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April 15, 2015

Extreme weather and climate: Measured response?

Reuel S. Amdur

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"I don't know why she didn't permit your question," Dr. Ronald Stewart told us. The question was what caused climate change. He proceeded to explain it. It is a matter of global warming.

The earth absorbs heat radiated from the sun.  Earth re-radiates it, but because of greenhouse gases the heat is unable to make it back out to outer space.  The heat just builds up. 

“The danger was known back in the 1800’s but the scientists at that time did not believe their own science.”  He might have added that there are still people who don’t believe it.  “In 1850, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million.  Today the figure is 500 parts per million.” 

Dr. Stewart is a professor in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba. 

He was joined by Dr. Daniel Scott, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, at a breakfast session on Parliament Hill. 

They spoke on the topic “Extreme Weather and Climate: Measured Response?”  Their presentation was sponsored jointly by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering.

Stewart began by defining extreme weather. 

He discussed two approaches, one being in terms of the top X percent of incidences of weather, with X being whatever number you want to plug in.  The other definition would be in terms of thresholds, for example, instances in which the temperature was over 35 degrees Celsius.  One could also define it in terms of more than one condition surpassing a threshold. 

Scott added that we could also look at economic losses as a measure of extremity. As well, in dealing with the issue of magnitude (Stewart), frequency could fit into the understanding. 

The recent flooding in Alberta was explained by Stewart as being due to heavy participation in a small area, in a weather system that came up from the American South. 

In 2011 and 2014, Manitoba also faced a problem of heavy participation, in a weather system that was slow in moving.  The province responded by creating a spillway to protect Winnipeg.  He noted that one factor in the flooding was the destruction of the wetlands.  As a result, rain water had nowhere to go but into the river.  While he did not draw this conclusion in his talk, we might add another causative human factor, not just air pollution but also population growth, leading to interference with ecosystems such as wetlands.  People clear land for homes and agriculture. 

Scott talked about how Quebec reacted to the 1998 ice storm.  Rebuilt infrastructure such as transmission towers was made sturdier. 

While there are steps such as Manitoba and Quebec took which can be taken after an untoward event in order to mitigate or prevent future losses, Scott also spoke of insurance.  As it is, insurance companies are suffering massive payouts.  Since 2009, insurance companies in Canada are paying out in excess of $5 billion a year due to weather-related losses.  He sees a need for a national flood insurance program but there are issues.  How would insurance be priced?  Those most vulnerable might be faced with unmanageable rates.  Perhaps such insurance might be attached to other home insurance. 

Currently, there is a problem of inadequate infrastructure to handle extreme events.  Scott noted that Thunder Bay, Mississauga, and Stratford are all being sued by residents because of sewer backup.  There is a need for federal funding to deal with the infrastructure deficit.  Building codes also need revision. 

Scott pointed out that catastrophic weather events have impacts on mental health as well, with easily 10 to 15% increase of mental health problems in affected populations, 100% increase in some cases. Property damage could wipe out savings, money being kept for children’s education or for retirement.  These are losses that might have impact on emotional stability. 

It was also noted that there is a serious lack of monitoring stations to alert people to forthcoming weather events.  Here is another area for needed government investments. 

Because of global warming and especially the impact of the melting of Arctic ice cap, extreme weather events will proliferate.  We need ways to pay for repair.  We need to plan for mitigation and prevention.  We need good early warning.  And we need to take serious steps to curtail global warming.

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