Canada Environment News

Calgary’s billion-dollar hail storm was Canada’s top weather story of 2020

Photo: Calgary’s billion-dollar hailer

Fort McMurray’s Flood of Century ranks #3

TORONTO, ON. – Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Senior Climatologist, David Phillips, and Physical Science Specialist, Chantal McCartin, today presented the 25th annual edition of Canada’s Top Ten Weather Stories.

Calgary, known as the hailstorm capital of Canada, topped the charts this year with the most damaging hailstorm in Canadian history. On June 13, hail the size of tennis balls was propelled by wind speeds up to 70 kilometres per hour, shaking houses, shattering windows, and downing trees.

1. Calgary’s billion-dollar hailer

Calgary, Alberta endured more than its share of stormy summer weather in 2020. The season featured frequent hailfalls with grapefruit-size stones, powerful wind speeds, tornado scares, dark funnel clouds, lightning-filled skies, torrential rains, and flash flooding.

The city lived up to its reputation as the hailstorm capital of Canada. The Insurance Bureau of Canada sees hail as such a threat in the city that it sponsors a cloud-seeding program in order to diminish the size of urban hailstones – a pea-size stone does much less damage than ones the size of tennis balls.

The June 13 hailstorm was Canada’s costliest and the fourth most expensive insured natural disaster in history with Canadian insurers estimating the dollar value of the 63,000 claims (minus crop losses) at about $1.3 billion. More than 32,000 vehicles were extensively damaged with cracked and smashed windshields with vehicle write-offs totalling $386 million.

As was frequently the case this summer, on June 13 warm, humid air was positioned over Alberta generating multiple rounds of severe thunderstorm cells. With colliding winds at various heights over southern Alberta, the resulting wind shearing kept the large, long-lived thunderstorms going.

Around 7 p.m. MDT, a hail core scraped over northeastern Calgary, visibility dropped to half a kilometre, and temperatures fell 5 degrees in less than six minutes. Hail the size of tennis balls and golf-balls ricocheted out of the sky propelled by wind speeds up to 70 km/h. Pounding hail shook houses, broke windows and downed trees. Crashing hail dimpled vehicles and riddled house siding with millions of dents.

The violent hailstorm smashed skylights, flattened flowerbeds and turned backyard vegetable gardens into coleslaw. Streets and intersections were flooded, and manhole covers were lifted. In its wake, slushy hail drifts 10 cm deep piled up along highways, and were still evident the next day.

Power outages knocked out service to more than 10,000 customers. Train and bus services were suspended due to flooding. Outside the city, the massive hailstorm decimated hundreds of thousands of hectares of young wheat, canola and barley.

Fort McMurray’s flood of a century

3. Fort McMurray’s flood of a century

For the second time in four years, residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta were forced out of their homes.

This time it was water, not fire.

Severe ice jamming on a 25-km stretch of the Athabasca River caused water to back up on the adjacent Clearwater River, flooding much of downtown at the end of April. It was said to be the most significant flooding in more than a century. In a matter of hours on April 26, ice clogging raised water levels on Fort McMurray area rivers between 4.5 and 6 metres.

The sheer size of the ice prevented the use of common ice-jam breaking options, such as explosives. Instead, what nature started, nature had to stop. An unprecedented two months of extreme cold as much as 10 degrees below normal, followed by a week of rapid warmth, lots of sunshine and warm rains prompted continued melting of the ice exacerbating the flood but continuing to mitigate it too. For more than a week, 13,000 residents in the lower townsite of Fort McMurray had to evacuate.

Another ice jam on the nearby Peace River forced 450 people from their homes in Fort Vermilion, Alberta.

Many customers went without power or gas service for nine days. States of local emergency and boil water advisories were in effect in both Fort McMurray and the surrounding municipality adding to the state of emergency declared a month earlier due to COVID-19.

Some residents were forced out of their homes after weeks of isolation due to the pandemic. Emergency measures officials did a remarkable job managing evacuations in one of the world’s first natural disasters during a public health crisis.

In spite of the efforts of thousands of volunteers and workers engaged in bailing and sandbagging to protect infrastructure including the hospital, essential businesses were unreachable in the submerged downtown core, and only a handful of grocery stores remained open, causing a strain on supply.

Tragically, a man from the Fort McKay First Nation, about 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, drowned after he and another were caught by rising waters of the Athabasca River.

Most water damage was to commercial property downtown where 1,230 structures were damaged from both overland flooding and sewer backup. Hundreds of abandoned cars and trucks were completely submerged. Huge ice chunks and piles of silt lay on the golf club and two small bridges on the course were smashed.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated the cost of the flooding from nearly 3,000 claims totalled above $562 million with 90 per cent paid out to commercial properties.

The Top Ten Weather Stories of 2020:

Canada’s Top Ten Weather Stories of 2020 are ranked from 1 to 10, according to factors that include the impact they had on Canada and Canadians, the extent of the affected area, economic impacts, and longevity as a top news story.

  1. Calgary’s Billion-Dollar Hailer
  2. BC’s September Skies: All Smoke, No Fire
  3. Fort McMurray’s Flood of a Century
  4. Endless Hot Summer in the East
  5. St. John’s Snowmageddon
  6. Record Hurricane Season and Canada Wasn’t Spared
  7. The Year’s Most Powerful Tornado
  8. Frigid Spring Helps Canadians Self-Isolate
  9. Fall in Canada – Winter in the West and Summer in the East
  10. August Long-Weekend Storms: East and West 

Pandemic causes serious threat

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health and safety of Canadians across the country, but the impacts of a changing climate have not slowed either. Across the country this year, Canadians were impacted by another year of extreme weather events—from destructive summer hailstorms, thick smoky skies, to powerful tornadoes.

In second place, climate-induced wildfires in California and the American Northwest spread smoke northward into British Columbia and Alberta, forcing millions to face smoke-filled skies for nearly two weeks in September. Among the other top weather events includes the record-breaking “Snowmageddon” in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, which brought 76 centimetres of snow to the city within an 18-hour period.

Regional weather highlights and runner-up events in 2020

National

  • Another “not-cold” year in Canada – 24 in a row
  • Quiet Canadian wildfire season
  • Arctic Ocean – more water than ice
  • Canadian ice shelves melting away

Prairie Provinces

  • Brutal cold, even for the Prairies
  • Widespread June wind-hail-rain in Saskatchewan
  • West Manitoba June Deluges
  • Tornado day in Saskatchewan
  • Northern Saskatchewan too wet for grain and rice producers
  • Thought to be tornadic, straight-line winds strike Manitoba
  • Edmonton rainstorm floods hockey venue
  • Calgary’s other hailstorm
  • Finally, summer heat in the Western Prairies
  • Big trough country
  • “Great” harvest with some exceptions
  • Pre-winter weather chills the second half of October
  • Weather dome over the west

Canada is warming at nearly twice the global rate with parts of western and northern Canada warming three or four times the global average. Sea ice in the North is thinning and shrinking, and our unique ice shelves are crumbling into pieces. While Canada is still the snowiest country, less snow is falling across the south.

White Christmases’ are less frequent and less white. Frost-free days are increasing, and our growing season is longer, but so too is the length and severity of the wildfire season.

Weather systems are moving slower, leaving more time to make an impact. When it rains it often rains harder and longer. Records continue to topple like never before, often dramatically shattering previous records.

So-called unprecedented events are becoming common, happening back-to-back, not decades apart. Our “Goldilocks” weather is not so sure any more with conditions being either too hot or too cold and too wet or too dry.

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