By Tom Harris & Dr. Madhav Khandekar
It was only a matter of time before politicians blamed the tornadoes that recently ravaged the National Capital Region on climate change.
Sure enough, three days after the devastating Sept. 21 Ottawa and Gatineau tornadoes, the Montreal Gazette reported that Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin attributed these and other recent unusual extreme weather events largely to climate change, asserting, “Are we going to take this threat seriously? It’s not a theory, it’s people who are displaced, people who suffered, people who have lost everything. In Gatineau, we’ve suffered a lot, we’re continuing to suffer and one of the main sources of that, it’s clear, is climate change.”
François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (“Coalition for Quebec’s Future”) went even further, the Montreal Gazette quoting him as stating, “There have always been tornadoes, but it’s obvious that now, because of climate change, there are more extreme events.”
But weather history refutes this.
For example, the July 31, 1987 Edmonton tornado had wind speeds up to 417 km/h (Ottawa’s tornadoes peaked at 265 km/h) and destroyed over 300 homes and killed 27 people. Only the Regina tornado of June 30, 1912 was deadlier, killing 28 people. Other severe Canadian tornadoes include the 1946 tornado hit on the Detroit River (17 fatalities), the July 14, 2000 Pine Lake tornado (12 fatalities and at least 140 injured), and the June 22, 2007 Elie, Manitoba tornado that had wind speeds of between 420 to 510 km/h.
Although Canada has the second highest number of tornado strikes per year, trailing only the United States, we suffer relatively few casualties because of our strong building construction due to our cold climate, and our comparatively low population density.
The actual causes of September’s Ottawa/Gatineau tornadoes were natural, of course. As unseasonably cold and dry air from western Canada advanced toward the warm and moist air over southern Ontario, it produced a major thunderstorm with a funnel cloud. This then produced the two severe Ottawa tornadoes. Without that trigger of western cold air, we would not have seen a severe thunderstorm and tornadoes in the Ottawa region.
Tornadoes will continue to happen across Canada no matter what we do. So, instead of wasting money trying to stop them, we need to better prepare for them. For example, community shelters should be constructed to provide vitally needed warmth during the winter and air-conditioning during the summer when the power is disrupted. We also need to bury more electrical cables underground where they will not be impacted by inclement weather, falling trees, or wildlife.
In her March 29, 2011 Report to the Ottawa Planning Committee and Council, Nancy Schepers, then Deputy City Manager, wrote, “The burial of existing overhead electrical systems is very expensive with the cost being typically $2 – 5M [million] per kilometre or four to ten times more than rebuilding an overhead system… Given the high cost associated with undergrounding, the on-going challenge to meet current infrastructure renewal needs and other priority needs, and in the absence of any new City funding source, it is recommended that the City should only consider the burial of overhead wires when the full cost is paid for by the requesting party.”
But Canada does have the funds to better protect the National Capital Region from extreme weather events – after all, the federal ‘carbon tax’ is forecast to suck about $10 billion out of the economy in 2022 alone, enough to pay for 2,000 km of $5 million dollar per km of buried cable.
Canadians are justified to wonder whether 0.001 to 0.002 degrees C less planetary warming by 2100, forecast to be the impact of our carbon taxes plus emissions trading, is more important than better protecting the nation’s capital.
Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition. Dr. Madhav Khandekar is a former Research Scientist with Environment Canada and has been working in weather and climate science for about 60 years. He was an Expert Reviewer for the 2007 climate change documents prepared by the UN climate body, the IPCC.