Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Weather service chaos revealed

Neglect has threatened public safety, papers say

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OTTAWA -- Canada's weather forecasting system -- which is considering closing its Winnipeg office -- has been in such bad shape that it has put public safety at risk, government documents show.

Internal federal documents obtained by the Free Press paint a picture of an aging and underfunded meteorological service completely at odds with the high-tech system Environment Minister David Anderson claims can handle a proposed massive consolidation of weather stations.

"Our basic service is at risk due to literal rust-out, obsolescence, lack of specialized skills and inability to keep up with global technological change," warns an Environment Canada document from a 2000-2001 program integrity review, used to guide long-term planning and budgeting.

The documents make clear that warning Canadians of hazardous weather is one of the most important services provided, and failure to properly fund it will increase "risk to the safety and security of Canadians because of the lack of access to warning information."

Funding for the most critical infrastructure requirements should be at least $30 million a year, the documents say.

Today, more than two years after the report, many of the problems are thought to exist still because the Chretien government began providing only $30 million over five years in 2001, just one-fifth the funding recommended by the report. The documents say the sad state of Canada's forecasting capacity includes rotting floorboards and support beams at Churchill's weather station.

The documents also cite rusting ocean weather buoys, which drifted off to Spain, and obsolete computer equipment.

They warn that not only is the ability to detect storms jeopardized, but also the country's ability to monitor climate change as required under the Kyoto accord.

"MSC (Meteorological Services Canada) can no longer make advances in modelling, observing and predicting. It cannot deliver world-quality weather, climate, air quality or water programs."

The documents -- of which several pages were completely censored -- were released under the Access to Information Act but only after the department stalled for nearly 60 days and failed to fully comply with requirements under the federal law.

The release of the documents comes as Anderson is expected to finally decide as early as this week the fate of the Winnipeg weather office.

The long-awaited decision by Anderson could see the Winnipeg weather office's role transferred to Edmonton, a move which would leave Canada without a single weather office between Toronto and the Alberta capital, a gap of 3,400 kilometres. By comparison, North Dakota has three weather stations and Texas has 10.

Anderson hasn't specified which offices he wants to close, but he has said he wants to see the number of weather offices trimmed from the current 14 to five or six. He has justified the proposed consolidation plan on the basis of technological changes, which now allow forecasting to be done from afar with the same accuracy and timeliness.

However, the federal documents suggest that Environment Canada's computers are far from cutting edge. One section on computers says that: "if we look at an average lifespan of nine years, more than half of our equipment is beyond its expected lifespan. In fact, some of our weather monitoring equipment is nearing 20 years old."

Nancy Cutler, director-general of policy and corporate affairs for the Meteorological Service of Canada, said the additional funding now being received is being used to address years of underfunding, which could have put at risk public safety.

"We are in the process of addressing the most critical needs," she said.

Cutler said additional funding is also expected soon.

"Public safety and security always have and will remain our highest priority," she said.

Cutler said any decision on the closing of weather offices "would not put in jeopardy the safety and security of Canadians."

Among the other findings in the Environment Canada records released to the Free Press are:

Inability to recruit and train staff during the last decade due to budget cuts has put the forecasting service "in a perilous HR (Human Resources) situation within our specialized technical groups."

More than 40 per cent of the atmospheric environmental program is beyond its expected lifetime and the current capital resource base is not sufficient to revitalize this critical component.

An "increasingly burdensome" workload on staff is taking its toll on staff. Some of the infrastructure can no longer be repaired and monitoring sites, for example, are being switched off.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 11, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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