How Have Rainfall Intensities Changed in Canada Over the Past 10 Year? Not Much. Extreme 100-Year Rainfall and Short Duration Intensities Causing Flooding Are Lower

Environment and Climate Change Canada's Engineering Climate Datasets including rainfall intensity duration frequency (IDF) statistics are regularly updated as observation records become longer, and more and more stations have sufficient data to analyze.

What do the recent updates show? There is no new normal in design rainfall intensities.  Over the past 10 years, the severity of extreme rainfall has decreased on average.

Short duration sudden rainfall rates responsible for flooding in urban areas have also decreased overall - only the frequent, low intensities show an overall increase, which can be expected given additional precipitation in Canada. Of course some regions may have different trends (a previous post has shown that the southern Ontario frequent intensities (i.e., 2-year return period) have decreased).

Where do design intensities, the statistics in IDF curves and tables, come from?

Annual maximum series (AMS) of recorded rain intensity are collected for duration intervals of 5 minutes to 24 hours.  These series are used to derive probability density functions to describe the frequency distribution of rainfall, and that can be used to determine specific 'return period' design intensities.  The return period is the inverse of the probability of a rainfall intensity (or volume) over a certain duration occurring during a given year.  So a 100-year intensity has a 1/100 or 1% chance of being exceeded each year, while a 2-year intensity has a 1/2 = 50% chance per year. Storm sewers are designed to convey 2, 5 to 10-year return period rain intensities - 5-year is most common.  Flooding, especially extreme flooding, occurs at higher return periods becoming more severe above the 25-year return period and increasing for 50 and 100-year intensities.

The recent version 3.10 update to IDF statistics analyzes rainfall data up to 2017.  These intensities can be compared to the version 2.00 datasets that included data up to 2007.  A total of 226 stations were analyzed to check for changes in intensity - this total includes about 72 stations that have been relocated, but by not more than 5 km from their previous location.  The same trends are apparent for all the exact match stations (92 stations) and stations with new IDs but unchanged coordinates (154 stations).

The following chart shows the ratio of new intensities to old intensities for these 226 stations, so 1.0 means no change in design intensities.

Extreme Rainfall Trends in Canada - Design Intensities by Duration and Return Period

What are the take-aways?

1) rainfall design intensities are generally unchanged over the past 10 years, considering 3313 station-years of additional data,

2) extreme rainfall intensities, the 100-year rates (red markers in the chart), have decreased - the shortest duration intensity governing urban flood risk has dropped the most,

3) short duration intensities that govern sewver design, 5-year return period intensities (purple markers) over 5-minute to 2 hour durations are unchanged on average,

4) 2-year intensities (green markers), the low intensity rainfall that is exceeded in 50% of years, has increased slightly - these intensities do not govern infrastructure design and are unrelated to urban flash flooding or flood damages.

Popular media has focused on theoretical changes in rainfall intensity, sometimes confusing those projections with actual changes in rainfall intensity that have been measured or observed.  See this review of recent CBC coverage in the Financial Post.  Increasing damage amounts are erroneously linked to changes in rainfall due to a changing climate.

If popular media were to focus on observed data, and actual trends in extreme rainfall statistics, like the trends reviewed above, it would have to temper claims of a new normal in extreme weather.  Data do not show increases the critical rainfall intensities - in fact, on average, extreme intensities have decreased.

Changes in v2.00 to v3.10 dataset intensities are shown in the tables below.

Severe rainfall trends in Canada due to climate change
Extreme Rainfall Trends in Canada - Engineering Climate Datasets - IDF Curves

The analysis above is based on assessing the effect of adding additional data to the v2.00 IDF data intensities.  It is also possible to assess the effects of new data by splitting the series into old and new halves to compare IDF intensities and look for trends.  The following charts show the change in two long-period climate stations in the Toronto area.   Rainfall volumes are shown for a 24 hour period - intensities would be simply the volumes divided by 24 hours.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Climate Station - Changes in 24 Hour Rainfall Frequencies

For the Toronto Pearson International Airport climate station, the return periods of the old period volumes (blue line) have shifted right in the new data set, meaning longer return periods for a given volume, i.e., lower frequency.

The chart also compares how a climate model has predicted return periods have changed from 1961 to 2010, covering approximately a similar period.  Those model frequency shifts were reported by the CBC (link: and considered a 1 degree warming scenario. The climate model predicts lower return periods for a given volume, meaning that volume occurs more frequently - that is not consistent with observed local data at this station that has shown significantly longer return periods in the new period.

Toronto City Climate Station - Changes in 24 Hour Rainfall Frequencies

For the Toronto City (downtown) climate station, the return periods of the old period volumes (blue line) have shifted slightly right in the new data set, meaning slightly longer return periods for a given volume, i.e., slightly lower frequency.

The chart again compares climate model return periods for 1961 to 2010.  Again, the model, which represent a large area, and not necessarily the specifics of the Toronto area predicts lower return periods for a given volume, meaning that volume occurs more frequently - that is not consistent with observed local data at this station that has shown no significant change.

It is possible to look at the change in intensity as opposed to the change in frequency.  The following chart for Toronto Pearson International Airport climate station presents the same data but expresses the changes in terms of intensity, as opposed to frequency.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Climate Station - Changes in 24 Hour Rainfall Volumes
Often you can read in media reports that both the frequency and intensity increased over time - this is a peculiar way to express changes as that data can be used to show a change in one or the other but realistically not both at the same time.  To show the change in frequency and the change in intensity would mean allocating the change in some proportion to the two.


Do we have enough weather stations to analyze trends in observations - yes! - we are getting more and more stations and data over time - see previous post regarding additional Environment Canada stations since 1990.

In addition, municipalities are adding 100's of stations to support local studies as described in another post. More rain intensity data than ever before.

Although the data shows less extreme rainfall in Canada, some confuse models that predict future conditions and measured data.  The CBC misinterpreted a model predicting that 50 year storms would happen every 35 years in a time period out to 2015, and reported that this projections has already happened - read more about that here.


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