The summer of 2023 will be remembered as a season of extreme events that made many aware that the climate as we know it is changing. This year, a series of natural phenomena of rare intensity arose in Quebec and around the world. From wildfires and landslides to extreme heat events, severe thunderstorms and floods, the summer of 2023 was marked by significant weather and climate events.
A new climate reality
The summer experienced in Quebec and elsewhere in the world demonstrated a more turbulent climate than usual, while climate projections for the future predict an increase in extreme precipitation and temperature in the province of Quebec. A new study by World Weather Attribution to which UQAM and Ouranos contributed found that the severity of the forest fire season in Quebec between May and July 2023 was 50% more intense because of climate change caused by human activity. Some extreme events experienced this summer, such as the occurrence of tornadoes and landslides in Quebec, are more difficult to predict and to attribute to climate change, but they illustrate the need to reduce our vulnerability.
Nevertheless, the last few months have been a time of challenges: multiple extreme events tested the resilience of populations. The effective management of these phenomena centres on preparedness, planning and collaboration in the fight against climate hazards, and particularly on prevention. The objective is therefore not only to react to these phenomena, but to take upstream action in order to prevent the consequences of extreme events arising from climate change. The health and safety of the public is at stake.
Adaptation is essential
These recent events taught us lessons while reminding us of the importance of adapting to the changing climate. As summer draws to a close, various adaptation measures have been put in place, but it is clear that we can strengthen them and plan them more effectively to address the current and future climate emergency.
By joining forces, investing in research, developing structuring public policies and adopting sustainable practices, we are shaping a resilient Quebec that is ready not only to face climate change, but to create a promising future for generations to come.
A look back at this summer’s extreme events
June 2023: A hot, dry month in Quebec
Although July and August 2023 were the hottest months ever recorded on Earth, in Quebec, it was in June that the summer heat was particularly felt. It was the driest and the fourth warmest June recorded in the last hundred years, with only 62% of the usual precipitation and an average temperature 2.3°C above normal.
Devastating forest fires
During this season characterized by exceptional weather and climate conditions, Quebec also faced a formidable adversary: forest fires. As early as May, extreme heat episodes combined with a prolonged lack of precipitation created the ideal weather conditions for the ignition and rapid spread of forest fires.
The vast expanses of woodland that are the pride of the province transformed into infernos, burning everything in their path. From Abitibi-Témiscamingue to Côte-Nord, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Haute-Mauricie and Nord-du-Québec, forest fires multiplied, affecting nearly 5.3 million hectares of forests, far above the average over the last 10 years, when about 43,000 hectares of forest generally burned. To date, 674 wildfires have occurred in the province since the beginning of the year, which also exceeds the ten-year average of 476 fires recorded annually across Quebec.
In addition to the evacuation of several thousand inhabitants, the forest fires of summer 2023 degraded air quality several hundred kilometres from their points of origin. Montreal was covered in smog for a few days, and the city’s air quality was considered the worst in the world on June 25. Smoke also spread across the border, all the way to New York City.
Faced with the devastating 2023 forest fires, the recommendations of the latest report by the Office of the Chief Forester (in French only) are unequivocal: a deep reflection on forest management in Quebec must be undertaken. This reflection must result in the adaptation of our forestry practices and forests to the new climatic conditions. Scientific and climate knowledge in this area strongly supports the Chief Forester’s recent statements.
A violent and destructive weather cocktail
While precipitation was below the seasonal normal in early summer, severe thunderstorms bringing significant amounts of rain increased later in the season, particularly in July.
The storms on July 13 were among the most violent of the season. They swept the province with strong winds and significant amounts of rainfall. Tornadoes, a relatively rare phenomenon in Quebec, were also confirmed in Mirabel and Saint-Thomas, in Lanaudière. Trees were damaged but no one was injured.
Other violent storms and resulting torrential rains also caused various chaotic phenomena in Quebec. When the Saguenay Fjord area received between 75 and 100 millimetres of rain in early July, a major landslide occurred in the municipality of Rivière-Éternité. In addition to leading to the evacuation of many residents and vacationers, two people lost their lives.
Also in July, heavy rains raised water levels in many rivers in the Québec City region and the Eastern Townships. Several municipalities had to declare local states of emergency due to flooding in those areas. Some homes were also evacuated.
The violent storms and intense precipitation this summer clearly highlighted the need to better manage heavy rains in Quebec. It is now clear that spatial planning and appropriate infrastructure are essential.
Marked ocean warming
The European climate service Copernicus announced in early September that the world’s seas and oceans reached a record average temperature of 21°C on August 31, 2023. This dramatic increase is a worrying indicator of ongoing climate change and also adds to the impacts of climate change. The temperature of the seas and oceans, which has been monitored for several decades on a global scale, is on the rise. This is likely to cause more consequences and natural disasters. That was the case this year, with a particularly intense hurricane season despite the presence of the El Niño phenomenon.
Did you have the impression that the weather was bad this summer?
Although it is not an extreme event per se, the lack of sunshine in the province was a distinctive phenomenon this summer.
While there was heat and sunshine at the beginning of summer, no one would have believed that the rest of the 2023 summer season would become the greyest on record. If we compile the total number of hours of good weather—which corresponds to less than 50% cloud cover during the day—Montreal experienced only 340 to 370 hours of clear skies, while Québec City recorded between 270 and 300 hours of sunshine this summer. In both cases, these numbers are significantly lower than the data recorded since the early 1950s, when records on the number of hours of sunshine begin.
The greyest summers in Montreal
*Projection of the number of hours of sunshine in Montreal up to the end of the month of August 2023
Source: Météomédia, 2023