Canada’s British Columbia feels the effects of climate change

Many Canadians who have been affected by landslides and flooding in British Columbia last week brought on by massive rains, which experts say have been made worse by climate change
Houses and farms are seen cut off after record rainfall in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2021. (AFP/File)
Houses and farms are seen cut off after record rainfall in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2021. (AFP/File)
Updated on Nov 25, 2021 10:32 PM IST
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BySanya Mathur

Forty-five-year-old Windy Corduroy, a resident of Chilliwack, drove up to Abbotsford on November 15 for an appointment, a 30-minute drive on an ordinary day. Within hours, it was no longer possible for her to go back because of the extensive flooding on the highway. Corduroy is one the many Canadians who have been affected by landslides and flooding in British Columbia last week brought on by massive rains, which experts say have been made worse by climate change.

A weather system known as an “atmospheric river” resulted in huge storm hitting Pacific north-west last week. “Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapour outside of the tropics”, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. They move with the weather, dumping the water vapour that they carry in the form of rain or snow once they make landfall.

“The west coast of Canada is accustomed to wet winters, especially during La Nina events like the one we are experiencing. But nothing like this has happened before,” says Dr Simon Donner Professor of Climatology at the University of British Columbia. “Rainfall during this ‘atmospheric river’ event absolutely shattered records.”

The highest rainfall was seen along the border between US and Canada. The Canadian province of British Columbia received 150 to 200 mm of rain, with some places receiving more than a months rain in two days. Canadian officials called the resulting deluge a “once-in-a-year” event, meaning that a flood of this size has a 0.2% (1 in 500) chance of occurring in any given year.

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At least four deaths have been reported so far and thousands have been displaced. Canada’s third largest city and largest port, Vancouver, was completely cut off after it lost its rail and road links to landslides and destruction caused by the water.

After it rained over the weekend, “The water became too much for the ditches, and the ground became too saturated, recounts Lindsay Kay, 31, a resident of the city of Chilliwack. “Our crawlspace began to fill up with water, and we began looking for ways to keep it out. We spent most of the night pumping water out of the crawlspace, but on Monday night we were notified that we were on evacuation alert, and early Tuesday morning we were advised that we would have to leave.”

At the moment, Kay, her husband and her 9-month-old son, are staying with friends. They have a short term accommodation covered, and also have someplace to rent long term just in case. But they are holding on hope that they will still be able to go back home.

“We know that so many people have been absolutely devastated by this flood. Not only did many lose their homes, but so many lost their businesses, livelihoods and animals as well,” says Kay.

The Oryall family own a small hobby farm in Arnold, a small settlement on the western edge of the Sumas Prairie. They used to have more than forty chickens before the flooding, but only twelve of them survived the flooding, says Lindsey. On Tuesday, they began evacuating around 6am in the morning. Their main floor, despite being a few feet above the ground, was completely flooding.

Lindsey and her husband, Ben, dropped their two children Charlie, 7, and Oliver, 3, and their dog off at her parents’ house in Chilliwack and then came back to evacuate their animals.

“When we went back it was about 9:30, and we left at about 10:15, and in that 45 minutes, the water came up about two and a half feet and we — my husband and I — almost didn’t make it out safely,” she says.

The signal from climate change

The Oryall family moved into the farm on June 15. Now, just a few months later, they are already wondering if selling might be a good idea. “We have been looking for a farm like this for about eight years. We have been looking for our forever home and we finally found it. We are very happy,” says Lindsay.

But her husband, she says, is having second thoughts mainly because of climate change. “If we’re going to have to go through this, even every ten years, with climate change continuing to get worse, how are we going to be able to afford this?”

The family lives on floodplain, and like many others on the Sumas prairie, which is a high flood risk are, don’t have flood insurance. “This has been a devastating this for us financially,” she says.

“We can see the signal of climate change in the intensity of the rainfall. It follows from basic physics that a warmer planet means heavier rainfall. Research also shows that the winter storm track will move north, bringing more intense rains to British Columbia,” says Dr. Donner, adding, “Whether rainfall turns into flooding, however, is very much about land use planning, and that planning is based on a past climate.”

The floods don’t come completely unexpected. According to a Vancouver Sun report, scientists have been warning for at least three decades that British Columbia was facing a threat from climate change. A report from the auditor general in 2018 that warned that the “the province needs to be prepared” for the impact of climate change.

“From 1900 to 2013, B.C.’s average temperature has increased faster than the global average. Scientists predict that the province will face increases in extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing risk of wildfire and flooding, as well as a change in the location of ecosystems and species that live there,” it said, adding, “These events highlight the environmental, economic and social threats that climate change poses to the province.”

The province has been forced to declare a climate-related state of emergency twice in the last six months. Over the summer, record-breaking temperatures resulted in a drought and wildfires. On June 29, temperatures reached as high as 49.6 degree Celsius (°C), breaking a previous record of 45.0°C set in July 1937.

At least 569 people died between June and August as a result of the heat, and with more than 1,600 fires, the wildfire season this year was the third worst on record for the province, torching nearly 8,700 square kilometres of land. It consumed the village of Lytton, where at least two died.

“The summer heat wave was an extremely rare event, but one that will become more likely to happen as the climate continues to warm,” says Dr Donner. “The forensic analysis done by a group of scientists found that the likelihood of such a heat wave may increase more than 100 times with 2 degrees of global warming.”

At the moment, a key COP 26 climate conference report has concluded that the world is on track for more than 2°C of global heating.

The extremely warm BC summer may also have had hand in why the floods were so particularly devastating. The fires and drought scorched the land in a way leaving it incapable of absorbing water. For now, it is difficult to tell extent of the damage that the region is facing till the flood waters recede.

Unfortunately, it may not be any time soon. In another huge blow to the province, heavy rains have been forecasted for the region starting today. “The next storm system is set to arrive on the B.C. south coast tonight bringing heavy rain. The rain will be heaviest on Thursday as the storm moves across the south coast. The heavy rain will ease Thursday night as the system moves out of the region,” according to Environment Canada.

“This may worsen recent flooding and impact vulnerable landscapes and infrastructure,” it added.

“This year has been very tough on us in BC. From Covid, the intense heat in summer, wildfires, and now the flooding. We’ve gone from one disaster to the next, with no time to recuperate,” rues Corduroy. “Hopefully our government will make the right choices for a better future.”

“The core threat is that the climate is changing faster than we are able or willing to adapt,” says Donner. “We need to start planning now for the future climate - we need to consider climate change when we design our communities and build our homes.”

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