The cold, the wet and the warm

Warren Gerard February 2 1981

The cold, the wet and the warm

Warren Gerard February 2 1981

The cold, the wet and the warm


Warren Gerard

Crazy weather. Last winter it was mild with little snow. Ski resort operators lost $100 million and some outdoor outfitters went out of business. Car body shop owners in Toronto had one of their worst years for fender-benders and prayed for icy road conditions; municipalities were rewarded by being under-budget for snow removal. In much of the country, this is a quite different winter. While the East froze in January—a record bonechilling -35°C in Montreal, a near record -31 °C in Toronto, record snowfalls in the Maritimes—the Prairies were lulled by sunshine and uncommon mildness. Calgary and Lethbridge were enveloped in that peculiar Canadian phenomenon, the chinook (see box, page 40), a warm, dry wind that flows down the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Calgarians luxuriated in open convertibles, played golf, even rollerskated on the bare sidewalks, while in British Columbia it was rain as usual and worse—floods, washouts, mud slides and freezing rain.

Things were no better in other parts of the world. Canadians escaping winter’s cold in Florida found themselves

wearing parkas in freezing temperatures while vegetables and fruit trees wilted after a week of successive overnight frosts. In the northeastern United States, conditions were chaotic on highways and in New York City thousands were without adequate heating. An unusually cold winter also continued to punish Italy’s most recent earthquake victims, while in Japan, suffering its

worst winter in 18 years, at least 60 deaths were attributed to the weather.

Across Canada everybody had a weather story to tell. In New Brunswick, where hundreds of homes were briefly without power because of a failure in the province’s biggest generating plant near Saint John, Harry Haley of St. Stephen was a typical victim. Over Christmas, the 75-year-old man visited his daughter in Brunswick, Me., and returned home to find that his oil furnace had stopped, the house was freezing cold, and the hot water pipes had burst, causing $1,800 damage. “I had four plumbers working here one day,” he

said, “and you know what they get.”

In Montreal, it was bitterly cold (below zero for over a month). Passenger train service from Halifax ran up to 19 hours late, while at Dorval airport ground crews had to warm up frozen planes. In Toronto, hundreds of families in older parts of the city had intermittent heat for the best part of a week while the gas company tinkered with the failing pressure. Theo Vonboetticher and his wife, Barbara, a retired couple living in the city’s east end, had just spent $2,000 to replace their old oil furnace with a new one. “Can you believe this?” an exasperated Vonboetticher asked. “Our furnace only comes on when others on the street go out. There isn’t enough gas for everybody on the line.” Even the city’s subway system was disrupted by frozen brakes. Sixteen people, among the many stalled in the packed cars, fainted from the heat.

In British Columbia, on the other hand, the shelves of outdoor stores across the province were brimming with skis, boots, bindings, poles and clothes as the rain continued. Resort hotel rooms were vacant and ski lessons had no students. “I’m counting on some snow in February,” said a hopeful Mike

Thermostats are up in the East, off in the West, and the 100' year forecast calls for crazy weather

Poropat, a University of British Columbia student who spent $500 on ski equipment in November and has used it only once—in his backyard, during the one Vancouver snowfall in December. And Roy Forster, curator of Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Gardens, reported that daffodils bloomed the first week in January, a month earlier than usual.

But if this winter’s weather seems unusual, remember last year. The summer was hot and dry in the West, wet and cool in the East. The worst forest fires on record burned across the land. There was drought in spring and early summer on the Prairies caused by what meteorologists call an Omega Block, a formation in the upper atmosphere that was pinned in by two low-pressure systems from either side. The disruption was so bad that George Greenman, a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool agent in Rouleau, 40 km south of Regina, recalls: “Last spring farmers would come in here and talk about the dry conditions. It was sort of like group therapy.”

In British Columbia, a little drought would have been welcome. In Vancouver, a record 1,418.5 mm—more than 4V2 feet—of rain fell on the city. Over the Christmas holidays the southwestern part of the province was severely flooded, washing away eight homes, forcing 50 families to flee for higher ground, destroying two logging camps and flooding 44 homes. The province set aside $13 million to aid victims and repair damage.

Indeed, bad weather was nature’s mark on the 1970s, and it poses some serious questions for the 1980s. More than 225,000 people died in the Bangladesh cyclone in 1970 and hundreds of thousands more died in the next few years as a result of the Sahel drought in northwestern Africa. In 1976, much of Europe suffered the worst drought on record, forests burned and herds were drastically reduced. In North America, the sustained cold of the winter of 1977 caused losses estimated in the billions of dollars.

With the constant buffeting from nature, it is not surprising that the weather is on everyone’s lips. It is the

medium of clichés: “Cold enough for you?” It is the common coinage of conversation, creating a sense of community, more so even than sex, scandal, politics, religion or sports. No one, rich or poor, is immune from its persistent grip—not even a prime minister left stranded and musing on a mountaintop in the snowbound, avalanche-prone Alps of Austria.

When the weather is seasonable, the tendency is to quickly forget about it. But certainly it seems as if the weather this winter, last year, for the past decade in fact, has been freakish, unusual. The victims can hardly be blamed for wondering what is going wrong, and asking if the weather is undergoing an important change. In fact, say the sci-

entists, much of what’s happening has happened before. “You get these big anomalies,” says Kenneth Hare, provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading climatologists. “They are a normal part of the climate, but you only notice them when they hit you. Most of the time the climate jogs along in a fairly uninteresting sort of way, but somewhere around the world there will be a big anomaly going on that lasts for days or weeks or months, sometimes even decades.”

It’s little wonder, then, especially after a winter like this, that man dreams of controlling the weather: to

divert hurricanes and tornadoes, cause perfect rainfall for crops, create optimum sunshine or snow for resorts, turn deserts into fertile lands, or just change the weather at whim or will. Except for attempts at rainmaking or cloud seeding, it remains a dream, more fiction than science.

Making rain involves seeding a cloud from an airplane with silver iodide. It’s a simple process that sometimes turns the cloud vapor into rain, but any further attempts at weather modification are fraught with problems. “There are any number of cases in the free world where weather modification has been tried but discontinued because of political pressures,” says John Bergsteinsson, a meteorologist with the Saskatchewan Research Council in Saskatoon. “You might have a rip-snorter of a storm and the perception is that it is caused by scientists fiddling around with the atmosphere. There have also been massive lawsuits in the flooding of sewers or waterways because people believe it was caused by cloud seeding.”

For the most part, however, man knows too little about weather to modify it. Says Bergsteinsson: “You can bung dry ice into a cloud and make a cloud rain if you’re lucky, but that’s not really modifying the weather. The atmosphere is too complicated. It’s just beyond our reach. Even the smallest

hurricane is larger than the entire human energy system. So it’s a little difficult to believe that we can deliberately modify it. To change it we are going to have to identify some key trigger mechanism to harness the energy, but that is beyond our present reach.”

There is, however, a major man-made climate change coming—but it will be a long and slow process. While the earth has been in a cooling stage for decades, most scientists agree that phase ended in the 1960s. Now, however, in addition to the weather affecting man, man is affecting the weather by sharply increasing the carbon dioxide (C02) content of the atmosphere. The impact of this tampering is called the “greenhouse effect,” and it has dramatic implications for the future of man.

A large portion of the earth’s oil and coal supplies has been burned—by industry, heating and through war—in the past 100 years, and scientists estimate that what is left will be burned within the next 200 years if the current rate of consumption continues. While plants remove some C02 from the atmosphere, normal process of natural decay, fire and oxidation return equal amounts. Man’s destruction of the forests, however, as well as intensive farming and mining—which release

long buried C02—are putting more C02 into the atmosphere than can be taken out.

“A reasonable best guess is that 20 years from now the average global temperature will be as warm or warmer than at any time in the past 1,000 years, and it will still be rising,” a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was told in Toronto in January. The report, prepared

by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Boulder, Colo., said the existing C02 concentration in the atmosphere is 15 to 20 per cent higher than it was in 1900 and that it could double by 2000. That doubling of C02 in the atmosphere will cause an average global temperature increase of between 1.5° and 4.5° Celsius.

The implications are enormous. While there will be losers in the world, complex computer models show that Canada may be a winner. Trouble is the present state of knowledge goes little

further than informed speculation. Kenneth Hare predicts, however, that the Prairies will have a climate more like Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota, and that would make Canadian agriculture more versatile with a longer growing season, although in turn the warmth might bring droughts. A onedegree increase in temperature in Canada would add 10 days to the growing season—the climate in Southwestern Ontario would become more like that of southern Illinois or Virginia—but it doesn’t necessarily mean the agricultural belt would move north with the warmer temperatures because the soil is too poor. The greenhouse effect will also raise the temperature of the

oceans, meaning that Canada’s fishing industry would profit, because more fish would migrate to the North.

Around the world there may be more droughts, more flooding; the weather could become even more freakish and the climate of whole continents could be altered by new or different warm and cool air masses. A key to climate change will be the melting of the polar ice pack, which Hare predicts will happen if the region warms by another four degrees. “The pack ice doesn’t do a damn thing to sea level, but what’s important is that it’s the permanent pack ice in the northern hemisphere that really controls world climate. It’s a sort of anchor, and if you take it out, then you have tilted the climate permanently towards a warmer phase.”

But if the land ice on Greenland and the Antarctic were to melt, some say there would be massive flooding of coastal areas. “What I think would happen,” says Hare, “is that there will be a tremendous increase in snowfall on the upper part of the Greenland glacier,

where it will just melt into ice, but then warmer temperatures will tend to increase the rate of melting. You have two pressures at work, one tending to make the ice grow and the other tending to make it melt. I don’t know which of these two would be dominant, but I certainly can’t see any serious change of sea level for centuries to come.”

The only solution to the C02 buildup, climatologists say, is a cutdown on the use of fossil fuels, but so far no one seems to be paying attention. During his presidency, Jimmy Carter called on the United States to increase the use of coal, thus increasing the C02 content of the atmosphere, and energy analysts predict that by the year 2000 the developing nations will have far greater energy demands.

“We started too late, and I’m afraid we may waste time and do damn all until it’s too late,” says Hare. There is, however, a growing recognition of the problem as an integrated approach — involving climatologists, meteorologists, agriculturalists, engineers and planners—slowly takes place at the United Nations, the World Meteorological Organization and the World Climate Centre in Geneva. But until the release of C02 into the atmosphere is sharply decreased, instead of continuously growing, weather forecasts can only remain somewhat warmer and even more uncertain. In short, more crazy weather.

With files from Thomas Hopkins in Vancouver, Dale Eisler in Regina, Catherine Rodd in Toronto and David Folster in Fredericton.