Coast-to-coast wildfires the top weather story of 2023, says chief climatologist

Coast-to-coast wildfires the top weather story of 2023, says chief climatologist
Environment Canada's top climatologist says coast-to-coast wildfires made for the country's top weather story of 2023. Helicopters fly past the Tremont Creek wildfire as it burns on the mountains above Ashcroft, B.C., on Friday, July 16, 2021.

Canadians love to talk about their weather. This year, so did people around the world.

“So much of the world was focused on Canada,” said David Phillips, Environment Canada’s chief climatologist, who prepares an annual ranking of the top 10 weather stories.

This year’s winner, of course, is wildfires. Flames scorched the country from coast to coast and sent thick gouts of smoke into the United States and even across the Atlantic Ocean to northern Europe.

“(Fires) were having consequences for people elsewhere — just ask 100 million Americans,” said Phillips.

“And the thinking out there is, ‘how could this possibly come from Canada? This is where the air is polished and washed and scrubbed.'”

But come from Canada it did. Phillips lists the records broken this year.

The total area burned — 184,493 square kilometres — was double the previous record and almost seven times the 10-year average. Nearly a quarter million Canadians were forced from their homes, including the entire city of Yellowknife. Nunavut had its first fire evacuation.

Wildfires blazed in nearly every province and territory in the country, often at the same time. More than 10,800 firefighters — nearly half from abroad — were fighting fires by May and were still there five months later.

“Million and millions of Canadians smelled the smoke and tasted and felt the ashes falling,” Phillips said.

Another top 10 event on Phillips’ list is related — Canada’s hottest summer.

Climate is behaving normally when high-temperature and low-temperature records are about even, said Phillips. This year, it wasn’t even close.

“In the last two months, there were 650 records for warm temperatures broken. How many for cold temperatures? None.

“It was so one-sided it’s scary.”

Between May and September, every province and territory except for Atlantic Canada recorded their warmest five months on record. Kamloops, B.C., recorded 62 days of above 30 C weather and waters off the East Coast were up to five degrees above normal.

Perhaps Halifax could be the poster city for Canadian weather in 2023. Not only was the capital of Nova Scotia threatened by a wildfire, it had to deal with extensive flooding.

“Shed a tear for the people in Nova Scotia,” said Phillips. “A year ago they had the most expensive, dangerous hurricane in Canadian history (Fiona) and they were still cleaning up.”

June rainfall in the Bluenose province was more than double the norm. It was again double in July — and most of it fell in two days.

On July 21, up to 250 millimetres of rain fell across the province’s southwestern shore, in parts of Halifax and in the central and western parts of the province — a summer’s total in a day. The community of Bedford got 173 mm in six hours, a new national record.

The whole of Eastern Canada was awash. Flash floods raged through southern Ontario and Sherbrooke, Que., had three times its normal July rainfall.

Heat got most of the headlines in 2023, but that old Canadian nemesis — cold — didn’t go away. February brought the deep freeze, with Vancouverites huddling in -10 C temperatures and southeastern Canada suffering temperatures up to 20 C colder than normal.

That followed a December cold snap that killed hundreds of hectares of grapes for B.C. winemakers.

Phillips shakes his head.

“I never thought I’d see another year like 2021, with its heat domes and atmospheric rivers. But this year … it was a mean year.”

It’s not like it’s a different kind of weather, Phillips said. No typhoons hit Ottawa. It’s the same old Canadian stuff, just ramped and amped to 11.

“The evidence is clearly mounting. It’s more certain that human-induced climate warming is making extreme weather more extreme. And it’s one extreme followed by the other extreme.”

As a climatologist, it’s fascinating, Phillips said. As a Canadian, it’s worrying.

“Modern society can be brutalized by the weather,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the preview of what we’re going to be seeing in the future.”

By Bob Weber

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2023. 

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