Extreme weather and climate change 

Climate experts believe extreme weather events could be connected to global warming trends

As flooding recedes in Squamish and Pemberton, and the human and economic toll of a record October rainstorm is assessed, the question is on everyone’s lips – what’s going on with the weather?

In the past year, B.C.’s weather has bounced from one extreme to another. A late start to the ski season on the coast was off-set by a near-record snowfall on Christmas Day.

In February, a sudden wind storm gusted in excess of 150 km/h, trapping more than 1,000 people on chairlifts and in lodges, and knocking down hundreds of trees in Whistler. While the winds will gust that high in the alpine occasionally, it was the strongest wind that many had seen on the lower mountain and in the valley in at least 20 years.

Throughout the winter, an unstable snowpack east of the coast range resulted in a record 24 avalanche deaths in the province.

This summer’s record drought conditions in the Interior resulted in the worst wildfires in generations, destroying more than 300 homes. It surpassed the Quebec ice storm of 1998 as the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, costing more than half a billion dollars in damages, fire fighting costs, and disaster relief.

Areas around B.C., including Squamish and Pemberton, posted record high temperatures in early October.

The recent record breaking rains in the Sea to Sky region, delivered by a relatively common weather phenomenon known as the "Pineapple Express" are being referred to as a 100-year-storm by meteorologists.

In four days, the Squamish area received about 369 millimetres of rain. By way of comparison, the average rainfall for Squamish for the entire month of October is 279 mm.

The flooding washed out bridges, caused rivers to jump their banks, and forced more than 800 people to evacuate their homes. At press time, there were two deaths, and two people still missing after a bridge to the south of Pemberton was washed away.

The province is estimating that the damages will total more than $20 million.

Taken together, the recent extreme weather events to hit B.C. make 2003 a most unusual year, to say the least.

If climate experts are correct, however, then B.C. should brace itself for more unusual years in the future.

"It’s hard to say that individual storm events or drought events are happening because of global warming, but there are a couple of things that we can say," explains Stewart Cohen, a scientist with the Adaptation and Impacts Research Group at Environment Canada, and a Senior Associate with the Sustainable Research Institute at the University of British Columbia. Cohen was also the co-ordinating lead author of the North American chapter in the 2001 UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report titled Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

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