BU Researcher Says Weird Weather is New Norm

July 20, 2013

Article by Graeme BruceBrandon Sun

Two major floods, tornado like winds, one confirmed tornado and violent downpours.

Southwest Manitoba has been dealt the gamut in the last month, which begs the question: When will it stop?

If you’re looking for a rosy outlook, it’s best not to ask an environmental scientist. Predictably, they’re saying brace yourself for more.

They’re saying this is the new normal.

While climate change has been on the minds of experts for decades now, this summer of high winds and high waters in southwest Manitoba has given many scientists an opportunity to say ‘I told you so.’

“We’re in a warming world,” said David Greenwood, an environmental science professor at Brandon University. “The last 10 years were the warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the UK’s Met Office and Environment Canada.”

Brandon’s climate change is mirrored throughout the southern Canadian Prairies.

Manitoba has some of the most volatile weather in the world with its frigid winters and scorching summers, and Greenwood said the skies will only become more erratic. More summer droughts will be punctuated by torrential downpours, the kind the province has seen lots of this summer.

“We’ve always had a degree of volatility, certainly in the Prairies, either there’s droughts or there’s floods, but the frequency of these flood events and those drought events are going up,” he said.

The small community of Reston was hit twice in five days and the village of Pipestone was hit by possible tornado winds just two weeks later. At the end of June, some west Brandon residents were faced with memories of 2005’s flash flood as they pumped water out of basements.

And during Mother Nature’s latest fits, it was confirmed a tornado touched down in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation on Thursday.

“Those kinds of extreme rainfall events are increasing across Canada and down into the states,” Greenwood said.

No one storm can be linked to climate change, he said, but these events are becoming more profuse and severe, adding to a mountain of evidence related to a grim outlook.

Greenwood said scientists are taking note of the increasing frequency and severity of storms.

And the increased amount of hostile weather doesn’t just have scientists wringing their hands.

According to the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, the number of flood claims across Canada has increased significantly over the past two decades and continues to rise. In fact, in recent years water damage claims have increased to exceed fire as the largest cost for Canada’s property insurers, according to the institute.

After 2011, a gun-shy Brandon pulled the trigger on a $24-million diking system west of the intersection of 18th Street and Grand Valley Road to eliminate the need for the temporary super sandbag dike that has previously been located there.

This season’s vicious rainstorms have pushed infrastructure, homes and families to the brink, and municipalities need to look at news ways of dealing with more deluges in the future, experts say.

Bob Somers, president of the Manitoba Association of Landscape Architects, said municipalities need to stop trying to funnel water into waterways, which he said is an obsolete strategy.

“One of the reasons we’ve been having such flooding problems is because we’re draining our land a lot quicker,” he said.

“So water is getting into our rivers and waterways a lot quicker and they were never designed to handle that volume.”

The use of wetlands as a place to store stormwater in new subdivisions is a key component to dealing with massive rainfalls locally, Somers added.

“We’re trying to manage and minimize the amount of water that leaves a site so it’s maintained on site as much as possible,” he said. “It’s a matter of creating stopping points before they get into our water systems, and it can go a long way towards prevention.”

Keeping water within an area creates other issues, though. Many subdivisions that have stormwater retention ponds have “extremely toxic” water, Somers said, some being so bad “that a dog drinking it for a good chunk of time would find itself sick or near death.”

Through what is called soft engineering, architects like Somers try to incorporate natural wetland vegetation, which not only handles severe rainfall, but to actually filter out toxins, which he said could render the water near-drinking quality.

“We really need to push to not allowing new developments to be able to dump water into the system in excess of what they already do, so you’re not able to just drain your land into adjacent land without holding it and treating it.”