By Lindsay Olson, BA, FCIP
Vice President, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba
Insurance Bureau of Canada
“Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” The Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz
Environment Canada’s summary of 2011 reads like an annus horribilus for extreme weather in this country. Prairie flooding featured the highest water levels and flows in modern history across parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Slave Lake, Alberta burned down at 1000 degrees. In the east, Richelieu flooded in Quebec’s longest-lived disaster. Fish swam where grain should grow. Goderich, Ontario was pummeled by a tornado that killed one and injured 40. Nineteen tropical storms formed in the Atlantic Basin, almost twice the average.
Unusual weather, right? Or are we seeing a continuing trend and a long-term norm of severe weather in Canada?
Dr. Gordon McBean, one of Canada’s foremost climatologists, has just completed a key report following a review of current, peer-reviewed research. In it he examines Canada’s historical weather trends and projects them forward to the year 2050. The conclusion? We have entered a new era of extreme weather, with shorter and wetter winters (rain); hotter summers; and longer spring and fall seasons. Commissioned by Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), the paper’s findings show a clear connection to my industry’s historical experience with increasing severe weather damages. It also conveys a strong message: Canadians need to adapt to severe weather realities that have been hitting them, are hitting them, and will be hitting them, hard.
The reason IBC commissioned the research is practical. We wanted to provide clear information to support adaptation of public and private infrastructure (municipalities, private homes). Secondly, we wanted to help home and business insurers anticipate factors likely to affect property insurance costs in the years ahead. Keeping those costs down isn’t just an insurance industry issue: it matters to everyone who buys insurance.
In my industry, insured losses from weather-related catastrophes during the past three years have been near or above one billion dollars. We in the industry don’t believe the solution is to pass these increased costs along to consumers. We know well the stories behind the numbers: communities and individual Canadians who have been hit hard: lives lost, homes destroyed, livelihoods threatened, bridges collapsed, roads ruined. There is clearly an urgent priority for Canada’s communities to increase natural disaster resilience.
The Forecast: Canada by 2050
Dr. McBean’s work analyzed trends for Canada as a whole and its regions. Note the differences (e.g. in the west, we need communities to be better prepared for wildfire, in the east more preparation for water infrastructure failure).
Here are some regional projections from the study:
There is likely to be an increase in hurricane and storm activity in the region with resulting storm surges. Freezing rain events will likely increase by 50 per cent in Newfoundland. Nova Scotia could see increases of about 20 per cent.
More hot days are coming. Trends point to three times as many days over 30 degrees Celsius for Quebec City as there were during the period 1961-1990. Montreal is expected to see a 60 per cent increase in hot days by 2050. More heavy precipitation, more freezing rain events of more than six hours are probable. Increased forest fire frequency is projected.
Summertime warming is likely to rise by two to three degrees. Toronto could see significantly more hot days (over 30 degrees C) in summer. Frost-free days in winter in Ontario are expected to double by 2050. The research projects more heavy precipitation. More freezing rain, flash flooding and more wildfires are projected, with the highest increases over northwestern Ontario.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Temperature increases are likely to be greatest in winter and spring in the south, while drought and water scarcity are likely to be a growing climate risk through the prairies. More extreme precipitation events and flash flooding are expected.
The province will probably be hard hit by drought and water scarcity due to reductions in summer precipitation, falling lake levels, retreating glacier, decreasing soil-water content and a greater number of dry years. There is likely to be more hail, storms and wildfires. Lightning flash density could increase by 20 per cent, with consequences for wildfires. Here again, more heavy rainfall events, can cause flash flooding, are projected.
While weather in British Columbia will be variable, overall projections show warmer and wetter weather. The mountain snowpack is expected to decline. It is possible that wildfires could increase significantly in the province’s forests.
By 2050 the likelihood of the temperature in Iqaluit exceeding 25 degrees C. could be five times greater than during the 80s. There is an overall projected increase in temperature by two to four degrees Celsius in the north. The fire season in the Yukon and Northwest Territories will likely increase by 10 days. Sea levels could be 15 to 25 centimeters higher.
Unusual weather is becoming the norm in Canada. This is clear in both the regional and national trends. We now need, as a country, to focus on adaptation to the new climate reality of more severe weather. Canadians have the ingenuity and resources to adapt to it. IBC hopes that this research will promote a sense of collective urgency and generate a renewed commitment to this national imperative.