Weather damage hints at new normal under climate change

After western Manitoba has been battered by storm 
after storm, residents say they’re convinced

Kendon Campbell was only half a mile from home when the storm hit his Reston-area farm, but he and wife Shirley were stranded as torrents of water flooded their road and drowned four of their cows.

It was the third flash flood the Campbells have experienced this year.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’d say this is a new one on me,” Kendon said.

He estimated the latest storm on July 14 unleashed about 5.5 inches of rain, in addition to devastating hail and dangerous winds. In nearby Pipestone, a tornado touched down, destroying a portion of the community’s arena.

The storm also had Hal Martin — who estimated he lost close to 3,500 acres of sunflowers, canola and other crops to hail, shaking his head.

“I have seen storms go through here a lot of years back during the late ’70s and early ’80s,” said Martin, who farms north of Reston.

“One storm cleaned a bunch of our crop out, but it was only about two miles wide. This last storm was seven miles wide where it hit us — I’ve never seen it this wide and this severe, with granaries picked up and literally gone, ’til now.”

Rain now comes in periodic deluges rather than intermittent showers, he said, and although the growing season has gotten longer, the time available for sowing has gotten shorter.

But why these things are happening is harder to assess, said Martin who has farmed since 1961.

“There’s a lot of theories about it and I don’t know what the right answer would be, but I have noticed over the years that our weather has been changing,” he said.

Anecdotal evidence from people like Martin and the Campbells fits with the increasingly compelling findings of experts that the climate is changing, said David Phillips, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist.

“They feel that (the world) is clearly warmer and human beings are contributing to that, so the jury is sort of in,” he said.

“And of course, the warmer temperatures usually mean more violent weather. Grade 9 science says if you warm it up, then you get more evaporation, and that’s the stuff that fuels storms, the heat and the humidity.”

Changes in land use, including agriculture, can also help prime the pump for storms. New research shows that crop production can significantly alter the amount of humidity in the atmosphere.

“It’s not just what comes out of our tailpipes that influences things,” said Phillips.

Overall the idea of “normal” weather no longer holds water, he said. Weather patterns are becoming less predictable, even as local forecasting improves.

“That is really going to beat us up because we do everything based on normal weather,” he said. “We plant seeds, we build homes and hospitals, we make vacation plans, everything from 25-cent decisions to multimillion-dollar decisions, to policy, to insurance — it’s all based on normal conditions.

“And what we do know is that in recent years conditions have hardly been normal.”

The reeve of the rural municipality of Pipestone doesn’t need convincing on that score.

“We’re just seeing adverse weather everywhere across the country,” said Ross Tycoles.

“I mean since ’07 we’ve seen a lot. In 2011, we had a huge hailstorm come through following this same line along the Pipestone Creek. There’s a pattern change.”

While the types of weather events we’re seeing aren’t new, added Phillips, the sorts of extreme storms and other weather events that used to occur over a lifetime now seem to be compressed to a mere decade.

In the midst of cleaning up from the latest storm (another pair in late June collectively dumped a foot of water on the town), Tycoles said he is already thinking of the next one. With weather changing, he said how people prepare will also have to change.

Better water storage and carefully planned watershed management could help stymie future flooding, he said, adding that better-anchored buildings and basement refuges may also be needed if more high winds and tornados are on the horizon.

“We’ve got to be prepared,” he said.

No one knows that better than Lee Spencer, head of the province’s Emergency Measures Organization.

“We take an all-hazards approach with what we do here, and what we do with our municipal partners,” Spencer said. “We believe that our approach is flexible enough and deep and broad enough, that we’re not having to adjust to the fact we’re getting, or seem to be getting more storms.”

The response to the storm that hit the RM of Pipestone was a good example of a municipal emergency plan that was well designed and well executed, he said.

Although Manitoba is known for spring floods, Spencer said flash flooding has caused the broadest damage in recent years, along with high-wind events, citing Canada’s only F5 tornado, which struck Elie in 2007.

“We’re not meteorologists here, and we’re not tracking historical data, but anyone who has read anything about climate change, knows that one of the predictions… is that we will see an increase in the number of damaging weather events,” he said. “Sure seems like it from what we’ve seen recently.”

Like Tycoles, Spencer said he believes weather will have to be considered as future development takes place and new infrastructure is built.

“If you’re building something that is supposed to last 50 years or 100 years, we should all be thinking about how do we integrate all this information together,” he said.

Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation said it’s too early to know what the Pipestone-area storm will cost, but crop loss is expected to be extensive.

“Although we haven’t officially made that assessment yet, some of the inspection we’ve had, some of the pictures we’ve seen, it certainly looks like there will be some 100 per cent loss areas,” said David Van Deynze, the agency’s manager of claim services.

In the meantime, farmers like Hal Martin are waiting on adjusters to visit and to see what, if anything, grows back.

“Now we start the cleanup… and see what the weather brings,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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