By Graham Saunders
First Posted: Wednesday, July 6, 2016 For The Chronicle-Journal
Was June wet enough for you? The long-term average rain total for June at the Thunder Bay Airport is 86 millimetres but varies considerably. For example, June 2003 had a total of 35.5 millimetres, compared to an estimated 228 millimetres this year. The previous record was 196 millimetres, set in June 2008.
This June total is slightly higher than the monthly total recorded in May 2012, the time of devastating flooding in Thunder Bay and some adjacent rural areas. Heavy rain totals on June 28 were similar to May 28, 2012 but the “character” and timing were different. The maximum rate in May 2012 was 48 millimetres/hour compared to intensities of about half of this a week ago.
Other factors helped:
• The city was better prepared.
• 84 to about 100 millimetres fell in two periods separated by about two hours.
• Afternoon and evening storm situations are easier to cope with than overnight events. (Most of the rain fell between midnight and 2 a.m. on May 28, 2012.)
An editorial titled “100-year storms every four years” was published in The Chronicle-Journal on June 28. It noted that the frequency and intensity of such severe-weather events is increasing. I noticed “These are not unusual weather events but rather regular summertime storms . . .” in one of the comments. This is not correct.
The character of storm events has changed over the decades in Thunder Bay, the region and globally. Rain events of 75 millimetres and higher within a 24-hour period will almost certainly result in flash flooding. No events of this magnitude were recorded in the 1940s and 1950s at the Thunder Bay Airport. They have been rare since the first in 1961 but the recent frequency needs to be a warning flag for all concerned. Recent severe-weather events are almost certainly a gentle preview.
I have been reviewing a few $1-billion-damage lessons from the past. For example, the Winnipeg flood of 1950 resulted in this scale of damage, if we convert to current dollars. The floodway was constructed to cope with 100-year floods and has avoided catastrophic damage to urban areas several times. (Rural areas do not fare as well — another story.) The floodway is being updated to (partially) cope with a 700-year flood event.
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel devastated housing along the Humber River in Toronto and caused considerable damage in southern Ontario. Policy makers changed regulations about building on flood plains and formed regional conservation areas such as the Lakehead Regional Conservation Area in many places in the province.
Sometimes people ignore such lessons. In 2005, a $1-billion flood occurred in Calgary. The federal Liberal government had been cutting research funding for flood-plain management and severe weather events for several years. The Harper government took power in 2006 and accelerated broad cuts in research.
Calgary and the province of Alberta ignored the problem. One of the facets of this ignorance was to permit and even encourage building in potential hazard areas. The southern Alberta flood in 2013 resulted in damages totalling $6 billion.
Ignoring $1-billion lessons has not been limited to flooding. The town of Slave Lake, Atla., was partially incinerated by a forest fire which destroyed nearly 550 homes in May, 2011. The damage was about $1 billion.
Slave Lake became a model for the FireSmart program. Rebuilt houses have higher flame-resistant standards are ringed by protection zones with reduced fire fuels. The last line of defence now includes urban firefighters who have “cross-trained” with forest crews. Although cross-trained personnel did combat the fire in Fort McMurray other aspects of FireSmart had not been adopted by Fort McMurray after the Slave Lake experience.
The damage of the Fort McMurray fire is estimated at $6 billion to $9 billion. Hopefully, Alberta and other jurisdictions learn from such lessons. The jumps from a $1-billion disaster to multi-billion-dollar events constitute part of the preview, not the final feature of a rapidly-changing climate.
World flooding in June
Thunder Bay became a late entry (and reluctant) to an exceptional month of floods that affected a number of areas around the world. Thunder Bay got off with a warning. Floods causing fatalities and major financial losses took place in the previous 30 days in Brazil, the Sudan, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, in Europe but especially in Germany and France and in Texas and West Virginia in the United States. The above is an example of a geography run-on sentence.
Sometimes the preview warnings are more expensive than in Canada. Both Calgary and Houston, Texas experienced major flooding in 2005. Damage in Texas was estimated at $3 billion. Similar damage took place in 2015 and much more in recent weeks.
There are barriers to actions to reduce losses caused by severe weather events. These were mainly financial in the past but policy makers that acted in response to disasters like in Manitoba and Hurricane Hazel saved people and governments vast sums, and probably many lives.
Another barrier to adaptation seems to be denial that the climate is changing. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott states that it is an open question whether human activity is influencing the climate. He received $4.2 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry for his last campaign in 2014 and others in this government seem to have received proportional amounts.
“You got to dance with them that brung you” likely has applications beyond this blatant Texas example. One may speculate in Alberta in past decades.
Losses because of a changing climate are complicated and this can be a barrier or become an excuse to avoid action. Floods, forest fires, droughts and so on are not new events. A study in Nature Climate Change (March 2014) projects that by 2050 the frequency of flooding across Europe could double and the annual average losses could jump fivefold. The study attributed two-thirds of those financial losses to development in flood-prone areas and the remaining third to climate change.
Forest fire damage can be supplemented by past logging practices and buildings located close to forests. Drought can be exasperated agricultural practices. Planning should include an assessment of contributions to problems, costs and benefits. Ignoring some of the basic contributions to damage from severe weather imply peril for the present and especially the next generations. One can muse about outcomes if policy makers had responded to 100-year events like the Winnipeg flood or Hurricane Hazel with shucks – we have 99 years to deal with this. According to a recent statement from Environment Canada, the new normal now includes 100-year events every six years.
French President François Hollande unambiguously linked the rains and flooding in France a few weeks ago to a changing climate. “When there are climatic phenomena of this seriousness, we must all be aware that we must act globally.”
Weather analyst Graham Saunders is member of Environment North.