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Saturday, February 22, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

We’re in for a flood of severe weather beyond miserable spring


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The arrival this week of some better-than-seasonal weather has ideally put an end to what was a miserable spring, itself the successor of a miserable first few months of the year. We’re only now starting to see things bloom in earnest, the green eclipsing the messy vestiges of winter.

Luckily, flooding wasn’t really an issue here, unlike what’s still being dealt with in Eastern Ontario and Quebec … yet again.

Our region is usually spared such hardships – you have to go back more than four decades to the Cambridge flood of 1974 to find something on a large scale. We’re also fairly immune from the hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes we see elsewhere on the globe. And while tornados are a possibility, past occurrences haven’t come with the same frequency or wrought the kind of destruction we see in, say, the U.S. Midwest.

We’re not immune, however, from the impacts of a shifting climate, including more extreme weather.

If climate models are on target, we can expect more extreme weather days ahead, even putting aside the human contribution to global warming/climate change.

Predicted changes would significantly decrease the duration of the annual snow season and lengthen the growing season. They could increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events in summer.

If the models hold, we can expect more than just rising temperatures. Greater impacts could include changes in precipitation patterns, in soil moisture, and possibly in the frequency and intensity of severe weather events.

Changes in weather patterns may affect the frequency and intensity of pollution episodes.

Increased heat stress, and possible increases in the number or severity of episodes of poor air quality and extreme weather events could all have a negative effect on human health. A warmer climate may facilitate migration of disease-carrying organisms from other regions.

Ontario falls prey to a number of natural hazards: drought, heat waves, floods, rain, snow and ice storms, tornadoes, and even hurricanes, although they’re rare. Small changes in average climate conditions are expected to generate significant changes in extreme events.

Experts anticipate fewer extremely cold days and more extremely hot days and more severe thunderstorms, which can cause injury and property damage.

Staying out of the climate change debate, the insurance industry is nonetheless spending a considerable amount of time crunching the numbers – assessing risk is their business, after all – and they see plenty of reasons to worry. Lately, the industry has been more proactive, essentially urging mitigation efforts through pitches to government and the public alike.

Insurance companies, which top no one’s most-popular list, aren’t doing so for the public’s benefit per se. The industry doesn’t care about you, it cares about its profits. In the ideal world, it collects ever-increasing premiums and pays out nothing, with government forcing consumers to keep paying nonetheless.

But its goals somewhat align with the public’s in that most people want to avoid making claims as much as insurers want to avoid paying them.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), insured damage in 2016 topped $4.9 billion – passing the previous annual record of $3.2 billion set in 2013 – and that the annual economic cost of disasters around the world has increased five-fold since the 1980s. Flooding is Canada’s costliest and most frequent natural disaster, with flooding damage accounting for 80 per cent of federal disaster assistance payments over the past 20 years.

The government plays no small role: for every dollar that insurers pay out for home and business insurance claims because of severe weather, IBC estimates that the government pays out $3 to recover the public infrastructure that was damaged.

“Last year, insured damage from severe weather across Canada reached $2 billion, the fourth-highest amount on record,” says Craig Stewart, IBC’s vice-president for federal affairs, in  a recent review. “However, unlike the 1998 Quebec ice storm, the 2013 Calgary floods or the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, in 2018 no single event was a significant contributor to the high amount paid out for losses. Instead, Canadians and their insurers experienced significant losses from a host of small but severe weather events from coast to coast.”

We seem destined for more of that this year, with widespread flooding. With more to come as the years go by.

Most of the predictions based on climate modelling show more changes coming, none for the better. AGW skeptic or otherwise, there’s no denying the climate is in flux, and that we’ll have to deal with the consequences. Just like the residents of Eastern Ontario and Quebec just now.

Severe weather is on the rise across Canada. Events that used to happen every 40 years can now be expected to happen every six. Homes are damaged more frequently by heavy rainfall, hail damage, storm surges, tornadoes and hurricanes. The once-in-a-century flooding in southern Alberta in 2013, which costs billions, will likely reoccur much sooner than 2113. The same with disasters elsewhere. There’s no denying the devastation, and the huge economic impact.

Despite the warnings, perhaps the largest barrier to any major change is human nature: we’re quite content with our lives today, and see no need to change that for some potential long-term benefit, one that’s unlikely to materialize in our lifetimes.

Interestingly enough, should the forecasted problems arise, it won’t matter at that point if the climate changes are naturally occurring or manmade: we’ll still have to cope with such things as rising sea levels, increased storm activity, desertification and other threats to farmland, to name a few. Expect the unpredictability to continue.

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