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Wildfires, floods and smoke: Canada’s top 2023 weather stories

Canadians saw the full might of Mother Nature in 2023, from floods to fires and smoke to storms.

On Wednesday, Environment Canada, the country’s weather forecaster and researcher, announced the top 10 weather stories.

“This is the year the Canadian landscape really took a hit from extreme weather,” senior climatologist Dave Phillips told reporters at during a virtual news conference.

And he said one culprit was largely to blame.

“I think the evidence is clear and consistent that human-caused climate change is making weather extremes more extreme and leading to more catastrophes at home and abroad”

1) The year for record wildfires

Never before has so much of Canada burned.

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Environment Canada’s top story was the record number of wildfires.

Enterprise, a Northwest Territories town, was destroyed in August, along with many other buildings from Nova Scotia to British Columbia’s interior. Thousands of people across the country had to evacuate.

Leaving Enterprise was “like you are driving through hell,” Blair Porter, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer, said at the time.

In total, more 18.5 million hectares burned, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.


FILE The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above a lakefront home, in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023.


Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The 2023 season was “kind of like a warning that as wildfire seasons get longer and worse, they could encroach even more on our communities,” said Anabela Bonada, manager and research associate with the centre, in an interview with Global News Tuesday.

Some fires are still burning at time of publication.

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It was not the most expensive year for insurance providers – the Fort McMurray 2016 wildfires claims that distinction – and it is not the first time Canada lost a town to flames, with Lytton, B.C. burning in 2021.

But in 2023 the most territory burned, Phillips said.


Click to play video: 'Halifax council receives report examining government’s response to N.S. wildfires'


Halifax council receives report examining government’s response to N.S. wildfires


With fires so widespread and destructive, insurance companies have warned protection could cost Canadians more.

“Five per cent of our precious boreal forest disappeared in smoke,” Phillips said.

On June 6, out of control fires burned in every province and territory except Prince Edward Island and Nunavut, he said.

“And that was the difference this year. You were fighting fires in the west, the north and the east… How do you move men and women and machinery and hoses when you’re dealing with fire fronts on in so many areas? Little (fires) would just blossom overnight into a burning inferno.”

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“From Greenland to Germany, everyone was smelling Canadian smoke,” Philips said.

The second top weather story was the wildfire smoke many Canadians and people around the world inhaled, with massive amounts of smoke from so many fires cloaking large portions of the country.

Very few people saw the flames but many people smelt the smoke and tasted it and felt the ashes falling from the fires, Phillips said.

He said he used to live in Calgary, where residents normally can see the mountains.

“You couldn’t see across the street,” he recounted.

Phillips warned the health impacts of breathing the smoke is still unknown.

According to one report, the amount of smoke has increased 220 per cent over the past two decades.

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3) Hottest summer on Earth and in Canada

Another top weather story in 2023, according to Environment Canada, is Canada and the planet experiencing the hottest summer on record.


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“Stick a thermometer into Canada and it said ‘well done,’” Phillips said, telling reporters it was the warmest summer in 76 years of record-keeping.

2023 saw the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer ever measured and a record warm August capping a season of brutal and deadly temperatures, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The hottest month every recorded was July 2023, according to the WMO and European climate service Copernicus, with both agencies also saying the world’s oceans also reached record temperatures.

Philipps said July 7, 2023, may have been the warmest day in human history on planet earth.

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FILE – A vendor sells cold drinks before the start of a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, July 28, 2023, in St. Louis. European climate monitoring organization made it official: July 2023 was Earth’s hottest month on record by a wide margin. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File).


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“It’s been a wild ride,” Danny Blair, co-director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg, told the Canadian Press in September. “It’s been a season and a year of extremes.”

It might be fitting then that Antonio Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary-general, declared that 2023 was the year “humanity has opened the gates of hell,” as he warned of accelerating extreme weather.

4) Deadly Deluge in Nova Scotia

Environment Canada’s fourth weather story was the deadly floods in Nova Scotia.

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“The damage was unbelievable and the heartache was even worse,” Phillips said.

Heavy rains also killed several people in Nova Scotia in July, with a Halifax city official calling the flooding a “one in 1,000-year event.”

Severe thunderstorms dumped more than 250 millimetres of rain on the hardest hit parts of the province, causing damage to roads, homes and bridges while killing four people.


An abandoned car in a mall parking lot is seen in floodwater following a major rain event in Halifax on Saturday, July 22, 2023. Searchers are continuing to pump water from a flooded field in Nova Scotia that is the focus of an extensive search for four people, including two children, who went missing in a torrent of water Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese.


RCMP said two vehicles were swept off a road into a hayfield near Brooklyn, located northwest of Halifax, on July 22 between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Two six-year-old children — Colton Sisco and Natalie Harnish — died, as did 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy and 52-year-old Nicholas Holland.

Phillips said the wettest moments came on July 20 and 21st.

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5) Canada dry in the West and wet in the East

The next top story was the contrasting wet and dry conditions in Canada’s West and East.

While the Prairies and part of Quebec were so very dry over the summer, the East Coast was drenched.

Phillips said the trends remind him of how large Canada is.

Crops in southern Alberta were turning brown instead of green at one point, with farmers telling Global News they expected crop loss.

“The impacts were devastating to farmers,” Phillips said. “Ranchers had to sell their cattle because they didn’t have the hay to feed them.”

Meanwhile, St John, N.B. received more than 700 millimetres of rain – about three times its average amount, Phillips said.

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“I think the cities were competing with one another as as to who was the wettest,” he said.

He estimated $750,000 of property was lost in Eastern Canada.

6) Hurricane Lee… No Fiona but more than a windy day

The next story was Hurricane Lee, which brought tree-felling winds and heavy rains when it landed in Nova Scotia as a tropical storm in September.

Its arrival “really worried” forecasters, Phillips said “because it was one of the more powerful hurricanes in history and it was the third most rapidly developing one.”

“It went from nothing to a Category Five, (which is) the top of the rung, to a (Category) Three in one day.”


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N.S. working to better prepare for climate emergencies


The Halifax airport reported 117 kilometre per hour winds and Lee brought flooding and dangerous high coastal waves. Thousands were without power for days.

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7) April glaze storm in Montreal-Ottawa

“Nothing strikes fear in Montrealer and Ottawa residents like the ‘ping ping ping’ of ice rain or ice pellets bouncing off the windowpanes,” Phillips said.

The next story was the April ice storm, which knocked out power for more than a million people from Ottawa to Montreal.

Three people died – one of whom suffered carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator in his garage.

Two other men were struck by falling branches.


A fallen tree is shown on a care following an ice storm in Montreal, Thursday, April 6, 2023. More than one million customers in Quebec and Ontario were without power Wednesday after a messy mix of freezing rain and thunderstorms pummeled parts of both provinces.


Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

A dozen other people were also poisoned after using outdoor appliances inside but survived.

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Phillips said storm caused $330 million in damages between Sarnia, Ont, and Sagenuay, Que.

8) Cold spells in a warm year

Environment Canada’s next top weather story was the cold spells in a warm year.

“Holiday plans were ruined because of the cold, the ice rain, the blizzard-kind of conditions,” in the days leading up to Dec. 25, Phillips said.

And just as temperatures began to climb, “that dreaded polar vortex began to wibble and wobble in the stratosphere” and lasted for two weeks, he added.

“Canada was gripped in one of the coldest moments they’ve seen in generations. Temperature (and) windchills (reached) -55, -60 (degrees).”

Phillips said food banks were crowded and hospitals were full of patients seeking care for frostbite and hypothermia.

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9) Quebec’s record wet July

Just a few months after the ice storm, Quebec suffered more severe weather.

That’s Environment Canada’s ninth top weather story.

The yearly, rising water levels in Quebec were deadly in 2023, claiming the lives of two firefighters who were swept away by floods.

Quebec Premier François Legault has said that one of the firefighters used his own amphibious ATV to try to reach a couple whose home was surrounded by water in the town.

The springtime snowmelt and hard and heavy rain in the summer – more than 100 millimetres in Quebec City, the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships – forced hundred of people from their homes.

80 millimetres of rain fell in Sherbrooke, Que., in two hours, Phillips said, stating that the total amount of rain in July was two-to-three times what it normally would be.

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“It was just devastating for farmers. They were just drenched and swamped.”

Phillips said the floods caused about $300 million in damages.

10) Canada Day tornado in Alberta

Environment Canada’s tenth top weather story in 2023 was the power tornado that touched down in Alberta on Canada Day.

It was an EF-4, with wind speeds reaching an estimated 275 km/h, the government said at the time.

It’s one of the more powerful ones in Canada and certainly the most powerful one we’ve seen in Alberta since the Edmonton killer tornado 35 years ago,” Phillips said. “We saw farm machinery weighing 10,000 kilograms picked up like like Tonka toys and tossed into the fields (and) well-established homes – these aren’t trailers – well-established homes, about 12 or so, were demolished.”

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A preliminary report on a weekend tornado in central Alberta says winds were so violent they picked up a 10,000-kilogram farm combine and tossed it half the length of a football field. Vehicles sit amidst a home the tornado damage near Carstairs, Alta., Saturday, July 1, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh.


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Phillips ended his presentation on a sombre note – warning extreme weather is becoming more common.

I think scientists are confident what we saw this year in terms of weather extremes would not have been possible in total without human caused-climate change,” he said. “And as our climate continues to warm at the hands of human beings, I think we should expect to see more wildfires.”

 

with files from Kalina Laframboise, Annabelle Olivier, Sean Previl, Aaron D’Andrea, Simon Little, Christa Dao, Emily Mertz, Rebecca Lau, Mitchell Bailey, Stephanie Swenrude, Carolyn Kury de Castillo, Gabby Rodrigues, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press.

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