1998 Weather Was VERY
Strange By Any Measure
By Dennis Bueckert
Canadian Press
OTTAWA -- The ice storm was just the tip of the iceberg. Heat waves, forest fires, droughts, storms and floods made 1998 a startling year even for the most weather-hardened Canadians.
Although the toppled hydro towers and power outages in Eastern Canada made the biggest headlines, it was the unusually warm temperatures that had scientists in awe.
"It may be the warm year and the warm decade that may be the most significant story," said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada.
He notes that the 1990s have been the warmest decade of the century; temperatures from December 1997 to November 1998 were a full degree above the previous high set in 1981.
As the weird weather poured in, El Nino became the favourite scapegoat. The Pacific Ocean became the catch-all explanation for anything that didn't seem normal. Occasionally sunspots shared some blame.
But neither El Nino nor sunspots can fully explain the anomalies of the last year, says Phillips. He points to gradual warming of the Earth's climate due to the accumulation of heat trapping gases produced by human activity.
"Although the warm year is not of itself evidence of global warming, a sharp increase in global temperatures in the past few years has added strong and compelling evidence of humankind's contribution to climate change."
Canadians are known to welcome any departure from the normal cruelty of their climate, but the seemingly endless summer of 1998 did bring problems, especially since it was accompanied by below-average precipitation.
Tinder-dry forests went up in smoke at a furious rate. Fire destroyed 4.6 million hectares of timber, twice the normal amount. Half the people in Salmon Arm, B.C. had to be evacuated, and Swan Hills, Alta., was evacuated twice.
By the end of October about $700 million had been spent fighting forest fires -- twice the normal cost.
Lake Superior dropped to its lowest level in 73 years. Farmers in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley suffered large losses due to drought.
On Nov. 30, Ottawa reached 16.4 C, 15 degrees above normal. By mid-December, Phoenix and Las Vegas had received more snow than Montreal or Ottawa.
Natural gas prices plunged due to lack of demand for heating fuel. Retailers complained of slow sales due to low demand for seasonal goods. By mid-December, only two of Ontario's 80 downhill ski areas were open.
A green Christmas seemed imminent.
The mild weather caused some embarrassment for climatologists who had predicted an unusually severe winter due to the waning of El Nino and the rise of its opposite twin, La Nina.
Phillips said the forecast was thrown off by residual heat from the long summer stored in the air, land and waters. But he's sticking to his prediction of a cold winter.
The endless summer, it seems, is over.
"It's almost as if the system has been reset and we're into winter across Canada," says Phillips. "Almost the entire country is snow-covered."
The Environment Department forecast for the first part of January shows below-normal temperatures in much of the country.
Phillips isn't complaining: "What would make me happy is normal weather where you have snow in the winter and cold, and hot in the summer.
But neither is he ruling out another avalanche of surprises in the year ahead. For three years in a row, the weather has provided Canada's top news story. After the Saguenay flood, the Red River flood, and the Ice Storm, Canadian weather watchers have learned to expect the unexpected.