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Colm Tompkins was photographed while out playing during the bitterly cold temperatures in Winnipeg Monday, January 21, 2013. (JOHN WOODS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Colm Tompkins was photographed while out playing during the bitterly cold temperatures in Winnipeg Monday, January 21, 2013. (JOHN WOODS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Dramatic temperature increases could threaten Canadian health, infrastructure Add to ...

Every community in the country is getting a new definition of “normal” weather.

Environment Canada is rolling out updated benchmarks to reflect a rapidly changing climate. These adjusted figures for precipitation, temperature and other factors change the calculations for anyone trying to build a bridge, insure a house or predict mosquito season. In a best-case scenario, the adaptive cost is incremental and can be factored into planning; at worst, it could mean expensive cleanups as sewers back up and power lines fail.

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While applying new normals at Canada’s weather stations is not unusual (the 30-year rolling average is updated every decade), the degree of change this time is notable: Average temperatures are rising across the board, during winter most of all. In the past 65 years, Canada’s national average winter temperature has risen 3.2 degrees.

This reaffirms what many suspected. Canada is getting hotter faster than ever before and at a faster rate than almost any other country. Rain, snow, sleet and hail storms are becoming more erratic. What were once considered exceptional weather patterns – the kind researchers reject to avoid skewing their data – are becoming common.

“We’ve had an awful lot of those ‘exceptionals,’” said Robert Tremblay, research director at the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “What used to be happening every 50 years is now happening every five, seven years. … There’s obviously a sense of urgency.”

Canada’s infrastructure wasn’t built for this kind of climate. And much of the burden falls on municipal governments, with road, sewer and transit systems that can barely cope with existing weather conditions, let alone future vagaries.

“There’s a very large gap in terms of the current health of municipal infrastructure in Canada and where we should be right now,” said Paul Kovacs, University of Western Ontario economist and executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a group established by Canada’s insurance industry to research the costs of natural disasters and how to mitigate them. “Incrementally, the cost of filling that gap is getting larger.”

Building codes across Canada require new high-rises and government structures to take into consideration the “normal” temperature at the time of construction, Mr. Kovacs said. Residents have sued cities – and won – over weather-related damage that courts ruled the municipalities should have planned for. In 2010, Stratford, Ont., paid $7.7-million to more than 800 homeowners in a class-action suit over damage from a flood in July, 2002.

Local public health officials are also paying close attention to vulnerable populations as extreme heat and cold become more frequent. They use climate projections to plan West Nile virus prevention – milder winters and springs can mean more mosquitos carrying the disease.

It’s a big deal for businesses, too, although many don’t know it yet. “Or they don’t want to know: They see it as a kind of capitulation,” said Blair Feltmate, who runs Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation Project.

“Traditionally, in the whole area of climate change, almost 99 per cent of the discussion has focused on mitigating,” Mr. Feltmate said. But “climate change is a done deal. There’s nothing we can do to turn it off. … How do we adapt to that new reality?”

Take tailings impoundment areas – the ponds used to store mine waste. Mr. Feltmate said many of the ponds in northern areas were designed “with the idea that permafrost will be in the ground permanently.” In many regions, that isn’t the case.

The effects of erratic weather patterns became very real for Ontario’s apple farmers last year: An early thaw followed by an unexpected frost wiped out 82 per cent of the province’s crop. Now, the industry – worth about $100-million in Ontario alone – is trying to figure out how to weatherproof itself. Potential fixes are wind breaks, hail nets, frost fans and sunscreen for apples to prevent damage from sunlight and heat. It’s expensive and uncertain, especially when the weather becomes tougher to predict. Leslie Huffman, Ontario’s apple production specialist, is working with the province on evaluating new techniques.

It’s a big deal for insurance companies: Claims for sewage backups alone have doubled in 11 years, Mr. Tremblay said. Companies are including weather variables in their risk calculations that they wouldn’t have factored in before, such as how much wind a garage door can withstand.

If insurance costs go up, rates may rise. “We’re not at that stage yet,” Mr. Tremblay said.

While actuaries and engineers factor these new normals into their formulas, some people studying Canada’s climate change argue that’s not satisfactory.

“New normals are better than old data,” Mr. Kovacs said. “But for most of us, what we’re ideally hoping is that people will start looking further ahead.”

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