Tuesday, July 8, 2014

$1 billiion could buy a few climate brains

How many environmental scientists can you hire for $1 billion?

I have no idea, but I think I’m safe in saying, a great many.

One billion bucks is the early estimate on the damage done by the recent deluge in southeastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba. That is a massive economic kick in the head. Add to that the Alberta flood of last year, which cost our western neighbours $6 billion, and the floods of 2011, and you have a bill that approaches astronomic proportions.

The human toll has not yet been accounted for in those numbers. People have lost homes, businesses, jobs, farm buildings, cabins, crops, livestock -- and therefore, peace of mind. What effect does that have on the human condition?

Years ago, we had two huge trees fall on our family cottage during a spectacular storm led by plow winds. The damage, miraculously, was minimal, and we were very lucky; but to this day, over a decade later, I shake like a wet dog when the winds really howl. And that was just the cabin, with no serious damage. I can hardly imagine what people in the southern prairies are going through.

Whether it’s climate change, as environmentalists understand it, or some other problem, there is certainly something going on. It’s coming home to roost. We need to understand this better, and start thinking about solutions.

Enter John Pomeroy, director of the centre for hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan. He became a media star this week (probably unintended) when he was approached to explain what the hell is happening on the flood-drenched prairies.

It was by far the best explanation I have heard thus far. As I understand it, the persistently rainy springs and early summers of the last 10 years are not just “a cycle.” Rather, in a PostMedia interview, Pomeroy said there has been a shift in the climate system bringing prolonged summer storms to the Prairies.

His view is that a warmer arctic is changing the jet stream, allowing big wet storm fronts to move up from the United States and then stall over the prairies for days. In this case, the rain fell on saturated fields from two years of big snows. Making matters worse is the agricultural practice of draining fields, allowing the water to flow into the streams and rivers that move east into Manitoba.

This last rainfall, he said, was an unheard-of event since the Prairies were settled, while the climate changes over the last 10 years have been remarkable. Also not helping is Canada’s woeful flood forecasting and management system, he added. (And, I might add, an early warning system that does not work because we can’t translate “tornado warning” into French.)

Get used to the new and somewhat terrifying normal.

Let’s return to the billion bucks, remembering that this amount is only the mop-up funding for the last prairie rain event. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a meteorologist earns $100,000. If the federal government even hired 50 of them, the annual cost would be $5 million. That’s “illion” with an M, not a B. It’s a drop in the bucket, so to speak, compared to the huge economic toll climate problems are causing.

Unfortunately, for years, Environment Canada has been slashed and underfunded. In 2011, the government started hacking 1,200 jobs from the department, and that’s after years of cutting jobs and offices.

Someone with credibility on the subject must grab Prime Minister Stephen Harper by the lapels and shout, “you’re going the wrong way!”

Whether climate scientists can help us understand, and therefore stop, climate change is certainly up for debate. But without doing the research, we will never know. More people must be dedicated to this problem, yesterday.

So far, our beautiful city has been largely spared from the worst of the flooding events. We’re a little further north from the U.S., which helps, and our founding fathers, Chief Whitecap and John Lake, had the great good sense to plunk this town on a river with high banks. While we still get flooded basements, hard rains during thunderstorms, and a riverbank that’s being eroded by high flows, Saskatoon itself has long been spared overland river-related flooding (although some surrounding areas have been affected.)

Whether our good fortune will last remains to be seen. I’d feel a lot better if we had a few more climate researchers who could let us know. In the meantime, thank goodness for John Pomeroy, who is telling it like it is and trying to do something about it.

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