This summer’s wet weather looks a lot like global warming

by Gregory Beatty


province“Unprecedented” is how Premier Brad Wall described the flooding that occurred in southeast and east-central Saskatchewan on the Canada Day long weekend. Some communities, such as Melville and Moosomin, had 200 mm of rain. That came at the end of a record month of precipitation that gave Regina 210 mm of rain.

After surveying the damage, the premier said the cost would likely exceed the $360 million from the 2011 flood. Yeah, the one from three years ago. And don’t forget the bullet we dodged in 2013 when spring was mega late and we escaped flooding after record snowfall.

So while the flooding was severe, it was hardly “unprecedented.”

“Statements like that are perhaps politically or economically motivated rather than based on scientific fact,” says David Sauchyn, research coordinator at Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative.

“If you look at the prairie climate over the last 1,000 years, there’s been periods that have been wetter than what we’re currently experiencing, and also drier than anything we’ve experienced. So when someone says ‘This flooding’s unprecedented,’ you have to ask ‘What’s your time frame?’ By default, it’s always our [lifetime]. But that qualification is never mentioned in media reports or statements politicians make.”

Because so many variables are in play, the study of weather and climate is fraught with uncertainty. But the increased precipitation we’ve experienced lately is consistent with research by climate scientists, who say that the accumulation of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is changing the planet’s climate.

Most of our prairie weather comes from the west coast, and measurements by scientists show the Pacific Ocean is warming. That, in turn, leads to more evaporation and the creation of water vapour-laden air masses. When they move inland, the likelihood of us receiving above normal snowfall in winter or rain in spring/summer increases.

That seems to be the situation at present. As for what might happen as the planet continues to heat up, who knows?

“Right now we’re focused on flooding and drought has faded from the public mind,” says Sauchyn. “But drought still remains the most threatening weather event. Flooding only affects low lying areas, while drought impacts everywhere and results in more damage as there’s only so much you can do without water.”

Indeed, for Saskatchewan, the benefits of wet weather arguably outweigh the drawbacks, says Sauchyn. “I’ve heard hydrologists say the damage is usually offset by higher crop yields and more productivity in the areas not flooded.”

The torrential rains on the Canada Day weekend were followed a few days later by tornadoes near Outlook and Kenaston. Along with hurricanes, blizzards, typhoons and other storms, climatologists class tornadoes as “extreme weather events.”

Sauchyn says the evidence shows they’re on the rise.

“Some of the best data can be found on websites of big insurance companies. Munich Reinsurance has been monitoring the number of damaging climate events around the world since the 1950s. They have graphs that show these events are rising quite steeply.”

Summer is festival season in Saskatchewan and extreme weather is always a concern, says Regina Folk Festival’s production coordinator Dayle Schroeder-Hillier. “When I came on board five years ago we had an emergency plan, and it was quite thorough. The plan gets updated every year, and safety is always our number one consideration.

“We have an emergency management group that includes our production team, security, fire inspectors, health, the city’s emergency coordinator, so the plan is shared with a lot of people,” she says. “We spend a lot of time training our volunteers as well.”

The RFF’s production company, Ruggieri Staging and Lighting, monitors the weather, says Schroeder-Hillier. “They know their equipment, and they’re very good at saying, ‘You know what, our stage isn’t safe. And these are the things that we need to do.’”

The RFF’s location in downtown Regina helps, says Schroeder-Hillier.

“There’s lots of buildings around where people can seek shelter. They can even go home. At a festival like Ness Creek, though, they have to be more cautious because they have campers in tents and there’s nowhere for them to go.”

Shelter options in downtown Regina decrease at night, so the RFF has made arrangements to use Cornwall Centre as an evacuation centre in the case of a weather emergency.

Really, inclement weather impacts on us in all sorts of ways. In three home games so far this year, the Riders have drawn 47,652 spectators or roughly 16,000 a game. The team capped season ticket sales at 26,700, but crap weather has kept people at home, and that translates into a big hit in concessions and other revenue.

Agriculture, market gardens, road and building construction, all sorts of industries can face delays and disruptions. Even basic maintenance becomes a challenge, says Charmaine Neufeld, the City of Regina’s manager of parks maintenance.

“People don’t always seem to understand but when we’ve received substantial rainfall, even if there isn’t standing water, it’s still quite wet,” says Neufeld. “And we have to be careful when we go in and mow so we don’t do damage or cause ruts.”

Not that there’s been any shortage of standing water. In Victoria Park, two mallard ducks have even taken up residence. And prolonged exposure to standing water can cause issues for grass and trees, says Neufeld.

In especially low-lying areas like Kiwanis Park, she adds, “we will go in and pump it out as best we can. Then the rest has to dry up on its own.”

When the creek overflows and other flooding occurs, debris is usually left behind, and the city cleans that up too.

The city monitors its outdoor facilities, says Neufeld, and when problems with drainage emerge, landscape architects are dispatched to survey the situation and determine what kind of repairs are needed.

Victoria Park is under the microscope at present, she says.

“So many different things go on there, and over the years the drainage has gotten poor. So we’ve asked the landscape architects to assess the site. Then we’ll start addressing issues quadrant by quadrant.”