Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Battle on to save weather centre

Pagtakhan trying to stop 'catastrophic' relocation

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Manitoba's senior federal minister is making a last-ditch effort to stop Ottawa from moving its Environment Canada weather office and 60 jobs from Winnipeg to Edmonton.

"I think it would be catastrophic for Manitoba," said Manitoba MP and Veterans Affairs Minister Rey Pagtakhan.

Meteorologists say the transfer could endanger the public.

"The performance in alerting the public to impending life-threatening weather will be jeopardized," said Mike McDonald, severe-weather meteorologist with Environment Canada.

Manitoba has "one of the most diverse climates on Earth," said McDonald. The Prairies lead the country in tornadoes and hailstorms, and are second only to the Arctic region in blizzards, McDonald said.

Almost a year ago, the Free Press first reported the city might lose the weather office. But in recent days sources have told professors at both city universities, as well as Canadian Alliance MP Vic Toews, that there might soon be an announcement that Winnipeg's weather office, including the Prairie Storm Prediction Centre, will be moved to Edmonton.

The federal government is expected to make a decision after the holiday season.

The move would mean the Edmonton facility would be responsible for predicting weather for all three Prairie provinces and most of the Canadian Arctic.

Pagtakhan spoke by phone to Environment Minister David Anderson on the matter last week. Pagtakhan also plans to meet with Anderson immediately after Christmas.

McDonald said there was a 35 per cent drop in forecast accuracy after the last round of consolidation of Environment Canada weather offices in the mid-1990s. Environment Canada closed weather centres in Saskatoon and Calgary. Currently, Winnipeg is the weather office for the Prairies, and Edmonton handles aviation forecasts.

Vacating the Winnipeg office would leave Canada without a single weather office between Toronto and Edmonton, a gap of 3,400 kilometres.

"There wouldn't be a weather centre between Edmonton and Toronto, which is pretty amazing, considering North Dakota alone has three weather centres, and they have 10 in Texas," said McDonald.

The local weather office also provides marine reports for Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba.

By consolidating weather forecasting operations in Edmonton, Anderson is looking to save costs. It isn't known how much the move could save Ottawa, but it would cost $1 million just to close the Winnipeg office, McDonald said.

Pagtakhan said the local weather office not only provides Manitoba with excellent service, but is a resource used regularly by University of Manitoba scientists. It would also be a blow to Winnipeg to lose 60 jobs, including at least 40 professional positions, he said.

"There wouldn't be a weather centre between Edmonton and Toronto, which is pretty amazing, considering North Dakota alone has three weather centres, and they have 10 in Texas," said McDonald.

The local weather office also provides marine reports for Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba.

By consolidating weather forecasting operations in Edmonton, Anderson is looking to save costs. It isn't known how much the move could save Ottawa, but it would cost $1 million just to close the Winnipeg office, McDonald said.

Pagtakhan said the local weather office not only provides Manitoba with excellent service, but is a resource used regularly by University of Manitoba scientists. It would also be a blow to Winnipeg to lose 60 jobs, including at least 40 professional positions, he said.

"This is the geographic centre of Canada. Winnipeg has a right to claim the utility of this service," Pagtakhan said.

McDonald said the Winnipeg office has built a reputation for severe-weather forecasting, and is the second-largest centre of its kind in North America.

He said forecasting will suffer because many veteran forecasters will not move to Edmonton. That means newcomers not familiar with the intricacies of Manitoba weather will take over. "Half of forecasting is local experience. You get to know the climate and nuances of Manitoba," McDonald said.

"We all love Winnipeg. A lot of people are not from here, but moved here to study the extreme weather. Now we don't want to leave."

The prospect of having weather forecasters hundreds of kilometres away already has both the city's outdoor sports franchises worried.

Ed Metzlaff, director of operations with Winnipeg Enterprises, said when the Blue Bombers football team plays and the skies look iffy, he is on the phone several times with the local Environment Canada weather office.

"If there's anything in the sky during an event, we know everything about it and what it means to us," Metzlaff said yesterday.

"We sometimes get the Calgary office when we call and they do their best, but it's not as good as we require on a situation basis.

"I hope they don't relocate -- I'd miss it greatly."

Metzlaff said it's not just a matter of wanting to know whether it will be sunny and warm -- it's a safety issue for the thousands of fans in the stadium.

"We want to make sure everything is safe and accessible to the public," he said.

"We have thousands of people in the stands and we know they'll make a rush to the concourse area if there's bad weather. You want to know ahead of time so you can be ready for that."

The same goes for Winnipeg Goldeyes owner Sam Katz.

"There are times we communicate five or 10 times in one evening with them," Katz said.

"They are very much a big part of our team. I wouldn't be happy with it (a weather-office move to Edmonton)."

Associate professor Danny Blair, chairman of the University of Winnipeg's geography department, and John Hanesiak, an associate geography professor at the University of Manitoba, said closing the Winnipeg weather office would be a huge setback in getting accurate forecasts locally.

"There's the perception weather forecasting is not as accurate as it used to be and the fear is with this the forecasting would be further degraded," Blair said.

"With global warming, they should be increasing, not decreasing. To close any office at this time is ludicrous."

Hanesiak said the Edmonton office would be responsible for predicting weather for at least 50 per cent of the country.

"I can't imagine the accuracy of the forecasts being good," said Hanesiak, who formerly worked in the Winnipeg weather office before joining the university.

Toews, the Canadian Alliance MP, called the possible closure of the local weather officer "unacceptable.

"My concern is how sound is this decision, given the technology isn't capable of replacing the hands-on experience we have in Winnipeg. Farmers rely heavily on these reports and this office is important in helping to predict floods."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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