Opinion

Calgary's Manhattan Moment

I only hope my city's nightmare is the climate change wake-up Alberta, and Canada, needs.

By Andrew Nikiforuk, 24 Jun 2013, TheTyee.ca

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Calgary immersed after hit by triple the previous rainfall record.

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"The frequency with which Canada experiences events such as heavy rainfall of a given intensity (known as the return period), is projected to increase such that an event that occurred on average once every 50 years will be likely to occur about once every 35 years by 2050." -- Telling the Weather Story, Insurance Bureau of Canada, 2012

My city, a vibrant place that often transcends the province's narcissistic oil culture, has had a Manhattan moment.

We thought we were big and powerful and beyond humbling just like New York. But as every true cowboy knows, Mother Nature invariably has the last word.

And so Calgarians are now living a chronicle foretold by climate scientists.

Many once worked at federal agencies that the nation's federal government ruthlessly axed in an ideological assault on science and reason.

My friends and neighbours have also experienced another extreme weather event that Insurance Bureau of Canada reported a year ago, "will likely result in continued flood risk throughout Alberta."

Alberta, always a geography of maximum weather, is now climate change central in Canada due to exponential growth in human communities and all in the path of increasing floods, droughts, fires and hail storms.

Bad weather once racked up $100 million worth of damages every year about a decade ago. Today unpredictable events now create half a billion dollars in disasters almost every year.

Yet most Albertans still can't believe the scale of the multi-billion disaster that has dampened Calgary and environs because affluence tends to dull the senses.

Tragedy, too, breeds its own strange brew of incongruities.

In Calgary a citizen can still down a cappuccino on 17th Ave. while watching fire trucks laden with yellow Zodiacs race to flooded homes just blocks away.

Stunned?

So here's what happened in the semi-arid Bow River basin (four per cent of Alberta) and it was largely predicted by climate scientists and water experts: An "extreme" weather event fell upon us like some Texas gully-washer, and left tens of thousands homeless. Damage will total in the billions.

The speed and scale of the event "stunned" Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a climate change skeptic, and it mortified Premier Alison Redford, whose deficit plagued government hasn't budgeted for disasters, let alone the future. (One 2011 report catalogued Alberta's reticence on the issue this way: "Leadership on climate change adaptation from senior levels in all departments is weak.")

The Great Flood, which punched a giant hole in the TransCanada Highway in Canmore, swelled rivers and undermined infrastructure built for, well, a more stable and reliable climate. The flood also exposed some market-driven deceptions about geography and basic hydrology.

It seems that flood plains will fill with water in oil-rich Alberta, a truth most might find evident but one the province's one-party government has tried to conceal from the public for years.

A 2006 Provincial Flood Mitigation Report even recommended that the province forbid the selling of flood plains to developers. But the one-party state deep sixed the report for five years and did not make it public until 2012.

The freak storm, partly the product of the energy of spent carbon emissions, washed away landmarks, towns, homes, memories, roads, pipelines, wells and bridges. It broke precipitation and stream flow records.

First came scattered rainfall, which saturated the ground in the foothills. Then the skies greyed like a sick man with cancer. The air, redolent of water, hung with a heavy menace.

When the skies opened they delivered buckets of rain that seemed oddly tropical in their intensity.

Along the foothills 80 to 340 millimetres of water fell in a 24-hour period. Calgary alone broke a record and received 45 mm in a day.

Alberta's sprawling cities suddenly rediscovered that mountain water moves downhill as fast as torrents ripped through Canmore and Bragg Creek first.

And then the Bow and Elbow rivers swelled, spilling their banks with three times more water than the so-called landmark flood of 2005. (Climate change seems to be all about scoring Olympic records in global weather.)

In it together

Many citizens including myself gathered at an off-leash dog park above the Elbow River to gawk and stare at rising waters on Friday morning in Calgary.

It was a remarkable day because the force and volume of water in the city's rivers brought much of Calgary's oil economy to a standstill.

Due to road closures and flooding, curious cyclists took to the streets in record numbers too.

Save for the odd reconnaissance helicopter and emergency vehicle sirens, the city seemingly lost its vehicular bustle and grew quiet. The sound of flowing water became, for a day at least, Calgary's loudest radio station.

The suspension bridge by Sandy Beach crumpled and collapsed in a muddy torrent.

The onlookers photographed the chocolate water of the Elbow with their phones like Japanese tourists as it whooshed its way into city neighborhoods inundating thousands of homes and the Stampede grounds.

Meanwhile the Bow River took on the shape of the Mississippi and shut down the downtown core of the city. Canada's oil capital could be without power for days if not weeks.

Warnings unheeded

As I watched with a mixture of sadness and horror (the energy of Mother Nature is unlike any mechanical energy), I recalled a long list of dry climate change reports and emotionless forecasts for Alberta.

In 2005 the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative promised warming temperatures, melting glaciers, variable rainfall, changes in stream flows, accelerated evaporation and more extreme events.

In 2006 climate scientist Dave Sauchyn told a Banff audience that "droughts of longer duration and greater frequency, as well as unusual wet periods and flooding" would be the new forecast. Meanwhile researchers documented a 26-day shift in the onset of spring in Alberta over the past century.

Five years later the Bow River Council concluded that "Our rapidly growing population demands much of the land and water. Our climate is changing and the future of our water supplies is uncertain."

In 2010 the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an agency that the Harper government killed last year because it didn't like its messages on climate change, reported that changing precipitation patterns were "the most common gradual, long-term risk from a changing climate identified by Canadian companies."

In particular oil and gas firms "with operations in Alberta expressed the highest level of concern. A number of them described potential water shortages due to decreased precipitation and runoff as the most significant risk from physical impacts of climate change that they are likely to face."

In 2011 the NREE published more inconvenient truths in a document called Paying the Price. It concluded that annual cost of flooding in Canada due to climate change could total $17 billion a year by 2050.

It added that "economic and population growth, coupled with anticipated effects of climate change, will impact Canada's freshwater systems and create new pressures on the long-term sustainability of our water resources."

Moreover rising temperatures will "affect precipitation patterns and evaporation rates, as well as the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather and climate events like droughts, heat waves and storms."

A building current

The redundancy of the reports is startling. A 2011 document on climate change's impact on the Bow River warned that events could be far more severe than modern water management has previously experienced."

And then came the kicker. In 2012 Insurance Bureau of Canada produced a report by Gordon McBean, an expert on catastrophes. It bluntly warned that Alberta "will be greatly affected by drought and water scarcity under changing climate conditions, and can expect potential increases in hail, storm and wildfire events." Spring rainfall could increase by 10 to 15 per cent in southern Alberta too.

In addition to changing rainfall patterns, "Retreating glaciers and stream flows may create difficulty in providing potable water to Alberta's rapidly increasing population, and water scarcity may constrain Alberta's economic development."

And the list of warnings and chronicles foretold goes on and on like the Bow River itself.

After Hurricane Sandy pulverized Manhattan last year, New Yorkers realized that they lived at sea level and were extremely vulnerable to climate change. They also learned that placing electrical stations and emergency equipment in basements of buildings or at street level wasn't smart thinking.

The city's state of emergency convinced the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, that "anyone who says there hasn't been a dramatic change in weather patterns is in denial."

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According to a recent Nature commentary by energy analyst Chris Nedler, a Google search now turns up more than one million hits "that mention both 'Hurricane Sandy' and 'renewable energy.' "

Calgarians, who are as hardy and distinct as New Yorkers, might react in a similar way after the Great Flood of 2013. They may even reassess their government's carbon-laden pipeline fantasies as well as the pace and scale of the tar sands.

If nothing else the city's often arrogant elites have been reminded that province's Chinese-style economic growth is vulnerable to extreme events. A crowded and overdeveloped province of four million is nowhere near as resilient as a province of one million. (By some estimates the province's untamed growth could make Alberta a net water and food importer by 2050.)

Albertans have also learned that climate change delivers two extremes: more water when you don't need it, and not enough water when you do. The geographically challenged have also learned, once again, that water travels down hill and even inundates flood plains.

So climate change is not a mirage. Nor is it weird science or tomorrow's news. It is now part of the flow of daily life.

Moreover there is a steep price to pay for inaction on the destabilizing pollution emitted by our proliferating energy slaves.

Calgary's moment

Water scientist David Schindler, who has warned repeatedly about the extreme droughts and water scarcity that climate change is bringing to the prairies, summed up the whole messy situation in an email to The Tyee and BBC.

"Costs (from the flooding) will be in the billions, and human error is a good reason why, but for the most part it is due to underestimating and ignoring natural flow patterns, rather than the usual watershed modifications," wrote Schindler.

"Could the wacky weather be part of what is predicted due to climate warming? Very possibly, but of course it is impossible to say so with any certainty."

In any case Calgary has had its Manhattan moment.  [Tyee]

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