Blog Posts | Pembina Institute

Weather on steroids: what to expect from a changing climate

Blog - July 9, 2013 - By Clare Demerse

While Calgary celebrates its resilience at a “Hell or High Water” Stampede, Toronto is drying out after a dramatic storm that saw more rain fall in two hours than the city usually sees in the entire month of July.

Even if you don’t live in Southern Alberta or Mississauga, floods are fodder for dinner table conversations across the country right now. And more and more Canadians are asking whether what we’re seeing is climate change.

Meteorologists are attributing yesterday’s storm in Toronto to a slow-moving thunderstorm system. But as Environment Canada’s David Phillips put it, “Nature was giving us a preview of what we may soon see” from global warming.

Flooding shut down the city of Calgary for days earlier this month, and resulted in the evacuation of 75,000 residents. Photo: Keltek Trust via FlickrIn other words, this is what climate change looks like in real life. It means cities at a standstill, the hassle of dealing with insurance claims, the loss of treasured mementos in flooded basements — and in worst-case scenarios like we saw in High River, the tragic loss of life

Even when there are clear warnings of the risks, as we saw before Alberta’s floods, experts usually hesitate to link specific events to climate change, because it’s just one factor among many shaping the weather we experience and our vulnerability to it.

That’s true, and it’s absolutely fair — but in a growing number of cases, climate change is playing an important role. The best way I’ve seen it explained is that greenhouse gases put weather on steroids. You can’t say that steroids caused baseball legend Barry Bonds to hit a particular home run, but they definitely increased his odds.

This is what climate change looks like: cities at a standstill, the hassle of insurance claims, flooded basements — and in worst-case scenarios, the tragic loss of life.This is particularly clear with extreme downpours like those seen recently in Alberta and Ontario. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so more rain can fall in any given storm.

In a new report released last week, the World Meteorological Organization showed what the consequences of our greenhouse gas pollution look like on a global scale. The organization found that:

  • The decade from 2001 to 2010 “was the warmest decade on record since modern meteorological records began around the year 1850.” Hence the report’s subtitle, “a decade of climate extremes;”
  • Canada experienced the greatest warming in the North and Central American region, warming at nearly three times the global average. We’ve also just experienced our country’s warmest decade on record;
  • Floods were the most “frequently experienced extreme climate event” over the past decade; and
  • While scientists “believe that it is not yet possible to attribute individual extremes to climate change, they increasingly conclude that many recent events would have occurred in a different way — or would not have occurred at all — in the absence of climate change.”

Flash flooding in Toronto shut down many major roadways, including Hwy. 427. Click to view more photos at TheAlbatross.caThat’s exactly what many of Canada’s climate scientists have been saying. Experts like Gordon McBean and John Pomeroy (not to mention David Keith, Jim Bruce, Danny Harvey, Dave Sauchyn, John Stone and many others) have been doing fantastic work to help us connect the dots between the weather we’re seeing and the fossil fuels we’re burning.

I’m not a scientist; my work at Pembina is about sustainable energy policy. But climate change is the main motivation for the work my colleagues and I are doing. And what makes reports like the WMO’s so scary to me is that the experts conclude we don’t yet have the policies in place to contain the impacts of climate change or to prepare for its effects. So the consequences we’re seeing today are the first smoker’s coughs as we continue a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Recently, it hasn’t been particularly trendy to talk about climate change in Canada. (In the House of Commons, our government has been far more likely to talk about its dislike of carbon taxes than about the reason we might need one.) We’re sometimes told that reducing greenhouse gas pollution is too costly, or that busy Canadians don’t want the potential inconvenience of making greener choices.

Mentions of carbon taxes by Conservative MPs far outweighed mentions of climate change in the House of Commons this year.
But if you’ve shovelled mud out of a basement lately — as many of my friends in Alberta have — you might have a whole new perspective on whether taking action on climate change is too much of a hassle. And the costs of reducing greenhouse gas pollution pale in comparison to what Albertans are facing as they rebuild homes from the ground up.

So as David Phillips said, we can take this summer’s storms as a preview — but let’s hope they convince us that we really don’t want to watch the full-length disaster movie.

Russell Wardman — Jul 19, 2013 - 07:01 AM MT

It's refreshing to read comments on an article of this nature without seeing any of the usual confused, inane arguments
against anthropomorphic climate change.
Well done to Pembina and it's followers.

Peter Hall — Jul 18, 2013 - 11:50 PM MT

I just found this website yesterday Hooray!
I'm currently in my final semester of prerequisites at Bow Valley College in Calgary. I have plans to go to St Lawrence College in Kingston Ontario next year to take a 3 year course in "Energy Systems Engineering Technologies"

I have this to say: I'm surprised that there is no mention in the news media about our sun's solar cycle! (11 years) which reached solar maximum in May of this year only one month prior to Calgary's and southern Alberta's floods and Toronto's for that matter. Yes climate change is happening but doesn't the sun's solar-maximum energy output have a lot to do with it all too. I was predicting something big happening this year with my coworkers last summer because it was so much hotter than usual.

Thoughts anyone?

Purple Library Guy — Jul 12, 2013 - 12:01 PM MT

"Meteorologists are attributing yesterday’s storm in Toronto to a slow-moving thunderstorm system"
Ah, yes. And why would a thunderstorm system have been slow-moving? I've been hearing for months that the Gulf Stream has gone all wonky due to Arctic warming, and this is causing weather systems to hang around in one place more.
So this being due to a "slow-moving thunderstorm system" suggests that global warming could well have been an important element in what happened.

Barry Epstein — Jul 11, 2013 - 07:39 AM MT

In my view, the federal Tories are traitors to Canada and to the planet. How can they possibly imagine that dealing with climate change now can be more costly than repairing its ongoing depredations now and into the future?

Brian Young — Jul 10, 2013 - 04:59 PM MT

Starting at least 500 years ago we blindly, unconsciously set in motion conditions for what is happening today. With 7 billion on the planet now and so much invested in the old ways of doing things, we are not likely to slow down let alone stop or turn around Spaceship Earth's path to disaster.
Wonderful, thoughtful, deeply concerned scientists like David Suzuki have been warning us for decades and now surely the deadline for serious effective action is long past.
Mitigation will help, but only briefly and in fits and starts. When the engine of global warming really kicks in with the melting of the remnants of the ice caps and the permafrost and the warming of the vast new desalinated seas, we will possibly face the kind of storms and weather that we can visualize only by looking to Jupiter and Venus.
We will have to deal with much more than flooded basements and disruptions in electrical power, transportation and food supplies. The degree of social upheaval that will likely ensue will be utterly unprecedented. How will we deal with that?

Justin Ward — Jul 10, 2013 - 03:21 PM MT

It makes complete sense that the more intense storms can be attributed to the warmer atmosphere; however, there has been a lot of research carried out in relation to the effect of CFC's in the atmosphere:

P.J. Partington — Jul 11, 2013 - 09:41 AM MT

Hi Justin,

I would hesitate to call the CFC/GCR work "a lot of research," as it's primarily been advanced by just one researcher and has found very little support in the scientific literature. He has been pushing this theory for a while and it's come in for some sharp criticisms in the past. NASA's Gavin Schmidt summarizes some of them here, related to a previous paper of his:

On the other hand, the role of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in driving climate changes - current as well as past - has been well established for decades.


Roger Gagne — Jul 10, 2013 - 12:49 PM MT

In recent years I've given $1000 to Pembina to send a staff to the 2010 Wesleyan Conference on Carbon Pricing, wrote letters to 186 Canadian companies and organizations to ask their opinions on carbon pricing (and got 45 replies; a modest success), and stood outside my Conservative MPs' office for 8 weeks leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference, holding a sign saying "Stop pointing fingers, and lead on climate change".

Here's my newest effort to accelerate the Canadian discussion on climate change and carbon pricing; an anonymous online survey whose five questions feed into five word clouds; the larger a word appears, the more often it has been used in the survey responses. Click on a cloud to activate it, then click again to zoom in and roam among the smaller, less-used responses.

Clare Demerse — Jul 17, 2013 - 01:31 PM MT

Hello Roger,

Thanks for your comments. I just tried the carbon conversations survey and it's a really good tool — it's simple, well-designed and really interesting. Thanks for flagging that for us!


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