Blame it on winter weather Dr Madhav Khandekar is a former Research Scientist with Environment Canada and has been working in weather and climate science for about 60 years. He was an Expert Reviewer for the 2007 climate change documents prepared by the UN climate body, the IPCC. Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition There is no doubt that the two strong tornadoes that hit the Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) area on September 21 were unusual for the National Capital Region. The first storm reached wind speeds as high as 265 km/h and decimated parts of the west end of Ottawa before crossing the Ottawa River and striking Gatineau, Quebec. The second tornado achieved wind speeds of 220 km/h and did serious damage in the Nepean area of Ottawa, including the destruction of one of Ottawa’s major transmission stations. Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin attributes the tornadoes and other recent usual extreme weather events in his community largely to climate change. On September 24, the Montreal Gazette cited Pedneaud-Jobin as saying, “Are we going to take this threat seriously? It’s not a theory, it’s people who are displaced, people who suffered, people who have lost everything. In Gatineau, we’ve suffered a lot, we’re continuing to suffer and one of the main sources of that, it’s clear, is climate change.” François Legault, the Coalition Avenir Québec leader, was reported by the Montreal Gazette as going further, asserting, “There have always been tornadoes, but it’s obvious that now, because of climate change, there are more extreme events.” But weather history over the past century refutes these assertions. For example, it was on July 31, 1987 when one of the worst tornadoes in Canadian history devastated parts of Edmonton, Alberta. The Edmonton tornado struck with wind speeds up to 417 km/h, destroying over 300 homes and killing 27 people. Among recorded Canadian tornadoes, only the Regina tornado of June 30, 1912 was deadlier, killing 28 people. Although Canada experiences the second highest number of tornado strikes per year, trailing only the US, our tornadoes cause relatively few casualties due to our relatively low population density, and, generally speaking, stronger building construction due to our cold climate. The worst tornadoes in Canadian history also include: multiple tornado hits in Manitoba in 1922; the 1946 tornado hit on the Detroit River (17 fatalities); the largest tornado outbreak in two days in Windsor, Ontario from April 3-4, 1974 (8 fatalities); the deadly tornado in 1985 in Barrie ON; the July 14, 2000 Pine Lake tornado which struck Green Acres Campground in Alberta, killing 12 and injuring 140 or more; a tornado struck the town of Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007. According to Environment Canada, “Wind speeds are estimated to have reached between 420 to 510 km/h when the tornado was at its most intense.” Climate theory does not support the claims by activists such as former US vice president Al Gore that human-caused global warming would result in more catastrophic tornadoes in the future either. If the world were to warm due to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, it is at the higher latitudes where temperatures are forecast to rise the most. This would lessen the difference between arctic and lower latitude (eg. tropical) temperatures. Since it is this temperature difference that drives weather, we would see less weather extremes in a warmer world, not more. Both the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) have put out statements that support this conclusion. The IPCC asserted in 2012 that it has not been demonstrated that a relationship exists between global warming and wildfires, rainfall, storms, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events. In 2013 the NIPCC explained, “in no case has a convincing relationship been established between warming over the past 100 years and increases in any of these extreme events.” When the Earth was cooling between 1945 and 1977, there were as many extreme weather events as there are now. The link between global warming and extreme weather is more perception than reality. This change in perception is largely attributed to increased public awareness and reporting, through scanning of local newspapers and the establishment by Environment Canada of networks of hundreds of volunteer severe weather observers in each province. In fact, extreme weather events (hot spells, extreme precipitation events, thunderstorm/tornadoes and ice storms) do not show an increasing trend anywhere in Canada at this point in time. The real causes of last week’s tornadoes were entirely natural. Paradoxically, the primary cause was unseasonably cold weather in western Canada. Tornadoes form when air masses of different temperatures and humidity meet. Specifically, when warm, wet air meets cold, dry air, conditions may become ripe for tornado formation. In the case of the Ottawa tornadoes, as the cold and dry air from western Canada descended toward the existing warm and moist air in southern Ontario it produced a major thunderstorm with a funnel cloud. This developed into the two severe Ottawa tornadoes. Without that trigger of cold air from west, we would not have seen a severe thunderstorm and tornadoes in the Ottawa region. This was clearly not caused by global warming or our emissions of greenhouse gases. These events are due to natural variability that we must be better prepared to deal with in future. It does beg two questions, however: why has there been such winter-like weather patterns in western Canada, when the Fall season is just starting? Is our climate becoming warmer or colder? No one knows the answer to these questions, although the best temperature data sets show that the global mean temperatures are now starting to show a slight decline. Indeed, there has been a ‘hiatus’ in global warming since the new millennium. Tornadoes will continue to happen across Canada, especially in the prairie provinces and south eastern Ontario. So, instead of wasting vast sums of money trying to stop such events from happening, we need to better prepare for tornadoes and other extreme weather events. Specifically, we need to develop more comprehensive adaptation strategies. For example, community shelters should be constructed to help people when there are power outages, providing vitally needed warmth during Canada’s long, cold winters, now only a few short months away. We also need to provide air-conditioning shelters during heat waves (for those who cannot afford to have air-conditioned homes or when the power is off) and, of course, electricity to help keep us in touch with loved ones. Such simple adaptation measures will go a long way to provide comfort from extreme heat and cold without spending vast amounts of money to attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which will have no measurable impact on the earth’s climate. We also need to bury more electrical cables underground, so as to keep basic household energy available all the time, or at least when the main transmission stations are operating. Above ground electrical wires are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events and damage by trees and wildlife. Following the February 2014 ice storm that knocked out power for days to hundreds of thousands of people in the Southern US, the USA Today editorial board made the sensible observation (“Bury power lines most vulnerable in storms,” 16/04/14): “People served by buried lines have dramatically fewer outages, according to two studies by the Edison Electric Institute.” The editors conclude however, that, due to the high cost of ‘undergrounding’ current power lines “The best idea is to identify the lines most likely to get knocked down and begin by burying those.” We agree. In her March 29, 2011 Report to the Ottawa Planning Committee and Council, Nancy Schepers, then Deputy City Manager, stated, “The burial of existing overhead electrical systems is very expensive with the cost being typically $2 - 5M [million] per kilometre or four to ten times more than rebuilding an overhead system… Given the high cost associated with undergrounding, the on-going challenge to meet current infrastructure renewal needs and other priority needs, and in the absence of any new City funding source, it is recommended that the City should only consider the burial of overhead wires when the full cost is paid for by the requesting party.” In Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the April 23, 2018 report from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, it was projected that a federal ‘carbon tax’ will lower Canada’s GDP by about $10 billion in 2022 compared to a scenario without the tax. It is interesting to note that $10 billion would pay for 2,000 km of $5 million dollar per km buried cable. And what do we get for our expensive carbon tax? Environment and Climate Change Canada concludes that the implementation of carbon pricing (taxes plus emissions trading), if done in all provinces and territories, will lower Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 by 80-90 million tonnes below that which would otherwise be the case. Dr Patrick Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Washington, DC-based Cato Institute, explains that a reduction of 90 million tonnes per year will result in between 0.001 and 0.002 C less planetary warming by 2100 than would otherwise occur, according to the model employed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Canadians are justified to ask whether better protecting our capital city from extreme weather events is more valuable than the impact of our carbon tax.
Canadians are justified to ask whether better protecting our capital city from extreme weather events is more valuable than the impact of our carbon tax


The Merivale station after being hit by the September 21 Ottawa tornado.