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Monday, January 20, 2020
Their View / Opinion

We can expect more flooding of the kind in new study

Water levels in the Great Lakes continue to climb, giving rise to concerns about flooding even as we head into the frozen-over time of the year rather than the spring thaw normally associated with such warnings.

Coupled with more frequent and violent weather events, rising water levels will bring more generalized flooding of the kind we saw earlier this year. The kind that prompted to province to appoint a special advisor to carry out a review of flood events, chronicled in a recently released report.

Winnipeg-based engineer Douglas McNeil carried out the study prompted by flooding last spring that saw 23 Ontario municipalities declare states of emergency.

“Emergencies were first declared starting in early April and lasted through July in many cases. Even through the fall and heading into winter, the Great Lakes continue to experience high-water levels that have been underway since early 2017, and many people and properties continue to be at risk,” writes McNeil in his report, which contained more than five dozen recommendations, noting things may get worse.

“As a natural phenomenon, major storm events that contribute to significant flood events will happen again, but with climate change we can expect that they will be more frequent and/or more significant. There is no one level of government that can be expected to deal with floods before, during and after they happen, but rather every level of government (federal, provincial, municipal, county), agencies of government (conservation authorities), and every individual, has a role and responsibility.”

In this area, flooding was relatively mild by comparison to elsewhere in the province. The 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 – you may have seen the television commercials.

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.

Most of the issues around flooding and subsequent claims come from poor decisions made in the past, from allowing homes to be built on vulnerable land to building codes that don’t recognize changing risks. And we appear to have learned little thus far, still building – and rebuliding – in floodplains and known problem areas, though perhaps not with the same disdain for reality as storm-ravaged parts of the coasts – think of the stretch along the Atlantic from Florida to points north, for instance.

Those places will be hit hardest, but there’s likely no escaping it even here. 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.

So, what are we doing to prepare? Not enough, according to studies such as those carried out by the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the University of Waterloo.

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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