The weather needs watching

Blog - Sept. 2, 2010 - By Clare Demerse

The last couple of posts on this blog highlighted science news from around the world. Last week saw some Canadian climate science news too, but unfortunately it wasn't good.

Thanks to a request under Canada's Access to Information legislation, we obtained a copy of a scathing internal government report about Canada's faltering climate and weather monitoring systems.  

Using crystal-clear language, the report documents a pattern of underinvestment and cuts that weaken Environment Canada's ability to accurately track the weather. The report says that these problems are accelerating — to the point that Canada's systems likely fall short of international standards.

As a consequence, the author writes, "Environment Canada is on the road to junior partner status with respect to other agencies." And employees are frustrated by the increasingly obvious weaknesses of the system, which are "damaging morale within and credibility outside the department."

A funnel cloud touches down. Having good information about precipitation, snow cover and temperature was always important, but climate change has made it even more critical. Climate scientists base their analysis on weather data, and engineers rely on it to build bridges and infrastructure strong enough for Canada's changing climate.  

The report we obtained states clearly that this is not a new problem; the first cuts took place over a decade ago. But this report is also not the first time that the government has been warned about these problems. The Commissioner of the Environment raised concerns about Environment Canada's climate and weather monitoring in reports to Parliament in 2006 and 2008, and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society carried the same message to the House of Commons Finance Committee in 2009.

In media coverage of the report last week (see here for an English article about the report and here for a French one), climate scientists confirmed their own experience of the weakening of Canada's weather monitoring network. In response, a senior Environment Canada official explained that "we continue to find ways to improve our performance."

But that's a long way from saying that the problems documented by the department's own staff have been fixed.

Climate change is a real and present threat in Canada, and we need top-quality information to design resilient communities. Any government that truly understood the risks of climate change would make sure we have the data to understand its consequences. Despite years of warnings, it appears that Canada's federal government still isn't acting on that message.


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