Northern Tornadoes Project finds 2023 had fewer and milder tornadoes in Canada

The EF4-rated damage occurred at a farm on the west side of Highway 2A. It was a
The EF4-rated damage occurred at a farm on the west side of Highway 2A. It was a well-constructed home, and all exterior and above-grade interior walls were knocked down. Debris was scattered well downwind. One person took shelter in the basement and survived. (Northern Tornadoes Project photo)
Western’s Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) recorded 86 tornadoes (including a fire-generated tornado) across Canada during the 2023 season, significantly less than the previous year’s 129 - a Canadian record for the most tornadoes documented in a year.

According to NTP executive director David Sills, it wasn’t just the lower total that made it a relatively quiet tornado year across Canada. "There were only five tornadoes with damage rated EF2 or higher across Canada in 2023, and that’s the lowest since NTP started its investigations in 2017, and far less than the 30+ that was recorded in 2021 and 2022," said David Sills, NTP executive director NTP researchers are constantly analyzing and updating severe weather data from across the country, meaning more tornadoes and downbursts may be discovered over time. Last year, preliminary data showed there were 117 tornadoes in Canada, but that number has climbed to 129 following a year of further investigation.

Even during a relatively quiet year for tornado activity, Canada experienced an extreme tornado event. The tornado near Didsbury, AB on Canada Day (July 1, 2023) was only the second EF4-rated Canadian tornado since the start of NTP investigations in 2017.

David Sills, executive director, NTP "The Didsbury tornado flattened the buildings that it encountered, but only a small number due to its path through a rural area," said Sills. "Thankfully, occupants of the homes that were destroyed got the warning and found safety."

Of the 86 verified tornadoes across Canada in 2023, 42 (or 49 per cent) would likely not have been documented without NTP investigation. Members of the Western project actively work to develop new methods and tools to inform the field of severe storms research, and utilize satellite, aircraft, drones, and on-the-ground surveys to capture and analyze tornado events and their damage.

Beyond the severe weather event information posted to NTP’s , the project released complete findings from their 2023 investigations in their annual report.

Founded in 2017 with support from social impact fund ImpactWX, NTP is a team of engineers, faculty, staff, and students aiming to better detect tornado occurrences throughout Canada, improve severe and extreme weather prediction, mitigate against harm to people and property and investigate future implications of climate change.

Intense wildfire causes a rare type of tornado 

In 2023, NTP conducted 438 severe weather investigations, including 394 high-resolution satellite imagery surveys, 65 ground surveys and 64 drone surveys.

For the first time, NTP also documented a fire-generated tornado that occurred with an intense August wildfire in British Columbia.

"Only a few fire-generated tornadoes have been documented around the world, and we can add one more after a detailed investigation by the NTP," said Sills.

A recent and very successful initiative at NTP is the hiring of a large number of student interns for the summer season.

"The interns help with surveys or with coding up solutions to various NTP research problems," said Sills. "The quality of the work they have done has been outstanding."

Manitoba and Ontario most hit 

The 2023 tornado season began in May and ended in October, which is a fairly typical six-month season in Canada. Consistent with results from 2020 to 2022, Ontario recorded the most tornadoes over land (30 events) with an additional nine tornadoes recorded over water.

Alberta was the second most active province in 2023 with 19 tornadoes, with 10 of those occurring in an outbreak on June 14. Alberta also recorded the highest-rated tornado damage in 2023 at EF4 with the Didsbury tornado on July 1.

Downbursts in 2023 were all rated EF0 to EF1 and most often occurred in southern Manitoba (18) and southern Ontario (27).

Satellite sleuthing

In 2023, NTP completed 394 investigations that included the review of satellite imagery. By early 2024, researchers also completed the annual systematic search of Planet imagery in the most tornado-prone forested areas of Canada (covering an area of 2.91 million sq km).

Overall, for 2023, this search identified 15 tornadoes that would have otherwise gone unrecorded. This brings the tally of tornadoes discovered because of satellite imagery review during NTP operations to 186 since the project began in 2017.

"Satellite-based investigations are key to finding wind damage in remote areas like Canada’s boreal forest, and as new satellites bring increasing image resolution, satellite surveys will become increasingly important, even in more populated areas," said Sills.

Before (top) and after (bottom) high-resolution satellite images. Ground scouring through crops makes the tornado’s path easy to see in spots. The red line indicates the the path visible from satellite imagery. The ’s’ and the ’e’ mark the start and end points of the path found by the ground/drone survey team. It is typical for satellite imagery to have somewhat shorter visible paths. ( images)