Were there more storms this summer or are we just getting better at taking pictures of them? We ask the experts

That He felt Like a more intense storm season than usual, but was it really? We may have improved on documenting them.

The type of storms we experienced in Ontario this summer was unique – they were larger and covered more of the province than usual. They were also longer, stretching in some cases for hours before tapering off, according to meteorological experts who spoke to the Star. At the same time, the way we perceive storms has changed due to social media, making major weather events feel more acute than in the past.

The summer felt particularly stormy, but that’s not the reality, said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. Instead, there were more intense instances of rain and thunder over a short period of time, marking memorable weather events, likely to stick with the people.

When dark skies roll in, people will likely be inclined to photograph it and post it on social media, said George Kourounis, a storm chaser and explorer who resides at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The result is that the storms have entered our collective consciousness. “Our perception has certainly changed due to the types of storms and due to our ability to share our information.”

Phillips said he would classify the May-September period as hotter and wetter than usual, but has yet to break records. In a normal year, based on historical averages, we would expect to see roughly 27 days of a thunderstorm and 33 hours of a thunderstorm during that time period, he said. This summer, Toronto Pearson Airport recorded only 17 days of thunderstorms, but 29 hours of storms during that same time.

Most of those storms merged in late summer, between late August and early September, Phillips said. Specifically, a storm that occurred overnight from September 7-8 accounted for nearly 52 millimeters of the month’s rain (historically, September’s total rain is around 74 millimeters) and five hours of thunderstorms. Five hours of stormy weather is interesting, he added, since generally a thunderstorm is a “one-hour wonder” that comes and goes quickly.

Despite the lower-than-usual number of storms in Ontario this year, Kourounis said we’ve seen several “synoptic-scale events,” which refer to long lines of storms spreading horizontally across long swaths of the province and they stretch from Michigan and Lake Erie.

As storms settle lower in the sky and spread across much of southern Ontario, more people in the province are affected by one storm event at a time, he said. “It’s like a giant broom sweeping across southern Ontario and all of its people.”

The effect is that people think there are more storms, even though Ontario is having a slightly below-average year, Kourounis said.

Meanwhile, ominous and highly photogenic platform clouds, wedge-shaped clouds rising from the horizon and signaling a thunderstorm is coming, prompt people to take photos and post them online, he said. Since social media influences the way we view the world around us, it’s not just that the climate and weather are changing – our perception is changing, too, Kourounis said.

Tornado damage from July 15, 2021 in Barrie.  Ontario recorded 14 tornadoes this season that rated above an EF-2 in severity, meaning they were considered significant and capable of causing serious property damage.

While the storm season was not as widespread as we thought, the tornado season was an outlier, especially near Lake Huron, said David Sills, executive director of the Northern Tornadoes Project, which tracks tornado occurrences in Canada.

The project recorded 14 tornadoes in Ontario this season that rated above an EF-2 in severity, meaning they were considered significant and capable of causing serious property damage. Of these, seven happened in a single day. The number breaks a previous season record set in May 1985 during the Barrie tornado outbreak, when 14 tornadoes of varying severity struck Ontario. (Some of the 1985 tornadoes are below an EF-2 and are considered weaker than the 14 significant tornadoes recorded this year.)

“That’s quite significant,” Sills said. Outside of the province, only five tornadoes were recorded in EF-2 or more, making Ontario Canada the hot spot for tornadoes.

Meanwhile, while mid-June to mid-August is typically the peak season for Canadian tornadoes, virtually none were documented in western Canada, marking an intensely quiet season in the prairies, an area that normally I would see several tornadoes every summer.

“We’re going to look at this more closely,” Sills said, noting that it hasn’t been a year since the 1950s that the prairies have not suffered a tornado. “It’s really unusual.”

While Phillips cautioned that we may find more tornadoes than usual as a result of better technology with which to track them, Sills said the year was still an anomaly. Nova Scotia, for example, had two tornadoes.

“They haven’t had a documented tornado in over 20 years.”

For Phillips, this summer and early fall presented “a dry test” of what summers would look like with climate change. “I think the extremes are going to get wilder,” he said. “In many ways, it was a classic textbook example of the kind of things we’ll see in the future,” he said of the heaviest single-day rains and the warmest summer overall.

For every degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold eight to 12 percent more moisture, Phillips explained.

At three degrees centigrade of warming, worst case A climate marker that we could plausibly hit without urgent mitigation measures, “garden variety” thunderstorms will soon bring us more rain than we’re prepared for, Phillips said.

Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @jennamoon


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