It started with a deadly heat dome that settled over the Pacific Northwest back in June 2021. That was followed by a devastating wildfire season, and that was followed by one of the worst flood disasters this province has ever seen. I'll take you through the series of unique conditions that came together for these unprecedented events to occur -- and why we need to prepare now for the next one.
Johanna Wagstaffe is the meteorologist and scientist for CBC Vancouver and CBC News Network. Wagstaffe's academic background in seismology and earth science has led her to cover major earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, floods and the Copenhagen, Paris and Glasgow Climate Change conference. She has hosted three award-winning CBC podcasts including: Fault Lines, 2050: Degrees of Change, and is the author of several children's science books.
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March 02, 2022 at 7:00PM
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ARPICO was honoured to host Ms. Johanna Wagstaffe for her talk on “Extreme Weather”. Ms Wagstaffe received her undergraduate degree in Geophysics at the University of Western Ontario with honours. She then studied meteorology at New York University. She is an award winning broadcaster at CBC for her program “50 degree of change”.
She has covered many events as a broadcaster, such as the recent Copenhagen climate change conference.
The talk covered three major weather events in British Columbia for 2021:
• The heat wave, which resulted in 995 deaths;
• The wild fire season, which destroyed the town of Lytton and caused wide-spread damage in the province;
• The flooding of the Fraser Valley in November.
These were unprecedented events. The scale of insurance claims is now officially given as 50 million but estimates may reach $7.5 billion.
The Heat Wave
The heat wave had been forecasted by meteorologists, thanks to the cooperation between Canadian and US scientists. The meteorological model showed a potential for heat up to 50 degrees. The model described a high pressure wave resulting in a heat wave, with a sinking air mass compressing the heat already in place, resulting in a heat dome.
As it turned out, Lytton broke temperature record in Canada and Northern Hemisphere, reaching 49.6 degrees. The jet stream which carries weather systems from West to East over the region became stalled. This happened in combination with the sun solstice when the sun was sending rays at the highest angle, thus aggravating the overall effect . The temperature in Metro Vancouver inside houses reached over 30 Degrees (without air conditioning).
This event escalated talks addressing the continuing reality of climate change. Scientist ran models with and without climate change as a contributing factor indicating that an event like the heat wave was 150 time more likely to happen as a result of climate change. Some immediate practical mitigating steps were suggested; for instance, ensuring that the elderly are escorted out of unsafe houses and use of heat pumps to cool buildings.
The wildfires came the day after the heat wave.
The previous heat had dried out a lot of potential fire fuel. Ms. Wagstaffe’s showed a fire risk map for the whole of British Columbia reported on the day before the fires broke out. To the best of her knowledge, such a map had never indicated such extent of red, indicative of areas of high risk.
A proposal to address the danger of wild fires was to change land use and invite indigenous involvement is being considered. For instance, the western practice of aggressively extinguishing wild fires, leads to accumulation of fire fuel. In contrast, indigenous manage land by controlled fires, which creates natural barriers for wild fires by burning dry brush. BC planned to have 150 controlled fires, but only half of them happened. Even-though the Indigenous approach would lead to more smoke year round, people can plan around that.
The flood was brought by the pineapple express. This was the name given to the phenomenon of atmospheric rivers which carry huge amount of water from Hawaii.
There were five to ten atmospheric rivers events, resulting in over 300 mm in Fraser Valley, flooding the locations where there was infrastructure and agriculture.
The areas around Sumas is a bowl. It used to be a lake, and after it was dried out it became fertile agricultural land. Now, after the flood, it may be considered accessible only in summer, and in other seasons its highways are accessible only to critical vehicles.
A scientific report determined that atmospheric rivers giving rise to the flood was 60% more likely to happen because of climate change. The speaker noticed one positive result arising from the flood: it brought out kindness and cooperation in people– she saw lending hands and resources like never before.
These events had been forecasted as a result of climate change, but were not expected to occur in this decade and were not expected to happen back to back, in rapid sequence.
The world is now paying attention to climate change. The demand for impactful, long term mitigating measures is coming from ground up. At the Glasgow conference the speaker met with activists and people operating behind the scenes, creating solutions on their own.
• The speaker noted that while the overall picture may seem depressing, and window of opportunity is narrowing, there is still hope for a change of course. This will be addressed in the upcoming climate change conference in Egypt in November 2022.
• With regard to quantifying extreme weather events, a lot of research is being done and the climate models are getting better at predicting extreme events.
• As for arctic and methane melt, there is now an active warning because it is happening 2 to 3 degree faster than predicted. This phenomenon tends to create a blocking patten in the jet stream, as it decreases the temperature difference needed to keep the jet stream flowing.
• Covid restrictions had a noticeable positive effect on the environment. Pollution levels improved dramatically and there was a brief pause in the rise of CO2. Of interest was the temperature drop in urban zones during smart working, where big office buildings were not being heated any more. Asking people to work from home might be a way to reduce the impact of a heat wave.
• Global warming means that in general earth will get warmer up but not uniformly so. In the interior of BC for instance some areas are showing signs of aridification.
• The need to curb wildfire was emphasized. Forests are carbon sinks and when they burn down carbon gets released. The speaker noted that this does not happen with controlled burns, which will not burn oldest and tallest trees, but only brush and fuel. The speaker endorsed the practice of planting new trees after logging.
• The prospect of capturing carbon from atmosphere remains controversial. What needs to happen is to make sure that the energy capture stays higher than the energy emitted to build and maintain the process.
• Food security and crop failures are expected to be significantly affected by climate change. At the Glasgow conference it was a head-line topic. However, the impact is not as straightforward to measure as sea level change. One curious aspect of this problem is the change in salinity in the Fraser River, due to sea levels rising at the mouth of the river and the decrease in water volume flowing downstream, due to reduction in the snowpack over the years.
• The rise of world population compounds the problem. At the moment 70% of the world’s population live in cities.
• Solar and wind power present similar issues as capturing carbon. Mined metal is needed to build the equipment. More mining means more methane. Mining companies will be encouraged to take new initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint.
• Amongst these alternatives and solutions, nuclear energy has made a comeback. Though it scares people, countries do rely on it, because it reduces the carbon footprint. And of course there is the promise of nuclear fusion, always just 10 years away.
• Nations leading the way in addressing climate change include British Columbia, a leader in promoting integrated solutions at all levels. California ranks first in implementing laws to curb climate change. Denmark gets an honourable mention as well. The rest of the world for the moment largely is simply to see how these climate change measures will work.
In conclusion, the speaker noted that the world is like the Titanic, and we all see the iceberg approaching. We all know that catastrophic climate change will happen under the present course. Whether we can turn the ship around remains the big question. The speaker encouraged the audience to add individual skill and interest and to be part of the overall effort.