Weather Whys, January 13, 2013

Dangerous weather trends – dangerous policies
It is the middle of winter with exceptionally high temperatures and a massive reduction in energy use for space heating. Yes, there is minimal snow, but much less wear and tear on winter coats, skis and snow shovels. Recent days in the region featured afternoon conditions more typical of early April.

As readers know, a January thaw is almost a rite of passage for Canadians, a weather bonus during the coldest month of the winter. David Phillips in the Canadian Encyclopedia notes that these events are “gradual and temporary, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a week”.

Most of the world’s population would smile at this flexibility! Of course, these thaws do not happen every winter and, depending on latitude, sometimes sunshine and almost melting temperatures has to suffice.

Okay, this thaw was different. The first 12 days of this year have been balmy, averaging 5 to 10°C above seasonal. That expression, “be careful what you wish for” may apply.

Last year was the warmest on record for Thunder Bay and was part of an extensive warm anomaly that included most of the United States. By coincidence, the same numbers in the above paragraph also happened in Australia and literally resulted in Red Flag warnings. Overnight satellite photos feature bush fires that dwarfed city lights of the largest cities. I pay attention because I have some family and friends who live in potentially vulnerable areas. So far, “No worries mate” applies.

It is midwinter here so we can relax about forest fires. Perhaps we cannot relax totally, because unthinkable grass fires have happened in 21st Century winters in this region. Other warning flags include the practical end of the winter road system to transport bulk goods to northern communities, more severe wind events, hail occurrences, flood situations and declines in the level of the upper Great Lakes.

A few may try to dismiss these trends and changes in frequency as a cycle – such denial is irresponsible. I must have offended someone, so it is time for a quote. Dr Liz Hanna at the Australian National University’s climate change Adaption Network bluntly states, “We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public. This unparalleled setting of severe weather… the time scale is contracting.”

Research scientist Mike Flannigan is from Thunder Bay and now works in the Canadian Forestry Service in Edmonton. He points out that the area burned by forest fires has doubled and predicts another doubling will take place in the next decade or two.

Several once-in-a-century severe weather events have become once-in-a-decade. One might suppose that these indicators of rapid climate change and more severe weather would spark more research, better warning systems and adaptation.

This seemed to be happening in some other countries and there are occasional glimmers in Canada. Mister Paul Boothe, former head of Environment Canada, advised Minister Peter Kent and Prime Minister Harper last year that “useful” remarks about climate change in Canada were needed; tens of billions of dollars in economic damage and thousands of job losses could result.

The Environment Canada home page states, “Our business is protecting the environment, conserving the country’s natural heritage, and providing weather and meteorological information to keep Canadians informed and safe.”

You may feel a lot better now.

Actions can suggest more than website promos. Mister Bob Hamilton was appointed by Prime Minister Harper to replace Paul Boothe late last year. This appointment continued a recent tradition of having bureaucrats without a science background overseeing ministries that conduct research and use science and technology on a daily basis.

Hamilton met with a parliamentary committee on October 15, a continuing tradition for new appointments. He was asked to explain what causes climate change. “Wow. Umm. They didn’t tell me I’d have to answer questions like that when I took this job. I think that it’s – I don’t know the total answer to that..,” and then Conservative MPs interrupted to prevent him from continuing.

This removal of critics and appointment of parrots is widespread. The Harper process includes less research and no policies for adaptation to more severe weather.

Better warning systems? Actually, the opposite is happening. One example is the planned closure of Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services in Thunder Bay and several others across Canada. Trends toward more severe weather and declines in water levels on the Great Lakes flag a need for integrated warning systems and better communication between various agencies.

The “keep Canadians informed and safe” part of Environment Canada’s mandate is being discarded.

Dangerous weather, dangerous policies – a dangerous time for people in Canada.