Climate change means more frequent and severe flooding

Matt Gardner
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One of Canada’s top climate scientists has a difficult message for beleaguered residents dealing with the effects of recent flooding: Welcome to the new normal.

“I think all of us should acknowledge the difficulties that this imposes upon those who are affected,” EPCOR chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative, United Nations “Water for Life” Decade Bob Sandford said on Tuesday.

“I always want to start out with that, because it’s painful to talk about these things when people are suffering, and right now that’s what’s happening widely.”

Yet even as he expressed sympathy for the victims, Sandford -- who specializes in building bridges between scientific research and public policy -- was warning of even greater suffering still to come.

Climate change, he argued, had played a key role in the current flooding and will only lead to more frequent and severe floods in the future.

“People like me working in this domain of climate effects on water -- this is precisely what we warned of but did not wish to happen,” Sandford said.

“We built in flood plains because we thought that relatively stable climate we’ve experienced over the past century would remain the same. We also thought we had a good grasp on how variable we could expect the climatic conditions to be and what kind of engineering solutions should be applied to that variability.

“Now we’ve discovered that neither of these two assumptions was correct. We don’t have an adequate means to product development in flood plains, and we don’t have an adequate means even to protect infrastructure.

“If you start losing bridges, you’ll understand what I mean.”

Research accumulated over decades indicates that the climatic conditions in the region have become more variable, while hydrologic conditions are also changing.

The net effect is that warmer temperatures have increased the manner and rate at which water moves through the hydrological cycle, making extreme weather events more frequent.

“This isn’t complicated atmospheric physics,” Sandford said.

“These are some of the most simple algorithms that we have in our knowledge of the atmosphere, and the algorithm is called the Clausius-Clapeyron relation.”

The Clausius-Clapeyron relation holds that the amount of water vapour the atmosphere can hold increases by about seven per cent per degree Celsius.

As average temperatures rise and the math changes, old methods of flood prediction and protection gradually lose their effectiveness.

The struggle of cities around the world to deal with unprecedented flooding and storms in recent years is a case in point.

“We have good scientific evidence widely that this is happening,” Sandford said.

“We saw it in 2005 in Toronto, we saw massive flooding events in Australia in 2010, in Pakistan in 2011, on the Central Great Plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and North Dakota in 2011, last year in Europe, this year in Europe again, also in Toronto with the flooding of the Don Valley Parkway, in Muskoka and (Canmore), and the flooding events obviously have impacted you (in Prince Albert) as well.”

Sooner or later we may have to accept that climate change effects on water may cost our society more than our economy generates by ignoring these effects. Bob Sandford

While politicians and pundits often portray economic growth and environmental policy as mutually exclusive or even contradictory, the effects of climate change are already exerting a massive economic toll on affected areas.

Where individuals are concerned, the damage caused to personal property can drive flood victims into bankruptcy and poverty. Uninsured losses are often eight to 10 times higher than those covered by insurance.

At the state level, the necessity of providing disaster relief can prove costly for governments, particularly for those who are not running surpluses. Extreme weather events in Europe earlier this year proved particularly ruinous to indebted nations such as Greece.

“Flooding in Manitoba in 2011 cost the government of Manitoba $1 billion in disaster relief, which happens to be the exact amount of that province’s 2012 deficit,” Sandford noted. “So there’s a real link between hydrology and economy.”

Far from representing a threat to economic prosperity, Sandford argued, dealing with climate change is in fact becoming a prerequisite for it.

While taking the necessary steps may prove expensive, failing to take such measures, he suggested, would be even more so in the long run.

“We have to recognize that we’re going to have to replace vulnerable infrastructure across this country with new systems designed to handle greater extremes, and that’s going to be costly,” Sandford said.

Yet he also noted there are steps individuals can take to protect themselves, their families and property.

“Look very carefully at downspouts from eavestroughs,” he suggested. “Look at whether or not you can get away without paved or impermeable driveways and sidewalks. Don’t have downsloping driveways. Really be careful with the kinds of valves you have, so sewage doesn’t come up and flood in your vents into your basement.

“Those are things people can do,” he added. “But in the final analysis, sooner or later we may have to accept that climate change effects on water may cost our society more than our economy generates by ignoring these effects.”

Organizations: EPCOR, Canadian Partnership Initiative, United Nations Prince Albert

Geographic location: Manitoba, Europe, Toronto Australia Pakistan Saskatchewan North Dakota Don Valley Parkway Muskoka Canmore Greece

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Recent comments

  • Phillip Noe
    July 05, 2013 - 21:53

    How much evidence or environmental destruction will it take? More Americans need to demand Congress moves more aggressively to reduce global emissions. As it is, too many Congressmen/women cater to the fossil fuel industry and deny that human-caused climate change even exits. Contact your reps in Congress and make sure they aren't among the obstructionists. Our future generations are literally at risk.