Premier Wall had encouraging words for us after the extreme weather events this summer. But his comment that “we’ll weather the storm because of a strong economy” was not just funny but rather ironic, for our extreme weather is linked to “strong” fossil fuel economies such as ours.
Some are still skeptical about the connection between the build-up of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) trapping more heat in the earth’s biosphere and increasing extreme weather events. But the scientific argument is strong and the direct evidence is building. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that “global warming will increase the frequency and intensity of many kinds of extreme weather.” The American Meteorological Society and Geophysical Union concur that more severe storms will come with global warming. Steadily warming oceans will fuel more and more powerful hurricanes. Extreme heat will spark more wildfires and more severe heat-waves. And the warming trend will increase evaporation and drought.
These are not in contradiction. As the Manitoba Eco-Network says “air laden with moisture from more evaporation will rise into the atmosphere more quickly and more often.” And this leads to more storms with heavier rainfall overloading watersheds and creating more erosion, as happened this spring across the province. Meanwhile, evaporation from the land will create more drought-belts and tinder-box forests.
Thankfully it’s starting to sink in that climate change is on Saskatchewan’s doorstep. Perhaps after watching so much TV coverage of flooding elsewhere (e.g. in China as I write) we thought Saskatchewan was going to be the exception. You may faintly recall severe thunderstorms with 120 km/h winds toppling nineteen Manitoba Hydro towers in 1996. The claims from that storm were the highest ever faced by Manitoba Insurance, until the next year, when the “flood of the century” in the Red River Valley displaced 30,000 people and did $800 million in damages. Manitoba has had several years of spring flooding that has reduced the land available for agriculture, such as Saskatchewan farmers are now experiencing on a grand scale.
Perhaps you’ll remember the most powerful tornado ever recorded in Canada, an F5 west of Winnipeg at Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007. A video shows a full two-story house being lifted from its foundation and sent flying 75 feet. This storm was related to a low front from Saskatchewan mixing with the warm, humid air over southern Manitoba. This created the perfect conditions for super-cells and thunderstorms with rotating updrafts. I remember this well; the previous afternoon I had watched one super-cell which contributed to that Manitoba storm form right in front of our house overlooking Echo Lake. It was a massive cloud shaped like a giant on-end football with dark and light rings. It had so much energy that it seemed like an extra-terrestrial “entity” gathering force before my disbelieving eyes.
It seems to take extreme events like these to get our attention. If we are to influence governments to act proactively to prevent even more extreme events in our and our children’s future, the broader public will need to better grasp the underlying trend-lines; Environment Canada data helps. It has already reported that this spring, Canada as a whole was 4.1 degrees C above normal, “the warmest spring on record since nationwide records began in 1948”. Spring temperatures have steadily warmed over the last six decades, though not as much as winter. This spring, five of Canada’s climate regions set new record highs, while four others ranked among their warmest. The Prairies was 2.6 degrees C above the norm. (The warmest prairie spring was in 1977, 3.7 degrees C above normal.) The Prairies, along with three other climate regions, also “had a wetter than normal spring”; as it turns out the wettest on record. Meanwhile, again showing the fluctuation in weather that comes with climate change, it was “at least 20% drier than normal this spring” from Ontario to the Maritimes and the far north.
Nation-wide most springs have had precipitation “at or above normal since 1972.” The Prairies’ driest spring so far was in 1952 when the rainfall was 42 percent below normal. This spring, the wettest on record, our rainfall was 70 percent above normal. What is “normal” is itself changing with this trend-line. We used to call southern Saskatchewan a semi-arid region and people like my paternal grandfather were advised to come here so they could live more easily with asthma. If we didn’t have a dehumidifier in our house this year, humidity would be above 80 percent, nearly double what is recommended to keep dwellings healthy. People with asthma suffered greatly this spring.
All of us will be noticing weather changes in our vicinity, but memories aren’t that good without reliable record-keeping. We may remember the Red River flood of 1997 because of its national TV coverage, but not remember the serious spring flooding in Saskatchewan that same year. The dramatic toppling of hydro towers in Manitoba in 1996 may stick in our memories more than the nine confirmed tornadoes during a storm near Saskatoon that same summer. How many of us remember the loss of farmland due to serious flooding in southwest Saskatchewan in 1999? Or one of the heaviest rains ever recorded in Saskatchewan, the astonishing 330 mm (about 13 inches) that fell on Vanguard over an eight-hour period in 2000? Or, for that matter, the extreme heat, wildfires or hailstorms of 2006? Perhaps we may better remember the Calgary hailstorms of 1991 and 1996, or the national TV coverage of the raging floods in southern Alberta in 2005.
But some local weather events are too dramatic to forget. In 2003 we had a huge plow-wind that uprooted trees and lifted some roofs along the Qu’Appelle Valley. Our house vibrated as the ferocious winds and rain hit us from the west. Our gravel road was completely washed out. If we didn’t have a metal roof, and if I had not attached our roof trusses with screwed-in metal brackets, I’m not sure we would have sustained the storm without serious damage. And some things can’t lie. When we bought our land in 1984 there was a trail down the coulee that was likely used for Red River carts during the last century. There was no erosion at all in the ditch. Now, after many downpours and rivers of water rushing to the lake below, a deep ditch is carved all the way down the coulee. Yes, we’ve had some years of drought and worrying about grass fires and failed gardens, but the native grasses are still greener and taller than ever. Climate change is on our doorstep but it apparently hasn’t yet reached the steps of the legislature. What will it take for it to sink in Mr. Premier?
Next time I’ll look at why we need to better understand what is happening to the oceans.