Friday, December 28, 2007

Students of the weather had lessons to learn

Globe and Mail (Canada): A slab of ice about the size of Ontario has disappeared from Canada's Arctic waters, and the big melt was so unexpected that it headed the list of Environment Canada's Top 10 weather stories for 2007. Satellite images taken on Sept. 12 revealed to scientists that there was 23 per cent less sea ice in the Arctic than last recorded in 2005. "When they looked at the satellite imagery," said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, "they said, 'My gosh, this is a shocker. This is something we wouldn't have even ever anticipated.' "

That made it the obvious choice for Environment Canada's No. 1 story, said Mr. Phillips, who has been compiling the Top 10 list for the last 12 years. His criteria include the size of the area affected and the economic impact on Canadians. But although some of the stories on this year's list, notably the Arctic ice melt and another about the steadily lowering water levels in the Great Lakes, connect to big-picture concerns like climate change, the list is still conceived as a kind of entertainment, Mr. Phillips said.

"I don't want people to feel morose about it. The world's not going to come to an end. It's a heads-up," he said. "We celebrate weather in this country, and often the weather that we celebrate is the tough weather. It's that pioneer spirit that still burns." But normal weather occurs less frequently now, he added. "I can't help but thinking, my gosh, it's becoming more difficult to prepare this list, not because of a lack of stories, but because there are too many of them."

Environment Canada's Top 10 for 2007:

1. Vanishing Ice…Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been melting since 1971, but this year's measurements, which are 23 per cent lower than the last recorded amount from 2005, mean that an ice chunk roughly the size of Ontario has disappeared.

2. Flooding in B.C….A buildup of B.C.'s mountain snowpack led to repeated flood warnings from officials when hot weather arrived suddenly in late May. Over the spring, the province experienced a number of significant floods. Notable ones were in the Nechako, Bulkley and Skeena Rivers.

3. Winter previews…A string of early snowstorms hit the country in early December. Canadians in communities from Vancouver Island to St. John's were busy shovelling loads of snow weeks before the official start of winter on Dec. 22.

4. Tropical Prairies…Instead of the usual few weeks of warm, sunny weather, the Prairie provinces experienced a period of intense humidity. Calgary endured its second-hottest July on record and Winnipeg broke its all-time humidex high, suffering damaged crops.

5. A thirsty Ontario…A record warm summer in Southern Ontario brought little rain, and the period from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 was the GTA's second-driest on record. Although not a drought by Prairie standards, the lack of precipitation was not good news for the province's corn crop.

6. Big Bad Noel…Hurricane Noel hit the Atlantic provinces in early November after wreaking havoc in the West Indies. The storm system stretched over a million square kilometres and caused much damage, but took no Canadian lives.

7. The great evaporation…Lake Superior's September water levels were the lowest ever. The lake has been recording levels consistently below average for the past 10 years. Water levels in the other Great Lakes were also low, raising questions about the impact climate change is having on the lake system.

8. A warm winter…Eastern Canada had a record warm winter last year, with cities from Toronto to Charlottetown experiencing lower-than-usual snowfall. Winter finally did hit in the second half of January, and lasted about six weeks.

9. Record Prairie hailers…Last summer, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had the highest number of severe weather events ever - 410 storms rained down on the Prairie provinces. Crop-related insurance claims skyrocketed as a result.

10. THE First F5 Tornado… On June 22, a 300-metre-wide tornado touched down for about 35 minutes roughly 40 kilometres east of Winnipeg. With a top wind speed of between 420 and 510 kilometres an hour, the tornado's force scattered debris along streets and fields, but caused no fatalities or serious injuries.

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