Extreme Weather Warning

Fires. Floods. Freak storms. Droughts. Why it’s only going to get worse.
Cathy Gulli and Tom Henheffer

Last week, after rampant forest fires had decimated thousands of hectares of his homeland, and burned alive dozens of his countrymen, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin boarded an amphibious aircraft to witness the blazes for himself. Within a few minutes of sitting in the passenger compartment, Putin—never one to resist a fight, or a photo op for that matter—strode briskly to the cockpit and assumed the co-pilot’s seat and headset. Upon direction, Putin, who doesn’t have his flying licence, swooped down and drew 12 tonnes of water from the Oka River, and then doused the scorching forests beneath, extinguishing two fires. All this in 30 minutes.

As superheroic as this act may have seemed, it fell drastically short: below, hundreds more raging fires were turning lush trees into charred toothpicks. At least 2,000 homes have burned down, including 341 in less than an hour. Survivors found nothing but scrap metal, which they gathered up to sell off. Farmers, meanwhile, have seen their grain crop cut by a third, and counting.

The only thing spreading faster than the fires is fear: that dangerous radioactive material on land contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster will be churned up, for instance. Experts insist that a far more realistic and deadly threat is the toxic smog that has blanketed Russia in a sepia haze ever since daily temperatures surged to 40° C and higher—hotter than it’s been there since the 11th century, the Russian weather service chief said. Government officials have warned that breathing the polluted air is like smoking multiple packs of cigarettes a day, so Russians have taken to wearing those face masks ubiquitous to disasters, most recently the H1N1 scare. They’ve also retreated to the lakes to cool off, but even this activity has been lethal: swilling too much vodka before swimming led to more than 1,000 drownings in June alone, when the heat wave began.

Before then, “Russians would have laughed if you had asked them if this would happen,” says Ghassem R. Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Programme at the UN’s World Meteorological Organization.

Normal summer temperatures there hover in the low 20s in the hottest parts. Imagining the “Great Russian heat wave of 2010,” as this hot spell has been dubbed, would have been preposterous. “They’d have said it’s like being in Saudi Arabia,” Asrar told Maclean’s.

Except that even Saudi Arabia’s weather has been extraordinary this summer, with temperatures reaching above 47° C. In fact, record heat has occurred in 17 countries, including Pakistan, where on May 26, the mercury hit 53.5° C—suffocating four people to death. Since then, the heat has given way to the unthinkable: catastrophic floods, which have killed at least 1,600 Pakistanis and ruined the homes and livelihoods of more than 20 million others. There are concerns of a cholera outbreak, and the country is now facing a shortage of drinking water. The UN, which has appealed for $460 million in immediate international aid, has called this the greatest humanitarian crisis in history—more devastating than the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined. The funds have been slow in coming, though, and some worry that the Taliban will step in instead. Worse still, there is no end in sight: forecasters warn more floods are coming, and urge “all the concerned authorities?.?.?.?to take necessary precautionary measures to avoid/minimize loss of lives and infrastructure.”

On the spectrum of extreme weather, Pakistan and Russia are obviously the worst effected. But new data shows that the whole world is experiencing unprecedented levels of radical weather. In June, the global land and ocean average surface temperature was the hottest it’s been since 1880, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States began keeping records. And July was the 305th consecutive month that the global temperature was above average, meaning the last time the mercury dipped unusually low was in February 1985.

Even Canada’s distinction as a moderate country hasn’t safeguarded us from outrageous weather patterns: heat waves in Ontario and Quebec have caused power outages this summer and sent a record 158 people to one Ottawa ER in a single day. Hundreds of wildfires are engulfing portions of British Columbia. And after severe droughts in the spring, the Prairies have been flooded.

If this strange and severe weather was once hard to imagine, it’s now hard to ignore. “Extreme events are becoming more common,” says Heidi Cullen, a climatologist based in Princeton, N.J., and author of the new book, The Weather of the Future. What is happening in Russia and Pakistan may not feel like a real threat to North America, but she says “it should feel real.” As the Earth continues to heat up, “who is to say that couldn’t happen in Canada or the United States?” Cullen asks. “It will happen eventually.” Asrar agrees. “We will see more extremes, and they’ll last longer and be very strong.” In other words, he says, in the future “anything is possible.”

To understand how extreme weather is becoming more common, scientists start by looking back. Over the last 100 years, the global average temperature has steadily increased by a little more than 1° F. That doesn’t seem like much. But if a typical day is going to be warmer, then the heat waves will be as well. This also affects storm activity: the hotter it gets, the more heat the oceans absorb. The heat evaporates into the atmosphere as water vapour. Warm air can hold more water vapour than cold air, so once the atmosphere is saturated, it dumps exceptional amounts of rain.

Using computer models, scientists from 20 climate centres around the world have forecast that by the end of the century, the Earth’s temperature will increase by at least 2° F. “When you add it up over the entire planet, that’s a huge amount of heat,” says Asrar. It’s also an average, he emphasizes. “This warming is not going to be uniform globally, and the problems that we’re going to experience are going to [vary] by region.”

A quick scan of extreme weather events around the world since the beginning of the year is proof of that. Since late July, Portugal has been battling 300 forest fires a day after experiencing a severe heat wave, including one blaze that has ravaged the country’s only national park and others that killed two firefighters. In the spring, 80 people died in New Delhi after temperatures reached 44° C, a 52-year high. Australia was overrun with floods and landslides in March after a freak storm cut power to 100,000 homes.

That same month, China experienced its worst drought in six decades—50 million people faced water shortages. Avalanches killed 150 Afghans in February, while 32 Brazilians died of heat that month after the country endured its hottest temperatures in half a century. Snowstorms that hit the United States—nicknamed “Snowmageddon” by Barack Obama, who traded his armoured limo for an all-wheel-drive SUV—caused such a chill in Florida that iguanas and pythons were falling frozen and catatonic from trees.

The cold also shrunk orange crops, and boosted the price of OJ.

In much of Canada, temperatures this summer have been the hottest in more than 60 years. In Victoria, where a typical summer high is 22° C, thermometers now register in the low 30s. That heat has put two-thirds of B.C. at high risk of forest fires as of mid-August. Battling the blazes has cost $107 million so far, and firefighters from Ontario and Alberta have been dispatched to help out. In New Brunswick, where it’s also been unusually hot, the number of forest fires is actually down, thanks largely to the extreme humidity. It’s also made Toronto’s 17 days of 30° C weather or higher—up from just three days last summer—feel much steamier.

The situation couldn’t be more different for Calgary, which in mid-July experienced a sudden storm that caused at least $100,000 worth of damage at the University of Calgary greenhouse after hail the size of golf balls burst through the glass rooftop. Last week, the Insurance Board of Canada announced that the property damage caused by the storm—dented cars, broken windows, leaky roofs—could top $400 million, more than any other hailstorm in the nation’s history. The excess precipitation occurring across the Prairies has also cost grain farmers money: Saskatchewan and Manitoba could lose up to $3 billion this year, according to a BMO Capital Markets report, since 20 per cent of crops never got planted this season.

Going forward, there is little doubt that Canada will experience more severe weather, says David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. “In a warmer world, you connect the dots and you see clearly there are going to be threats.” But he emphasizes that there are parameters around what we should expect. “A lot of people think that we’ll have a totally different climate. It’s not going to be like typhoons in Saskatoon and sandstorms in St. John’s.” Rather, he says, “things that are rare will become more common. The kind of flood that you might expect every 20 years will occur maybe once every seven years. So it’s the frequency, the intensity, the duration” that will change.

A group of 250 leading scientists at a climate change consortium called Ouranos in Montreal have been using computer models to predict what, specifically, each part of Canada may soon experience as the Earth heats up. In the Maritimes, for example, the big concern is probably going to be coastal erosion and more intense hurricanes as air and ocean temperatures increase. Of the four or five that arrive on the East Coast every year, most are subdued by the very cold Atlantic Ocean, explains Alain Bourque, head of the impact and adaptation group at Ouranos. “You need a water temperature of above 26° C to strengthen a hurricane, and the maritime water is well below that now. But the point is that if instead of being 10° C it’s 12° C, then the hurricane is not stopped as easily.”

Ontario and southern Quebec will likely experience more heat waves—including during the winter. The good news is less snow to shovel, but the bad news is more risk of winter flooding. The mounting heat will also cause more freeze-thaw cycles as temperatures fluctuate. That puts tremendous strain on roads and bridges, says Bourque, and causes another major problem that we’ll see more of: burst pipes.

In the Prairies, more droughts are anticipated, he continues, and on the West Coast, rising sea levels will make the region particularly vulnerable to floods and tidal forces. Places such as Vancouver, Richmond and communities along the Delta River feature “hot spots where the land and infrastructure are at risk of storms [causing] damage,” and that’s worrisome given the large population concentrated in this area.

Elsewhere in the world, Bangladesh is expected to be hit hard. Today, two-thirds of the country is only 17 feet above sea level, explains Cullen in her book. With 230 rivers, and 162 million inhabitants, this densely populated area is already prone to floods and monsoons. A 3.3-foot increase in sea level would submerge one-fifth of Bangladesh, estimates Cullen. “Almost every study agrees that at least 20 per cent of the country will disappear in the next decades,” adds Bourque. “In an already overpopulated country, you can imagine what’s going to happen there.”

Realizing this, many Bangladeshis are already fast becoming “climate refugees,” fleeing to nearby India. But even India may not be an extreme-weather safe haven—it is plagued by monsoons. “The scientists there have seen that over the last 50 years, their strength and duration have grown,” explains Asrar. And there’s every reason to believe this trend will persist to be “a major problem.”

Of course, these projections are just that: early estimations that scientists are still developing. The big riddle is exactly what that 2° F average global increase will mean for different parts of the world. So far, indications suggest that the high latitudes will be more affected than mid or lower latitudes. How much more? Asrar points to colour-coded maps by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies that project that places such as Canada to Russia and the pole regions may see double the amount of warming, or even triple. One thing is certain: no place is immune to extreme weather. As these events become more evident around the world, Cullen believes that we will realize the importance of figuring out how to deal with them—before they occur. Because right now, she says, “we are not prepared for the curveballs that Mother Nature throws our way.”

The obvious question facing communities today is how to adjust to extreme weather in ways that will cause the least amount of destruction to people, property and possessions. It’s a daunting challenge, but a number of communities have, in recent years, launched action plans to investigate their vulnerabilities and to brainstorm solutions. “Every community has its own Achilles heel,” says Cullen.

After New York City learned last year that it would be prone to more heat waves, rain and flooding in the future, Rockaway waste water treatment plant in Queens decided it wouldn’t wait for disaster to arrive.

Instead, working in conjunction with the local department of environmental protection, the plant’s electrical equipment, including breakers and pump motors, were moved—from 25 feet below sea level to 14 feet above sea level.

Cities such as Vancouver have a combined sewer system that manages both sanitary waste and stormwater. A 2008 report by Ouranos and Engineers Canada found that by 2020, the Greater Vancouver sewage infrastructure will be vulnerable to increased rainfall, rising sea levels, floods, extreme winds and gusts. The report warned of the “public health risks from contamination arising from overflows?.?.?.?into spaces such as streets and basements.” Now, the city is planning to move to a sewer system that will allow different types of waste water flowing in separate pipes by 2050—to the tune of $2.75 billion over the next 10 years.

Where people live in flood-prone zones, governments are mobilizing to relocate residents. Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota, for instance, have buyouts in place for people who live along the banks of the Red River. In the past, Manitoba has paid pre-flood market value for 42 cottages in Breezy Point, and the prices were shared between the three levels of government. Other cities such as Calgary are implementing better heating and air conditioning in places that are susceptible to extreme temperatures, such as streetcars.

In Halifax, the government spent $250,000 to map its harbour and the surrounding area with a plane-mounted light imaging technology called LIDAR. The data is used to predict rising sea levels and will help developers manage their risk due to flooding and hurricanes over the next century. Meanwhile, in Toronto, $34 million has been allotted toward tree-planting and green roofs—which provide shade and absorb greenhouse gases. There are also “man-made trees” in development, which look like futuristic football goalposts that suck greenhouse gases out of the air.

The unfortunate reality is that “even if we stopped emitting [greenhouse gases] cold turkey, we’d still see warming because they remain in the environment for a long time,” says Cullen. What’s more, most of these improvements are expensive—for those countries that can afford them in the first place—and will take years to fully implement. After that, they might still be no match for what Phillips of Environment Canada calls “the awesome power of Mother Nature” unleashed.

In a lot of ways, until now Canada has been fortunate. For starters, because we have four seasons, we are accustomed to adapting to the ever-changing weather and temperatures, says Phillips. We also have a small population and low density, “so the fact is, nature can’t find you” the way it might pick on people in Bangladesh. “Of all the disasters we’ve had every year, every one of them could have been worse.

What continues to surprise me is why there are not more deaths due to weather in Canada,” he says.
But the longer people insist on living in places where they shouldn’t—think Louisiana or even some small coastal communities in Canada—and the more we delay improving infrastructure and mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases, the more danger is lurking. This means that the cost of extreme weather is going to go up, in terms of material damage—and loss of life. “It’s what I fear the most,” says Phillips. “We are going to be in nature’s way.” As more extreme weather arrives here, “Our luck is going to change.”

For now, Canadians and just about everyone outside of Pakistan and Russia are getting schooled second-hand in the drama and trauma that could affect them next. “We will all feel the impact,” says Cullen. “The world is very interconnected.”