With British Columbia’s varied and coastal climate, the weather is always a headline maker, but in 2021 those headlines were of another magnitude.
For the second half of the year heat, fire and floods — and their devastating human impacts — led the news, even amid massive stories like COVID-19 and the discovery of unmarked Indigenous children’s graves.
“For decades climatologists have been warning the world about the impacts of climate change and while we have slowly and increasingly been experiencing those impacts over the past decade, this year was much different — it was a huge wake-up call for everyone, experts included,” said Global BC senior meteorologist Kristi Gordon.
“This year’s weather events, coupled with the fact experts have a much better understanding of how our changing climate is increasing the frequency and intensity of these weather events, has really changed the conversation. Climate change is no longer a thing of the future, nor debatable. Climate change is happening now, around the world and we in B.C. just experienced the devastating impacts firsthand. “
Here is a look at some of the major weather stories that drove the news cycle in B.C. in 2021.
Over the final 10 days of June, southern British Columbia faced a deadly and unprecedented heat wave driven by a “heat dome,” a strong ridge of high pressure that trapped warm air underneath it for days.
The region saw daytime temperatures climb into the mid-to-high 30s on the South Coast and mid-40s in the Interior, with much of the heat failing to bleed off overnight.
More than 1,000 daily temperature records were broken over 11 days, including 100 topping 40 C, according to Environment Canada.
The most prominent was what Environment Canada has called a “Death Valley moment” in Lytton, B.C., which set the all-time Canadian heat record for three consecutive days — topping out at 49.6 C —, before burning to the ground in a deadly wildfire on the fourth day.
The previous Canadian heat record, set in Yellowgrass and Middale Saskatchewan, had stood for 84 years.
“Power grids failed, asphalt melted, highways buckled, and fruit baked on vines and trees. City workers turned on portable spray parks, added heavy misters, converted hockey rinks into cooling centres, and opened libraries and recreation centres around the clock,” Environment Canada said of the heat wave.
“Because it was almost impossible to go outside, people moved mattresses into basements to wait it out. Many local residents checked into air-conditioned hotels with their cats and dogs to escape the heat.”
The consequences of the heat wave were immense. The BC Coroners Service says at least 595 people died of heat-related complications — most of them between June 25 and July 1, and a majority of them seniors.
B.C.’s NDP government faced significant criticism for its handling of the heat wave, including comments from Premier John Horgan who initially said: “fatalities are a part of life.”
The opposition BC Liberals and BC Greens pointed to earlier government reports warning of the risks of extreme heat, and arguing the government should have been more prepared and provided more access to and information about resources such as cooling shelters for the vulnerable.
The government defended its response, calling the heat dome a once-in-one-thousand-years weather event, but pledging to learn from the disaster.
The BC Ambulance Service also came under fire, amid reports of slow service and people flocking to fire stations looking for help. It later emerged the service had not activated its 24-hour emergency coordination centre until the day the heat began to subside.
In July, the province announced a major shake-up in the ambulance service, creating a new position of chief ambulance officer, announcing a new board and pledging to add 85 new paramedic positions.
Climate scientists said it is difficult to attribute any individual extreme weather event to climate change, but that events like the heat dome are expected to become more frequent as the average global temperature rises.
Another devastating wildfire season
Hot on the heels of the heatwave that rocked B.C. was yet another punishing wildfire season that saw an estimated 50,000 evacuations and a province-wide state of emergency for the third out of the last five seasons.
More than 86,000 square kilometres were burned by 1,610 fires throughout the summer, coming with a firefighting bill of at least $565 million, over a summer plagued by consistent hot and dry conditions.
“The province had its warmest summer since records began in 1948. Furthermore, in the already dry Interior, warm-season rainfall was record low. Some places had not seen rain for five weeks or more,” Environment Canada said.
“Adding to the hot and dry conditions, there was frequent dry lightning, gusty winds, low humidity and bright sunshine that made for a long, busy, intense and challenging fire season.”
That wasn’t enough to make it the “worst” fire season on record, according to the BC Wildfire Service, with the title still held by the devastating 2017 season when 12,000 square kilometres burned at a firefighting cost of $649 million.
Residents affected by the fires this year may disagree. Two lives and scores of homes were lost when Lytton was destroyed on July 1. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but the Transportation Safety Board has ruled out the possibility it was started by a train.
Lytton residents, most of whom remain displaced, have expressed frustration at the slow pace of recovery. The province has announced a recovery liaison and a $1 million recovery grant to begin the process.
Lytton residents weren’t the only ones to lose their homes.
The massive White Rock Lake wildfire, which burned between Vernon and Kamloops for much of the summer and grew to more than 80,000 hectares in size, forced hundreds of evacuations and damaged or destroyed at least 78 properties.
Some residents of the area refused to evacuate, staying to try and fight the fires themselves, and earning a scolding from the province’s public safety minister who said they put first responders at risk.
But some also had strong words for the province, claiming firefighting resources were scarce on the ground in the fire zone itself and that much more could have been done before and in the early days of the destructive blaze.
Insurance losses from the White Rock Lake and Lytton fires have been estimated at at least $164 million.
The White Rock Lake fire was just one of 67 fires large or dangerous enough to be considered “wildfires of note,” with other fires near Osoyoos, Merritt, Logan Lake, Kamloops, 100 Mile House and Princeton and other communities forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes, and thousands more to wait anxiously under evacuation alerts.
At the peak of the fires, more than 4,000 personnel were on the ground, including crews from Mexico, Australia and other Canadian jurisdictions flying in to help.
Atmospheric river triggers unprecedented floods
Rounding out the deadly trifecta of extreme weather events in 2021, B.C. followed the heat and fire with devastating floods in November.
While rainfall warnings and some highway travel advisories were in effect, no one was prepared for the scale of the ensuing disaster.
“Rainfall totals associated with the mid-November atmospheric river were astronomical. Some places received between 200 and 300 millimetres in 2.5 days; well above November’s average monthly total,” Environment Canada said.
“In 2 days, 40 daily rainfall records were eclipsed with totals experienced only once every 100 years.”
Sunday and into Monday, a series of mud and landslides smashed all key highways leading in and out of the Lower Mainland, including Highway 1 on both sides of Hope, the Coquihalla Highway, Highway 7 west of Hope, Highway 99 between Pemberton and Lillooet and Highway 3 between Hope and Princeton.
Five people were killed in the Highway 99 landslide, and at least one person remains unaccounted for from the valley between Spences Bridge and Merritt, where the Coldwater River wiped out much of Highway 8.
Hundreds of drivers were trapped on Highway 7 between landslides, prompting aerial evacuations.
Flooding inundated parts of Merritt and damaged the city’s water system, prompting the evacuation of the entire community and extensive damage. Hundreds of residents still hadn’t been cleared to return home by mid-December.
Princeton, too, suffered significant damage as the Tulameen River flooded its banks.
Floodwaters from Washington state’s Nooksack river also surged north across the border, inundating Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie, a former lake bed and home to some of the region’s most productive agriculture.
The water breached dikes protecting the lowlands, forcing hundreds of people from their homes and farms, and prompting farmers to take desperate measures — including the use of jet skis — to try and save livestock.
The city warded off further disaster after staff and volunteers spent a nail-biting night sandbagging to protect the Barrowtown pump station, a key piece of infrastructure keeping the former lake bed from becoming further inundated.
The Canadian Armed Forces answered B.C.’s call for help, deploying 500 troops to the province to help battle flooding.
Some soldiers helped crews in Abbotsford as they raced to repair dikes ahead of another series of atmospheric rivers the following week that delivered further flooding.
While no fatalities were recorded in the flooding, tens of thousands of animals are believed to have perished.
Working around the clock, highway crews were able to reopen essential-travel-only corridors to the interior vial Highways 3 and 99. But it was weeks before the province was able to reopen Highway 1 through Abbotsford.
Damage to Highway 1 through parts of the Fraser Canyon and Highway 8 remains extensive, with work to reopen them expected to stretch well into the new year.
The Coquihalla Highway also suffered catastrophic damage with more than 20 sites affected along the route, however, crews were able to open the highway to essential travel only on Dec. 20.
While officials have yet to put a price tag on the damage from flooding and landslides, it is widely expected to become Canada’s most expensive natural disaster with a price tag into the billions of dollars.
Deadly natural disasters were not the only extreme weather to stun British Columbia in 2021.
On Nov. 6, Environment Canada issued a brief tornado watch, as a massive funnel cloud formed over the Strait of Georgia near Richmond.
The phenomenon lasted just under an hour, passing by the Vancouver International Airport and making landfall over the University of British Columbia.
Strong winds from the system uprooted trees and sent branches flying in the UBC area Saturday evening, even damaging some vehicles.
Eerie cell phone video showed debris hovering and flying up into the air.
The damage forced the closure of University Boulevard and the diversion of transit vehicles to UBC while crews cleaned up the mess.
Environment Canada later confirmed the event to be an EF0-rated tornado, with peak wind speeds estimated between 90 and 110 kilometres per hour.
Environment Canada Meteorologist Mike Gismondi said the event was “extremely rare,” noting that smaller waterspouts are common over the Strait of Georgia, but nothing this strong or long-lasting.
Add this one to your list of rare meteorological phenomena to hit B.C. this year: bomb cyclones.
A bomb cyclone refers to a low-pressure system, which intensifies by rapidly dropping more than 24 millibars in pressure in less than 24 hours.
In October, British Columbia saw two.
The first churned off the B.C. coast on Oct. 21 and thankfully remained offshore, weakening as it moved northwards.
Even so, category 2 hurricane strength winds up to 161 km/h were reported off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.
While it didn’t result in any destruction on land, it is believed to have been responsible for the rough seas that struck the MV Zim Kingston, a cargo carrier that lost 105 containers near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Only four of those containers were ever recovered — after washing ashore on northern Vancouver Island and spilling their contents, prompting a massive cleanup operation.
The other 101, including two with hazardous materials, are believed to have sunk according to the Canadian Coat Guard.
On Oct. 25, a second bomb cyclone became the strongest storm ever in the Pacific Northwest, with its low-pressure centre hitting a record low of 942.5 millibars.
This storm stalled off the coast for several hours, and began to weaken dramatically before moving towards the coast and making landfall — a situation Global BC meteorologist Kristi Gordon described as “really lucky.”
“Although not the destruction that could have occurred, the impact of this unprecedented storm (was) significant,” Gordon said.
“A tree fell on a house in Metro Vancouver and narrowly missed a man sitting on his couch.”