August 21, 2017


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Climate change could bring more of these winters

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2014 (1259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In cheesy disaster movies, the end of the world comes with continent-fracturing earthquakes, skyscraper-toppling tsunamis or new diseases that destroy all life.

The apocalypse is supposed to be dramatic. It's supposed to capture eyeballs and chew up scenery.

Adding insult to injury, potholes have arrived in Winnipeg.


Adding insult to injury, potholes have arrived in Winnipeg.

It's not supposed to involve death by a thousand minor humiliations, which is pretty much what Winnipeg has experienced this winter.

First came the brown water, the result of too much manganese in the drinking water, itself a byproduct of a coagulant chemical used in a $300-million treatment plant built to improve the drinking water.

'The cumulative effect of brown water, no water and lousy streets makes for angry residents'

Then came the rutted streets, the aftermath of unusual cold and snow in a city usually too resilient to be annoyed by either.

Then came the frozen waterlines, the result of frost penetrating as deep as 2.1 metres into the ground during a winter when the swirling Arctic air mass known as the circumpolar vortex went on frequent southern excursions.

And now we have the potholes, those familiar Winnipeg reminders that spring is in the air -- and the fact asphalt surfaces can't survive freezing, thawing and refreezing if any moisture is able to seep into their cracks.

The cumulative effect of brown water, no water and lousy streets makes for angry residents. Winnipeggers seem a little surly at this moment, although it would take longitudinal polling to accurately determine whether we really are any angrier than we were in 2013.

The anger flows from the fact basic city services seem to have failed us. And this anger isn't stemmed by the knowledge only the brown water was the result of human error.

The cold, snow, frozen soil and potholes are simply the result of weather in a city where the climate already is among the most variable on the planet.

There is precious little the City of Winnipeg can do about the weather. You can blame Mayor Sam Katz and council for all manner of stupid moves, but you cannot ding these people for failing to control the atmosphere.

What you can criticize is the way the city has responded during this winter of constant minor crises. City officials know full well their communications have been found lacking, especially pertaining to the frozen pipes. They know Winnipeggers deserve better and expect more.

The problem is a mere attitude adjustment or a redeployment of resources might not suffice in future winters. That's because the highly variable climate on the Canadian Prairies is bound to become even more variable.

As many Winnipeggers are aware, climate-change models predict greater weather extremes in mid-continental regions of the Earth. And more extremes mean more frequent floods, droughts, severe storms and yes, even cold winter weather, which sounds counterintuitive on a planet where the average temperature is climbing.

Again, the cold weather this winter was due to southern excursions of the polar vortex, the big air mass that always swirls around the Arctic. The cold air's southern journeys were made possible by a meandering jet stream, a flow that usually functions like a big waistband that holds the nasty stuff back.

Some climatologists theorize the weird wiggling of the jet stream might be caused by a warming Arctic atmosphere, itself the result of a loss of summer sea ice. But the cause-and-effect relationship between a warming Arctic and wandering jet stream is not conclusive, so it's too soon to blame this terrible, nasty winter on climate change.

It's not, however, too soon to be concerned Winnipeg is not as well-positioned to adapt to extreme weather as we previously believed.

There's a school of thought that Winnipeg is a poster child for environmental adaptation, given we routinely protect ourselves from major floods and easily clean up after blizzards. But the major disasters may not be the problem.

The tab for clearing ordinary, non-disastrous snow in 2013 exceeded the forecast budget by 50 per cent. If such snowfall becomes the norm, the city will have to find an extra $15 million every year to pay for clearing it.

Similarly, if colder mid-winter weather proves common, we're going to need tens of millions of dollars to lower the depth of pipes. That may not sound like much, but we're already having trouble finding the cash for other forms of infrastructure renewal, starting with a $4-billion tab for sewage and sewer improvements nobody has a clue how to finance.

More winter moisture, meanwhile, will also bring more potholes, as Winnipeg only wishes it had a dry cold. A single pothole is not a problem, but a thousand becomes a major annoyance.

If climate change unfolds as expected, Winnipeg's future may involve a million minor and costly inconveniences. An apocalyptic disaster might be easier to accept.


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