We can’t ignore the human factors that lead to extreme weather events

I attended David Phillips’ (Senior Climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada) March lecture on weather and climate change. This inspired me to write a series of articles with the goal of elaborating on many points that he made in his ‘factoid’-filled presentation.

As Phillips said, we aren’t likely to succeed at reducing our use of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future because we like our cars and planes. He said we need to get more serious about managing other factors so that we adapt to climate change. In other words, we need to build resilient communities while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. While his focus was on the changing climate and the extent of human-caused climate change, Phillips touched on a variety of human factors related to the destruction caused by severe weather. Severe weather in most of Canada can include any of the following: heatwaves, cold waves, heavy snow or rain, hail, thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. The results of severe weather include wildfires, floods and structural damage. There are several factors, other than a warming climate, that affect the outcome of severe weather events.

Municipal planning
A lack of planning, or poor planning decisions, can worsen the effects of severe weather. Municipal decision-makers know which type of severe weather to expect and should prepare accordingly. For example, we know that Whitehorse can be extremely cold, which makes it necessary to bury water lines four metres underground. Even though it is very expensive to bury water lines to that depth, planners and city engineers are expected to prepare for the most severe situation.

Building codes may seem cumbersome, but they are a result of anticipating potential weather-related problems. In many cases, lessons have been learned the hard way. The building code anticipates the heaviest snow load, the strongest wind gust, the highest water line and the possibility of lightning and extreme temperatures. It would be irresponsible to build without considering these extreme possibilities.

Our knowledge and awareness of the catastrophic results of wildland fires now makes it necessary to consider changes to our building code that will require fire-resistant building materials and landscaping techniques. Making and following a building code is a human factor that we can control. A quote from Scott Stephens, University of California, says it all—“We should design neighbourhoods with emergency access and escape routes, (and) revise building codes based on Firesmart principles for construction materials and landscaping to create defensible space around homes. Combine that with forest professionals developing plans to mitigate hazardous fuels in the adjacent wildlands”

Environmental interference
This human factor includes fire suppression, draining of marshland, clearcutting and other disruptions to natural cycles. In the last 50 years or more, 90 per cent of fires in B.C. have been suppressed. The same can be said for the Southern Lakes region, and around most Yukon settlements.
The boreal forest of the southern Yukon has burned repeatedly over thousands of years. In the last 100 years, fire suppression has interrupted the natural cycle. Now the accumulation of dead trees and mature trees as available fuel will increase the intensity of any large forest fire.
Regardless of climate change, we know that the Whitehorse/Southern Lakes area is dry and subject to extremely hot spells between May and August. (Hot summers will be the topic of another article.) Fuel load in the forest is something that we can control. We can use prescribed burning and we can use industrial methods to convert the forest resources into heating fuel. Using our local biomass for heating fuel will reduce our use of fossil fuels and provide local employment. That would be a win-win for human factors.

Media coverage and the globalization of information
A significant human factor that affects our perception of weather-related disasters is media coverage that tends to be sensational and does not analyze the historical context. Whitehorse has a long history of occasional hot, dry summers, major forest fires and a few evacuation alerts. Will the media refer back to these extreme weather events, or will they use the go-to stories about climate change? Focusing on the impact of climate change misses the point that the 1958 fire season could be repeated in 2019. (In 1958, multiple major fires broke out in southern Yukon, requiring a state of emergency to be declared in Whitehorse and residents to prepare to evacuate.) It would be a more severe situation because of the fuel load, increased population and infrastructure value. We have done very little since 1958 to make our community more resilient and more prepared for another major fire season.

We see graphic details of disasters as they happen all over the world. This creates a perception that severe weather events are happening more now than in the past. We hear first-hand reports from victims stating that it’s the worst flood or worst hurricane that they’ve ever seen. The media rarely provides context for previous events and comparative damage. That would require a detailed analysis of population growth, urban development, geographic setting and other human factors that may have intensified the catastrophic results of the severe weather event.

Metaphors used in weather reporting tend to create fear and unrealistic perceptions of disasters. Winter storms that we formerly called a “Colorado Low” are now called weather bombs. They are otherwise known as low pressure systems or disturbances in the atmosphere. They can vary in intensity and generate significant snow events from the western USA to eastern Canada. They also generate significant headlines for big city media. Terms such as “Snowmageddon” are used to describe a record-breaking snowfall. “Firenado” is used to describe strong winds generated by a forest fire. These dramatic terms create a catchy headline and imply that the phenomena are new and caused by climate change. There are other factors at play and they should be part of the story.

Economic Impact
The economic impact of severe weather events is a human factor that can make extreme weather events seem like the worst ever. The Wood Buffalo area of Alberta is in the boreal forest region. No doubt it burned many times since the last ice age, with no financial impact. The growth of Fort McMurray over the last 40 years had a huge impact on the economic losses caused by the 2016 fire.
Sonoma, California, was burned by a wildfire in 2017. There were 6,800 homes destroyed. There was a 24-fold increase in houses since the 1960s when a previous fire destroyed homes in the area. Kelowna, B.C. is in a similar situation. That city is also prone to hot, dry weather and has a growing urban area. Urban sprawl is creeping up mountain sides that are more susceptible to fire damage. The homes are larger and more valuable, so there will be a significant increase in the economic damage when the next major fire occurs.
The Manitoba government invested $40 billion in the 1960s to make Winnipeg more resilient to the natural flooding of the Red River. Well over $100 billion in potential destruction has been avoided.

Migration patterns and population growth
Human migration from areas affected by climate change, political unrest and economic imbalance will add to population growth in many countries. Will this population be accommodated in areas prone to extreme weather events? Will we blame the increased death and destruction on climate change or other human factors? It will be hard to say, but it won’t matter. Regardless of the cause, it will make sense to plan cities that are more resilient to the results of severe weather. It will also make sense to prepare citizens through education about the historical context of past weather events rather than fear of future events. When building on a flood plain, planners, builders and buyers should consider the history of severe weather and the probabilities of future events.

The Southern Lakes area is a good example of human migration and population growth. It is likely that Indigenous people adapted to fire in their environment by moving around. They could avoid fires and then return to take advantage of new growth and wildlife habitat. Modern migration and urban growth has resulted in towns that are vulnerable to fires caused by extreme weather.

We can’t control the weather but we can adapt to it so that we mitigate the hazards that result from the ‘perfect storm.’

Fire suppression in B.C. and the Yukon over the past 50 years has created increased fuel load in the wilderness