Insights that Echo Beyond the Echo Chamber


Canada’s top 10 weather stories of 2023: Wildfires, smoky skies, a record hot summer and more

Every year, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) ranks the top 10 Canadian weather stories. Senior climatologist David Phillips compiles the list and this year, there was no doubt about what would take the number one position: the record-setting wildfires.

“There’s no drum roll here,” Phillips said. 

“The fires dominated everything…. In 28 years of putting together [this list], it’s never been a more obvious number one.”

Wildfire season got an early start due, in part, to the persistent drought conditions across B.C. and in the west in general.

Combined with hot weather, the result was conditions that were perfect for wildfires.

The season was dominated by the wildfires in the west and North. In total, more than 235,000 Canadians were forced to evacuate their communities.

But the blazes were happening from coast to coast to coast.

For example, in Halifax, 18,000 people had to flee their homes in late May; eventually, the provincial government banned all activities in the forests, including camping, hiking and fishing. Days later, the city of Sept-Iles, Que., located about 750 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, issued a state of emergency and 5,000 people were forced out of their homes.

By June 27, Canada had already blown past its historic record for total area burned. By the end of wildfire season, 184,493 square kilometres had burned, the equivalent of almost 1.4 times the combined size of the three Maritime provinces, Phillips noted, making it the worst fire season in our country’s history. 

On Aug. 16, the city of Yellowknife issued an evacuation order to its 20,000 residents, who sought safety in B.C., Alberta, and Manitoba. 

WATCH | Yellowknife wildfire evacuees talk about flight to safety: 

Yellowknife wildfire evacuees pour into Alberta town after harrowing 700-km journey

“I was really impressed by the people in Yellowknife,” Phillips said. “Two-thirds of the population left, and then they had to go to places like Winnipeg…. And the anxiety of the thing. Are my property and possessions going to still be there? And no news about what state they were in for, like, three weeks.”

While there were no civilian casualties, at least four firefighters died while battling the blazes.

But the wildfires had another consequence.

Smoky skies

The wildfires produced smoky skies that extended across Canada — and the planet.

Thick smoke hung in the air above many parts of the U.S. New York City looked like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie. At one point, the New York Post somewhat playfully blasted a front-page headline that read “Blame Canada!” a nod to a song from South Park.

The smoke reached as far south as Florida.

WATCH | ‘Do you believe these guys in Canada?’:

#TheMoment New Yorkers told Canada to take its smoke back

“You know, the fact that the world was paying attention to Canada, weather-wise … it wasn’t just in a curiosity kind of way,” Phillips said. “No. It had consequences — for 100 million Americans. We saw those headlines in New York City and over in Europe, and people were in disbelief when I talked to [them].”

Thick smoke covered southern Ontario and Quebec and could even be smelled in the air. At the end of June, Montreal had some of the worst air quality on the planet — 38 times the World Health Organization’s guidelines.

A ferry passing by the Statue of Liberty shrouded in smoky haze due to the wildfires in Canada.
The Statue of Liberty in New York City is obscured by haze and smoke caused by June wildfires in Canada. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

And in Ottawa, the air quality became so bad that the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival’s outdoor festivities and the Dragon Boat Festival were shut down. In parts of southwestern Ontario, mail delivery was put on hold. Face masks were once again donned, this time not to protect against a virus but against toxic air.

Hottest summer 

The planet was hot this year. It’s anticipated that 2023 will be the hottest year on record, beating out 2016’s record of 1.03 C above pre-industrial warming. 

That was helped by global record-setting summer temperatures. June, July and August recorded the hottest monthly temperatures ever. And it showed no signs of abating, with September, October and November ranking the warmest months as well.

While it was the hottest summer globally — the hottest day ever recorded on Earth was July 7 — Canada set its own record. 

It was the hottest summer in 76 years — 2 C warmer than average — going back to when national record-keeping began in 1948. 

A line graph illustrates monthly temperatures broken up into decades, but with 2016 and 2023 highlighted. 2023 is far surpassing other decades, as well as 2016.
Monthly global surface air temperature anomalies are shown relative to 1991–2020 from January 1940 to November 2023, plotted as time series for each year. 2023 and 2016 are shown with thick lines shaded in bright red and dark red, respectively. Other years are shown with thin lines and shaded according to the decade, from blue (1940s) to brick red (2020s). (Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF)

Even ocean temperatures were hot. Between July 17 and Aug. 7, the Canadian Atlantic ocean surface temperature was 3 C to 5 C above normal.

However, there was one tiny part of the country that didn’t see any abnormal summer heat at all.

“In the dog days of summer, from … July the 15th to the middle of August and into Labour Day, there were no days above 30 C in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa,” Phillips said. “And I thought that is the first time. I mean, we always have days above 30 in August — none this year.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t hit 30 C in those cities at all.

“We had them in April, and we had them in September and October. So we ended up with the longest summer on record.”

No shortage of weather stories

While these were the top three weather stories, there were plenty more, including flooding in Nova Scotia (after dealing with fires), dry weather in the west and Hurricane Lee.

Here is the list:

  1. The year for record wildfires 
  2. Canada cloaked in smoke
  3. Hottest summer, both on Earth and in Canada
  4. Deadly deluge in Nova Scotia
  5. Canada dry in the west and wet in the east
  6. Hurricane Lee — no Fiona, but more than a windy day
  7. April glaze storm in Montreal-Ottawa – more beast than beauty
  8. Cold spells in a warm year
  9. Flooding out: Quebec’s record wet July
  10. Canada Day tornado in Alberta

As for what lies ahead for 2024, it’s anyone’s guess, especially with this year’s presence of El Niño.

“People often ask me, ‘Well, gee, what’s your forecast for next year?’ And I usually say, ‘Well, more of the same,.’ But I’d be careful to not say that because [this] was such an unusual, expensive and impactful year for Canadians,” Phillips said.

El Niños have often been a two-year phenomenon, with the impacts taking off in the second year, he said. That trend is being considered by forward-looking experts at places like World Meteorological Organization and European Climate and Health Observatory, he said. 

“People have speculated … that there’s a better chance that next year will be warmer than this year.”

You can read ECCC’s full list here.


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