Hurricane Fiona

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By Paul Homewood

It’s the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, and as usual when a big one comes along it is greeted with the usual apocalyptic headlines:

Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without power, after Storm Fiona hit Canada’s coastline.

Fiona was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Friday.

But parts of three provinces experienced torrential rain and winds of up to 160km/h (99mph), with trees and powerlines felled and houses washed into the sea.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation was critical, and promised to provide support through the army.

Officials have yet to share reports of fatalities or serious injuries, but authorities are dealing with extensive flooding.

In a briefing Mr Trudeau described Fiona as “a very powerful and dangerous storm” and said the army will be deployed to help with assessment and clean-up efforts. His government has already responded positively to a request by Nova Scotia authorities for assistance.

“If there is anything the federal government can do to help, we will be there,” he said, adding that he would no longer travel to Japan to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for the Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, as well as in parts of Quebec.

The country’s eastern region could receive up to 10in (25cm) of rain, increasing the risk of flash flooding.

So first the facts:

  • Fiona had already been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone the day before landfall
  • At landfall on Nova Scotia, sustained wind speeds were 80 Kts, equivalent to Cat 1 strength.
  • On its track north over the Atlantic, Fiona peaked at Cat 4.

There is nothing remotely unusual about any of this.

Contrary to the popular myth, hurricanes and tropical storms are regular occurrences in Canada, and many others skirt offshore:

According to Wikipedia, 140 tropical and extra-tropical storms impacted Canada between 1951 and 2020, an average of two a year:

A glimpse at the 1950s gives an idea of the impact of hurricanes on Canada:

The most powerful hurricane recorded in Canadian waters was Ella in 1978, a Cat 4 storm with 140 mph winds measured just offshore of Nova Scotia. Fortunately Ella did not make landfall, instead passing to the east of the coastline.

The strongest to make landfall in Canada was Ginny in 1963, which was a Cat 2 storm when it hit Nova Scotia.

Whether the Newfoundland hurricane which hit in 1775 was stronger, we have no way of knowing. But we do know it was Canada’s deadliest natural disaster, leaving some 4000 dead in its wake. According to NOAA:

On September 9, 1775, a violent hurricane swept over the British colony of Newfoundland.  It sank many fishing boats and two British naval vessels to become the deadliest hurricane to strike Canada (and one of the top ten deadliest Atlantic hurricanes).  It was also the first one in Canada’s recorded history.

The week before, a hurricane ravaged the Outer Banks of North Carolina and eastern Virginia.  It is not known if this was the same storm that struck Newfoundland or if there were two storms hitting in close succession.  The NC/VA hurricane damaged crops, killed over 100 people, and drove a British naval vessel (HMS Otter) ashore, where it was captured and destroyed by Virginia rebels.  The Newfoundland storm was responsible for over 4000 deaths, mostly sailors at sea.  There were also reports of storm surge on land reaching anywhere from 20 to 30 feet (6.5-10 m).

David Ludlum, in his book “Early American Hurricanes” dubbed the first storm the “Independence Hurricane” as it occurred during the opening months of America’s War of Independence.  Stormy weather was noted by rebels holding the Bunker Hill heights on Sept. 3rd and 4th as the storm swept northward over Boston.


September 26, 2022