Just as water and climate expert Bob Sandford began his keynote address at a Winnipeg conference about water management last week, he received a text from his son back home in Canmore, Alta. It was about a river gone wild.
As Sandford spoke on the science of why weather patterns are becoming more turbulent, resulting in extreme precipitation events, Canmore was washing away. Within hours more than 75,000 Calgarians were displaced as flood waters inundated the city’s downtown.
Last week south Winnipeg was deluged with a cloudburst that within minutes had overwhelmed the storm sewers, flooding streets, basements, cars and businesses. The other side of the city received nary a drop. Heavy rains over the weekend caused flash flooding in the RM of Pipestone and communities on the Little Saskatchewan River are on flood watch.
You could sum up Sandford’s 30-minute presentation in four words: Get used to it.
Sandford works for EPCOR, the City of Edmonton’s water utility, chairing the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the UN’s Water for Life Decade project. His job is translating the science of climate change into language the general public and policy-makers can use towards meaningful adaptation.
The science links these recent weather events directly to global warming. Those melting polar ice caps we’ve all been reading about don’t just affect polar bears and caribou; researchers are gaining new knowledge about the important role the world’s cold spots play in our weather.
“Ice plays a critical role in modulating the temperature in the Earth’s atmosphere and its oceans,” Sandford said. “Polar ice is now seen as a thermostat that governs major weather patterns globally and regulates sea level.”
Arctic sea ice has been melting. That’s affecting jet streams. Warm and cold fronts are now showing up in odd places and sticking around longer, causing floods and droughts “of a magnitude we are poorly equipped to manage.”
“What we are seeing in North America is not so much a warming as a destabilization of historic weather patterns,” he said. “People are complaining the weather is all over the place. Well, it is.”
NASA records show that between 1951 and 1980 extreme hot weather covered less than one per cent of the Earth’s surface. Now extreme temperatures cover about 10 per cent. It is estimated that 300 glaciers have disappeared from the Canadian Rockies between the early 1800s and 2005.
“Warming is causing the post-glacial hydrological wealth of Canada to change form. The water is not disappearing, water doesn’t do that. What is happening is the liquid water is moving to a different place in the hydrosphere,” he said.
“One of the places it is going is into the atmosphere where it becomes available to fuel more frequent and intense extreme weather events.”
In short, Sandford says the old math about how to manage water — and extreme precipitation events — no longer works. That might explain how a shower lasting only a few minutes would overwhelm the city’s storm sewer or why thousands of people in Alberta have suffered untold losses and displacement or why Reston — situated on the flat prairie — would experience a flash flood.
The implications for a province like Manitoba are ominous given its geographic placement as the drain at the bottom of the bathtub for two major North American rivers spanning multiple jurisdictions.
“It appears the Central Great Plains region may have passed over an invisible threshold into a new hydroclimatic state, which if not properly managed, could over time bankrupt flood-prone Canadian jurisdictions like Manitoba,” Sandford said.
Our front-page story last week on dissatisfaction among farmers in the Shoal Lakes area over whether provincial buyout offers are fair value prompted a call from a farmer in southwestern Manitoba wondering if farmers losing land to an overflowing Whitewater Lake are also eligible for provincial buyouts or compensation. And if not, why not?
It’s a fair question and one that the provincial government could face repeatedly now that it has set a precedent of buying out Shoal Lakes farmers because of flooding that appears to be part of a changing hydrological cycle.
As Sandford suggests, at some point the public purse could well run out of capacity.
Whether Manitoba sinks or swims in this new environment is going to depend largely on the success of recent efforts to collectively craft a mitigation and adaptation strategy for water management across the entire basin. As much of that land base is controlled by farmers, this has obvious implications for agriculture.