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The floods in British Columbia are the worst due to climate change




Heavy rains and strong winds that fell last week in British Columbia, the Canadian province known for its majestic mountains, coastline and forests, forced 17,000 people to flee their homes, evacuating entire cities and flooding farms.

Vancouver, Canada’s third largest city, lost its road and rail links to the rest of the country, interrupted by shattered bridges and landslides.

It was the second time in six months the province had endured a major weather-related emergency, and experts say the two disasters are probably linked to climate change.

British Columbia is surrounded this year by record heat, fires and floods. Disasters have killed hundreds, including three people in recent rains, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The impact has spread across Canada as it has hit the province and port of Vancouver, which is vital to the country’s economy.

In the past six months, BC has been burned and drowned, said Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, a climate program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. So there really is no greater evidence of climate change now than here in British Columbia.

In July, record temperatures of up to 121 degrees Fahrenheit brought uncontrollable drought and fire. The heat, which was concentrated in the interior of the provinces, killed 595 people from June to August, and the fire engulfed an entire city.

Floods last week have saved more lives but destroyed vital infrastructure and left goods piled up in Vancouver port, Canada’s gateway to Asia. The country’s supply lines have also been disrupted at a time when US ports are too supportive to offer much assistance.

Experts said that events in this sequence heat, fire, drought, flood can produce so-called complex effects.

Drought can dry out vegetation, which in turn can trigger and intensify fires. Fire itself can weaken or kill plants and make the soil less permeable, which means that rain is more likely to flow instead of sinking, causing flooding and landslides.

Rachel White, a professor at British Columbia University who studies how large-scale atmospheric patterns contribute to extreme weather, said it was impossible to say with certainty whether the extreme heat and devastating rains resulted directly from climate change.

We need to do more research to really try and understand what is going on here, she said. Is this also a sign of climate change or did British Columbia just become extremely unlucky this year?

However, she said, one thing is certain: these events were exacerbated by climate change.

A common weather event known as an atmospheric river led to devastating floods in the provinces and set rainfall records in some communities. A moisture conveyor belt, perhaps better known as the Pineapple Express, is a relatively narrow but very long strip of fast-moving, moisture-laden air that forms in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

Normally, such systems release that moisture as intense rain as they reach the coastal mountains of British Columbia and shrink before entering the arid interior region on the other side. But this atmospheric river was different, said Armel Castellan, a meteorologist with the weather service at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

That had so much power that he was able to climb those mountains and really liberate himself in what is otherwise the dry belt, he said.

Alex Hall, a professor of atmospheric science at UCLA, added that the phenomenon was notable for its scale. The inner city of Hope, for example, was hit by 11.6 inches of rain in 52 hours, about a third more than the amount of rain it normally receives throughout November.

What is not normal is to have atmospheric events of such large rivers, he said, adding that in terms of rainfall, these events are almost equal to the historical record.

Because the interior region had already had a normally wet fall, the ground was saturated before the storm hit, Mr Castellan said. Complicating the situation, there was relatively little snow at higher altitudes to absorb water. In addition, summers of extreme heat, drought, and wildfires had left little vegetation to slow down or prevent landslides.

When you have those sequences set correctly, you create even more extreme conditions, said Dr. Hall.

Human interference with geography has made things even worse. Much of the fertile farmland near Abbotsford was created 100 years ago by draining Lake Sumas, a process that forced indigenous people to move to other lands. While pumps and trash restrained some of the water, the storm last week allowed the lake to recede after a century.

As it rained and roads closed, panicked shoppers repeated the first days of the pandemic and cleaned up some grocery stores, especially in the Vancouver area.

Reconstruction of lost bridges, roads and railways can take months. But Greg Wilson, director of government relations in British Columbia for Canada’s Retail Council, said widespread shortages were not possible in the province. Fresh produce can still arrive on the highway from Seattle, the route most of it usually takes to supply Vancouver this time of year.

One highway outside Vancouver reopened to cars and light trucks over the weekend and another restored a single traffic lane for essential trips. But trucks from other countries in Canada are arriving mostly in Vancouver deviating across the United States. And much of the interior of British Columbia, the hardest hit area, is still open to the rest of Canada by train and truck.

There is no risk of the Vancouver area running out of food, Mr Wilson said. There will be challenges, but there is plenty of supply.

British Columbia has been a leader in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, said Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba and former director of its transportation institute. In 2008, it introduced the first carbon tax in North America. He also took physical measures. The port in Vancouver, he said, has been raised by about three feet to accommodate rising sea levels.

But the mountainous nature of the provinces, he said, limits what is possible and will make reconstruction a difficult and lengthy process.

Trying and doing everything resilient is very difficult, he said. We do not have many opportunities for roads coming through the mountains.

Delays in reopening are likely to have a significant impact across Canada as the port of Vancouver connects the country with Asia, both for imports of consumer goods and for economically vital exports of resources such as cereals and potassium for fertilizers. While a rail line to the port at Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia remains open to the east, Professor Prentice said the port could not physically handle all of Vancouver traffic at the top of its normal operation.

While it may be possible to strengthen the transport network during reconstruction, Professor Prentice said the only long-term solution remained to deal effectively with climate change.

Mrs. Smith from Clean Energy Canada said the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeaus had a credible and ambitious climate plan, but that the country still needs to curb its oil and gas industry, particularly oil-sand operations based primarily in neighboring Alberta.

We need to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector; is one of Canada ‘s biggest challenges, she said. All these other good policies, we must see implemented without delay. There is a lot of inaction that disguises itself as flexibility and has passed that time.

As water has begun to dwindle in most flood zones, it is unclear when the evacuees will return home or abandoned cars will return to their owners. And more risk could be ahead for British Columbia. Forecasts predict another dense rain this week.

Winston Choi-Schagrin contributed to reporting.




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