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Canada - Climate and Weather

Canada has a very diverse climate due to its being the second largest country in the world. Weather conditions therefore vary greatly due to location and season. While much of Northern Canada has a subarctic climate, covered in snow and ice for over half the year, parts of coastal British Columbia experience an oceanic climate with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.

In the more populated regions of the country there are generally four very distinct seasons, with summer daytime temperatures reaching highs of 35°C and falling to average lows down to -25°C in winter. Spring and autumn typically see much milder conditions. Summers are often hot and dry in prairie areas, milder in coastal regions and humid in central areas. Vancouver and the rest of the BC west coast experience less distinct seasons, having a more moderate climate. Summer temperatures average at around 18°C and the average winter temperature is around 4°C. Of the major cities, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal have the warmest summers.

Winters can be harsh throughout much of the country, especially in the interior and prairie provinces, where temperatures can fall to below -40°C. Vancouver’s winters are the mildest of any of Canada’s eight largest major cities, with Winnipeg’s being the coldest. While Vancouver sees little snow, Whistler, just two hours away, sees huge snowfalls and is a major ski destination. Toronto and Montreal in Eastern Canada experience short but intense winters, with temperatures often falling far below freezing and bringing eight-inch snowfalls from December through to February. Due to the warm Chinook wind phenomenon, winters in Southern Alberta can see temperatures of around -25 one day and 15 the next when the winds blow.

Many people visiting the country in winter do so in order to enjoy winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding, and flights and hotel bookings are often cheaper at certain times during winter. Many cities hold winter festivals to celebrate the season and its weather; for example Ottawa’s Winterlude, which boasts the world’s largest ice rink measuring 8km long, and Quebec’s Winter Carnival, the largest winter carnival in the world, featuring the famous night and daytime parades, dog sledding and canoe and sleigh racing and a masquerade ball.

Harsh winter weather requires appropriate dress. It is essential to keep feet dry and warm with woolen socks and thermal insoles, waterproof (preferably knee-high) boots and soles with good grip. Leather soles can slip on ice. Thick gloves or mittens, a scarf and a hat which covers your ears are essential as body heat is quickly lost through the head. It is best to layer loose-fitting clothing, as this provides most insulation, and cover up with a water and wind-proof coat. As little skin as possible should be exposed to the elements as frostbite can set in very quickly and cause serious damage.

In times of heavy snowfall pavements may disappear and pedestrians may be forced to walk in the road. You should bear in mind that on snow and ice-covered roads drivers can’t stop as quickly, and if snow is falling they may have reduced visibility and be unable to see you ahead. It is best to walk in the direction of oncoming traffic so both you and the driver can be sure of seeing each other in time.

Floods are the most frequent and expensive natural weather-related hazard in Canada. They are most often caused by heavy rainfall and rapid melting of snow packs and ice jams. They are also common in autumn due to hurricanes and tropical storms. Between 1900 and 2005 there were 241 flood disasters in the country.

Wildfires are the second most common natural hazard in Canada, with over 8,000 occurring every year. Areas most often affected are British Columbia and the Boreal forest areas of Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, and Yukon and Northwest Territories. Wildfires occur mainly between May and September, causing extensive damage as well as putting lives in danger. Over half of all forest fires are manmade, with the second most common cause being lightning.

Canada experiences more tornadoes than any other country in the world apart from the USA. Southwestern Ontario and the southern Prairies are the most commonly affected areas. Most take place in summer although they can happen at any time of the year, and they generally occur in the afternoon and early evening. Moving at speeds of up to 70km/hour they are highly destructive and can uproot trees, overturn cars and rip roofs off houses.

Avalanches and landslides are also common occurrences, with thousands happening every year. Avalanches can occur in any region of the country but are most prevalent in the mountains of British Columbia, Yukon and Alberta. They can travel at up to 90km/hour and bury anything in their path. Landslides are usually small but cause the most destruction in the BC and Alberta mountains and in the St. Lawrence Lowlands of Quebec and Ontario.

High-wind blizzards are most frequent in eastern Ontario, the eastern Arctic and the Prairies. These occur when high-speed winds exceeding 40 km/hour whip up fallen or falling snow and reduce visibility to 400 metres or less. Hailstorms are common in all parts of the country but more so in Alberta, the southern Prairies and Southern Ontario, where hailstones can be as big as grapefruits and cause significant damage.

Around 5000 small earthquakes take place in Canada every year, with about half occurring in or around British Columbia. Between 1985 and 2016, 300 earthquakes occurred registering 4 or higher in magnitude. Destructive earthquakes are rare, however.

The sunniest major city in Canada is Calgary, Alberta with an average 333 days of sunshine a year, and Alberta and Saskatchewan are the country’s sunniest provinces. Prince Rupert, B.C., however, is the wettest city in all of Canada, with an average 239.7 days of rain a year. St John’s, Newfoundland follows close behind with an average 212 days of precipitation per year. British Columbia is well-known for its rainy weather, and from November through to March it is common for it to rain every day for several weeks. That may seem gloomy until you take into account that while in the most northern community of Nunavut there is 24 hour daylight in June, there is 24-hour darkness in December!

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