Summer in British Columbia started full of promise. The pandemic had receded, the province had reopened, and it seemed life could again be savoured.
Then the heat dome hit. The village of Lytton set a national temperature record of 49.6 C. The next day, it burned to the ground. Vancouver-area emergency services were overrun. The heat killed 362 people in two days – many were seniors sweltering alone at home. The final toll of almost 600 made it the deadliest weather event in Canada’s history.
Then came fires, more heat waves and drought. Thick smoke darkened the sky and choked the air for weeks. Thousands of people fled their homes. Fire ravaged almost 9,000 square kilometres – 1½ times the area of Prince Edward Island and the third-most ever, after 2017 and 2018.
An unusually wet fall followed the blazing dry summer. Last weekend, a historic wallop smashed the province, when an atmospheric river of rain unleashed a torrent of widespread floods and landslides.
The volume of rain – topping out at 252 millimetres in the town of Hope over three days – was likened to a tropical hurricane. Drivers were trapped and needed helicopter rescue. Thousands of people fled, and homes were ruined. Deliveries of goods by rail and fuel by pipeline are halted. The Coquihalla highway, the only four-lane link between Vancouver and the rest of Canada, suffered extensive destruction and will not reopen any time soon.
Extreme heat, fires, drought, record rain, floods: It feels biblical. And it is all interconnected and made worse by climate heating.
The heat dome, climate scientists found, was “virtually impossible” without human-caused global warming. Events of such rarity, they added, “will become a lot less rare.” The powerful heat dries the landscape, making it prone to fire. The fires transform the landscape, making it prone to landslides. Climate heating causes more evaporation, and warmer air holds more moisture, bringing rains to trigger the landslides.
Atmospheric rivers, a normal phenomenon, deliver needed rain to the West Coast from the Pacific Ocean. At extremes, however, they can carry as much water as 15 Mississippi Rivers. Recent research shows that they have already caused US$1.1-billion of annual flood damage in the Western United States, and “modest increases in atmospheric river intensity could lead to significantly larger economic impacts.”
B.C. is in the eye of these storms, but the consequences of climate heating are being felt coast to coast to coast. Canada is heating twice as fast as the global average; there will be extreme heat risk on the Prairies and in Ontario and Quebec in the coming years, according to the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. The No. 1 thing to do is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as soon as possible. But adaptation and resilience will also be essential – and expensive.
Preparation is key. Flood damage is especially costly, yet the Intact Centre’s assessment of cities’ preparedness is rated C+, the same as five years earlier. Alert systems are a must, but B.C. this year has consistently failed to adequately warn citizens of the potential severity of immediate threats. The NDP government hasn’t once used the direct-to-cellphone Alert Ready system.
Infrastructure needs to be hardier. In the United States, the new infrastructure bill includes US$47-billion for climate resilience. That’s a big number. But the average cost of U.S. climate disasters – US$121-billion a year from 2016 through 2020 – indicates the daunting scale of the challenge.
Ottawa’s latest budget included an additional $1.4-billion for Infrastructure Canada’s disaster mitigation and adaptation fund, which launched in 2018 with $2-billion over a decade. It’s not a lot, especially compared with the cost of recent Canadian disasters. The 1998 ice storm in Quebec cost $6.7-billion, and the 2016 Fort McMurray fire cost $4.5-billion, according to a study published in 2020.
The costs of B.C.’s latest calamity will rank among the highest in Canada’s history. And while next year’s weather may bring a reprieve to the battered province, climate heating is all about likelihood and intensity. Once-a-century storms start happening every decade. Extremes get more extreme.
B.C.’s terrible year needs to be a clarion call for all governments – Ottawa, the provinces, municipalities. Our planet’s atmosphere is changing. We caused it. The effects will be myriad, and unrelenting. And we’re not ready.
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