest outage in its history.

“The transitions seasons were where most of the action was,” David Phillip, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s senior climatologist told Yahoo Canada. “I found that most of the news, most of the action, most of the impacts...the fallout from weather this year occurred from events in the spring and the fall.”

The weather events were ranked by a variety of factors, including the degree to which Canadians were impacted, economic and environmental effects, and their longevity as a news story.

“No one was left out. I think the tamest place was probably British Columbia but they really stole the weather news the last two previous years with the forest fires,” Phillips said.

Yahoo Canada also rounded up 2019’s top weather terms, based on the most searched weather items on the site throughout the year.

  1. Hurricane Dorian

  2. Toronto heavy snow

  3. Alberta snowstorm

  4. Alberta wildfires

  5. B.C. storm

  6. California wildfires

  7. Bracebridge flooding

  8. Amazon rainforest fires

  9. B.C. wildfires

  10. California earthquake

Ottawa River flooding

The record Ottawa River flooding, which impacted hundreds of thousands of people, is considered the top weather story of 2019, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“You had a month’s worth of rain in four days, and nowhere for it to go,” Phillips said. “We had lots of snow accumulating, the snow staying and the ground frozen in April and then almost as if nature woke up and said, oh my gosh it should be spring I’ll give them summer instead, and so what you had was a rush to melt...and you had the heavy rains.”

Back in 2017, the area saw flooding that was described as the “flood of the century,” but conditions this year were both larger in size and longer in duration, following 40 per cent more snow than normal falling in the region.

“A lot of people were affected by it, it had a repetitive value to it, it was extreme, historic, unprecedented in terms of the length of the flooding,” Phillips said. “Maybe people could have argued that Hurricane Dorian should have been number one...I just felt that from the numbers of people involved, it was clearly the big story.”

Hurricane Dorian

In early September, Hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded on the Atlantic Ocean, hit with winds close to 300 km/h. It’s the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas, killing at least 70 people in the country.

On Sept. 7 Dorian headed towards Canada, transitioning to a tropical storm with winds up to 155 km/h. Atlantic Canada saw intense rains and wind, with nearly half a million people losing power.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, 80 per cent of homes and businesses in Nova Scotia lost power, the highest number in the province’s history. It’s estimated that Dorian caused $140 million in damage to Canada’s Maritimes region, with two-thirds occurring in Nova Scotia.

For anyone who believes that climate change may be the reason for these extreme weather events, including hurricanes like Dorian, it might not be so straightforward.

“The problem is climate change doesn’t create extremes, violent weather, it just makes it worse,” Phillips said. “There are many factors that come together to produce extreme weather and it’s not from our tailpipes and smoke stacks, it just kind of gives it a little bit more oomph.”

“It probably is a factor in many things, and maybe it’s growing, so maybe more of that percentage is from people doing things rather than just nature itself.” 

Unexpected weather in the Prairies

Adding to Phillips’ statement that 2019’s most significant weather stories occurred in the transitional seasons, the Prairies saw some unexpected fall snow this year.

Four days of snowfall reached 32 cm in Calgary, Alta., the greatest amount of snow the city has seen in late September in 65 years. Schools were closed, flights were cancelled and public services were shut down, while widespread power outages occurred due to a build-up of snow on power lines.

The early blast of snow decimated crops for farmers and also hit southern B.C. It eventually moved to southern Saskatchewan and brought rain to Manitoba, which totalled close to three times the normal amount.

“Winnipeg had the driest January to June on record. So no wondering farmers were thinking, oh my gosh am I going to grow anything this year,” Phillips said. “The rains came and then you had the wettest fall on record...it’s the same growing season, that is strange but that is the mark of variability. It’s these wild swings, it’s not normal.” 

Two weeks after the initial dump of snow in the Prairies, a state of emergency was declared across Manitoba when a snowstorm hit the province from Oct. 10 through the Thanksgiving weekend.  At one point, 250,000 people were without power, the largest outage in Manitoba Hydro’s history. Even into November, some were still without power.

“The good news is that we can sometimes learn from these extremes...we’ve learned to adapt,” Phillips said. “You can’t prevent the storm from coming your way...but in fact, you can prevent it from becoming a disaster by better preparing and faster responding.”