Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unprepared for the next big one

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Ronald Stewart, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Manitoba, says it was a miracle no one was killed in Sunday's storm, which blew roofs off cottages, toppled mature trees, derailed rail cars and left a wide swath of destruction across Winnipeg and parts of rural Manitoba.

The province has seen severe storms before, but this one was different because, as Prof. Stewart noted, it was viewed in the context of climate change. Most scientists appear to agree extreme weather is now the new normal.

The latest warning came from a group of 10 scientists at the University of British Columbia, who said a four-year drought that affected western Canada and the U.S. between 2000 and 2004 was the worst dry spell to hit the region in 800 years. It was nothing, they added, compared to the "mega droughts" to come.

Last year's unusually mild winter followed by spring floods that devastated cottagers and very nearly swamped Brandon has also been interpreted as another example of an extreme-weather trend that could have serious consequences for cities, agriculture, forestry and industry.

Shorter seasons for winter-road operations have also raised concerns in parts of northern Manitoba that depend on the delivery of foodstuffs by truck, while heavy spring rains this year, followed by stifling heat, have worried farmers and backyard gardeners.

Traditional farm crops could bake in the sun, while poorer people would be vulnerable in times of sustained drought and heat. Home foundations could shift and water supplies dwindle in the new environment. Fires and insect outbreaks could devastate forests.

There may be disagreement about whether global warming is real and if it is caused by human activity, but there appears to be some consensus the predictable weather patterns of the past are gone with the wind. In Manitoba, the forecast is for wetter springs and hotter summers than normal, while winters will be shorter and milder.

Many environmentalists say this is why society has to move faster on green initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change, but if the problem is affecting people's lives and livelihoods today, then adjusting to the new normal should be an equal, or even greater, priority.

Provinces and municipalities are aware they need to be preparing for extreme weather, but their responses have been uneven.

Manitoba's new Green Plan, for example, released earlier this summer, focuses almost entirely on "being better caretakers of the water, air and land."

The question of adaptation is mentioned only briefly, with a promise to conduct risk assessments and then develop a "strategy and action plan."

The City of Winnipeg appears to be even farther behind in planning. It has no policy documents on climate adaptation, but officials say they have been consulting with scientists and others on the subject. Some cities are farther ahead, but at least Winnipeg's civil servants are aware of the threat. Council, on the other hand, has not provided any direction on the subject.

A civic subsidy for backup valves is an example of adaptation, since heavy spring rains could lead to sewage and storm-water backup, but council was not thinking of climate change when it introduced the program. The city should also be considering its storm-water management plans, building codes, water conservation strategies, emergency preparedness and even simple matters, such as growing plants that can survive hotter summers.

On the positive side, the extreme weather has made it easier for governments and concerned citizens to get the public's attention on the twin challenges of mitigation and adaptation. The long-term effects of climate change on the planet are important, but they shouldn't overshadow the need to prepare for the next heat wave or torrential downpour.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2012 A6

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