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The wacky weather wallop on infrastructure

Korky Koroluk
The wacky weather wallop on infrastructure
Korky Koroluk

We had a number of wacky weather events during the summer and autumn just ending. There was flooding in parts of northern Ontario, beginning with Thunder Bay early in the summer, and ending with the recent highway washout at Wawa.

Then Superstorm Sandy captured front pages all over North America.

On the Wednesday following Sandy, I looked in on a web-based seminar sponsored by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. The subject: Planning for resilience of urban infrastructure in the face of a changing climate.

The timing was perfect, especially since Sandy had already caused some American politicians to use the phrase “climate change,” for the first time in months.

The phrase had become so politically charged that no one would say it aloud. But Sandy changed that — at least for the moment.

While no one could claim that climate change caused Sandy, scientists pointed out that storms like Sandy, and other weird weather we’ve been having, are consistent with what they had already told us to expect.

An example: One of the speakers at the webinar I mentioned was Don Ness, mayor of Duluth, Wisc., which was hit by flash floods twice this year.

“We had a 100-year-flood in May. Then in June we got a 500-year flood, he said.” It’s no wonder the city needed financial help from state and federal authorities.

The city’s water and stormwater infrastructure had been designed to handle 100-year floods, but much of it was built almost a century ago, when a 100-year flood was much smaller than it is today.

Now it seems, 100-year storms come along every year or so, and the storms are getting worse as the climate warms.

So while we try to find politically acceptable ways to limit climate change, we have to protect ourselves. It will cost a lot, but doing nothing will cost a lot more.

What kind of costs will result from Sandy’s invasion of a largely unprotected shoreline in New Jersey and the New York City areas?

It’s far too soon to have an accurate figure, but Eqecat, Inc., a firm that specializes in forecasting disaster costs, has said damages from Sandy could be as high as $50 billion. The insured portion of those losses could be about $20 billion, they said. The insurance industry is going to take a big hit.

It was just a few weeks ago that Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest reinsurance companies, issued a new study which noted that weather-related losses have quintupled in the last 30 years, and cited climate change as the principal reason. Another recent report, published at mid-September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons has risen in the last three decades, and the extreme events that have resulted, such as the droughts, wildfires and floods that have plagued places like Texas and Oklahoma, Russia, Australia, and Pakistan, were a consequence of global warming—“because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.”

As insurance claims increase, the cost of insurance rises, if it’s available at all. So in the wake of Sandy, we’re hearing suggestions for some pretty hefty engineering works.

One idea calls for construction of a massive, retractable flood barrier across the entrance to New York’s harbour. Such barriers have worked elsewhere in the world, but they’re expensive. It’s been suggested that the New York proposal might cost $4 billion or more.

That would protect one large and important area. But as ocean levels rise, as storms become more frequent and more severe, there are many other areas in the world where coastal protection will become imperative.

It would be a disaster in its own right if a failure of political leadership resulted in nothing substantial being done.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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