Monday, September 1, 2014

Planning need for ‘wild weather’

Municipalities need to plan for frequent extreme weather events in the future lest climate change has a big impact on their budgets.
That’s the message meteorologist Graham Saunders delivered yesterday to regional leaders gathered here for the annual general meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.

“I think this is a huge issue—how vulnerable municipalities and communities are from more severe weather, now and in the future,” said the Lakehead University professor, who most recently helped the City of Thunder Bay analyze what happened with the flood of 2012 there.
“We can, in our region, have events that disrupt—not just inconvenience,” Saunders added, noting a simple road collapse can result in a significant detour on some area traffic routes.
Citing incidents in Fort Frances in 2002, as well as in Thunder Bay and Duluth in 2012, Saunders said flooding is the most prominent weather-related problem in the region.
He noted there’s been two major problems with the weather in recent years—heavy rains and uneven winter temperatures.
Saunders explained that although this past winter was very cold, more recent ones have featured periods where temperatures merely were around the freezing mark.
“It used to be . . . we didn’t have a lot of melting temperatures or rainfall in the wintertime,” he remarked.
“Now we do, and . . . anytime we have weather around the freezing mark, or the melting mark, then you have big problems, especially in rugged terrain of hills,” he warned.
Meanwhile, summers have been seeing more heavy rains than before, along with derechos (strong winds) and tornadoes or near-tornado events.
Saunders also predicted the region will see more heavy rain events both in spring and fall in future.
He said climate change has been in the cards for some time, noting his old boss at Environment Canada said in 1975 that: “The benign decades of weather are over.
“From now on it’s going to be more extreme events and it’s going to be more difficult to forecast specific problems.”
Saunders said the reason for the changes is simple: the atmosphere is warmer all over the world, and that means more moisture and, if the right triggers are there, extreme rainfall events.
Municipalities should not be reluctant to put money into preparing for a weather emergency, as well as address situations which could go wrong very easily due to weather, he urged.
“If communities and governments—provincial and federal included—put money into adapting to severe situations, the savings is considerable,” Saunders said.
“The estimates I’m seeing are $7-$19 on the dollar.
“So if you put in $100,000 to remedy some kind of bad situation, then you’ll save a lot of money in the future,” he reasoned.
Saunders noted all communities have “difficult areas,” areas where things could go wrong very easily if the weather is a certain way.
For example, Sudbury experienced a flood in 2009 and discovered one of its fire halls was isolated from the rest of the community because the water was that high.
“The firefighters couldn’t get to the hall . . . and they couldn’t get fire trucks out of the hall to go to the emergency,” Saunders noted.
“They treated that as a critical issue.”
All in all, Saunders said municipalities need to plan ahead, consider likely weather events, identify areas and hazards (like the Sudbury fire hall) and fix them.
Planning now could save effort—and money—in the possible future, he reiterated.

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