Atmospheric rivers overlooked by B.C. agencies amid information gap
The term “atmospheric river” is familiar to meteorologists and climatologists, but government agencies and policymakers in B.C. were largely unaware of the phenomenon until the recent flooding and mudslide devastation, despite a years-old report highlighting issues around research and awareness.
CTV News has obtained a 2014 report, titled “Atmospheric Rivers State of Knowledge Report,” that described an information gap when it came to understanding how they impacted the province in terms of damage and risk of damage, as well as how to better understand potential future impacts.
It suggests more meteorological surveillance through stations, radar, soil moisture gauges, and even drones flying in the systems because until that point, the available data “lacks the finer grain detail that would enable meaningful local analysis” in British Columbia.
"That was always the big worry with atmospheric rivers: When is one of these going to be impolite enough to land in the worst place possible? And that's exactly what we saw," explained David Jones, a meteorologist who served as Environment Canada warning preparedness meteorologist for the South Coast until 2017.
He attended a 2013 workshop alongside representatives from various federal and provincial ministries, as well as BC Hydro, municipal stakeholders and some American scientists.
“Here we are eight years later and nothing has been done, effectively,” said Jones, describing Environment Canada and government staff as slow to adapt and react to critical new information.
B.C.'s public safety minister announced Saturday that due to the destructive atmospheric rivers, the country’s meteorological agency would be fast-tracking a ranking system for the systems, much like those used for hurricanes and tornadoes.
OTHER REPORTS HAVE ATMOSPHERIC RIVER BLIND SPOTS
Atmospheric rivers have been bringing systems of moderate-to-heavy and consistent rainfall to the west coast of North America forever, but experts point out the route this one took through the South Coast was unusual and destructive.
While experts are familiar with the concept, the information gap identified in the 2014 report appears to persist today.
The mammoth 429-page “Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment for British Columbia” published in 2019 references atmospheric rivers only briefly, noting that our province is accustomed to consistent rainfall, while “California’s Mediterranean climate is more susceptible to episodic dry spells and atmospheric river-type precipitation events.”
This past spring, a report to the Fraser Basin Council, an organization working with dozens of municipalities in the Lower Mainland to prepare and respond to floods, didn’t include a single reference to atmospheric rivers, focusing instead on the potential for rivers overflowing with snowmelt and coastal water levels already rising due to climate change.
"There's no doubt that these extreme weather events are happening more frequently than ever before,” pointed out David Marshall, the not-for-profit’s CEO.
He acknowledged the group’s focus on major rivers and coastline didn’t account for the life-threatening risk the Nooksak River, a tributary waterway, posed to Abbotsford, nor the potential impacts of atmospheric rivers; he was under the impression that they are a new phenomenon, even though that’s not the case.
“Looking at flood management strategies is an extremely complex issue that has a number of different considerations associated with it and (atmospheric rivers are) a new one that we need to integrate into our work," said Marshall. “We may have to look at whether our diking infrastructure is adequate, policies to encourage less development in flood planes and flood-prone areas."
NO SILVER BULLET FOR UNUSUAL WEATHER PATTERNS
Jones pointed out that even with a ranking system or better understanding of atmospheric rivers, the unusual route this one took would’ve made it very difficult and likely impossible to avert the widespread destruction from flooding and landslides.
“Some of the rain gauges were probably wiped out by the storm, so we don’t know exactly what fell and where,” he said. “We don’t want to come to conclusions as to whether this was directly caused by climate change, or whether it was even the worst storm ever. We're going to need to look at the data and that takes time and the patience of proper professionals."
Jones lauded the many scientists and Environment Canada experts behind the scenes who’ve been working diligently to implement the categorization system, which may also be an element to help B.C. finally utilize an emergency text alert system used everywhere else in Canada.
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