Storm Warning: Gambling with the Climate of Our Planet

Paperback | January 18, 2000

byLydia Dotto

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The Ice Storm of 1998. The flooding of Manitoba of 1997. Wherever you live, it's likely you've experienced some extreme weather lately. A recent report from the Red Cross stated that natural catastrophes in 1998 has wreaked the most havoc on record, and warned that a series of "super-disasters" could be imminent. What's behind all this stormy weather?

In Storm Warning, science writer Lydia Dotto shows there's strong evidence our climate is changing due to human interference, and that the events of recent years are just a dress rehearsal for dramatic changes in the earth's climate.

Climate conferences like those held in Rio in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997 were supposed to set the world on a course for change. Instead, they have led to political squabbles, watered-down resolutions and a disturbing failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that have been targeted as the main culprit in creating the global warming trend.

Storm Warning illustrates the dire consequences of delay and inaction on both the personal and political fronts. In the climate change game the stakes are disturbingly high -- with the very future of life on our planet at risk.

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From Our Editors

 Lydia Dotto examines why we continue to struggle with the environment and focusses on our procrastination in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions -- the primary cause of climate warming. Storm Warning explores the danger and potential for devastating and perhaps catastrophic consequences as we struggle to deal with this environmental...

From the Publisher

The Ice Storm of 1998. The flooding of Manitoba of 1997. Wherever you live, it's likely you've experienced some extreme weather lately. A recent report from the Red Cross stated that natural catastrophes in 1998 has wreaked the most havoc on record, and warned that a series of "super-disasters" could be imminent. What's behind all this...

Lydia Dotto is a respected science writer, lecturer, and author of several books. She has been a frequent commentator on radio and television, and her articles have been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Business, Equinox, and en Route, among others. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario.From the Hardcover edition.

other books by Lydia Dotto

Ethical Choices and Global Greenhouse Warming
Ethical Choices and Global Greenhouse Warming

Kobo ebook|Oct 30 2010

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:344 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.5 inPublished:January 18, 2000Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385257902

ISBN - 13:9780385257909


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It was dubbed "Beauty and the Beast."The blanket of ice, several centimeters thick, certainly gave the trees, roads, bridges, and buildings a winter-wonderland quality. But beneath the beautiful exterior lurked a beast without mercy, one that brought much of the northeastern part of North America to its knees for several weeks and strained the social and technological resources of the most advanced industrial society in the world to a shocking degree.On Monday, January 5, 1998, a huge mass of warm air laden with moisture barreled up from the Gulf of Mexico, causing severe flooding along the U.S. east coast, and slammed into a shallow layer of cold air hunkered down in teh Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys. Unable to displace the dense, cold mass, the warm air climbed on top and, as it cooled, dumped copious amounts of water into the frigid air below.With temperatures hovering around 0°C -- warmer than usual for the time of year -- the result was freezing rain and lots of it. Because the cold air mass was shallow, the water didn't have time to make it all the way to snow; instead it became supercooled droplets that froze on contact with every exposed surface, creating layer after layer of a very tough, adhesive glaze. As Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips put it, "This is the hardest kind of ice -- you can only break it with a hammer."It would have been bad enough if the storm had simply dumped its moisture and moved on, which is the typical pattern for such weather events in Canada. But the large weather system that caused it persisted, dropping rain in three waves over five days. On Tuesday night, Ottawa's weather forecast was ominous: "A series of disturbances is approaching ... bringing episodes of freezing rain, one after the other. By Thursday morning, 15 to 20 millimeters of freezing rain is expected to have fallen. Thursday into Friday remains to be seen -- pray for plain rain."Unfortunately, "plain rain" was not in the cards; Thursday night into Friday brought yet another wave of the frozen stuff. By week's end, the Ottawa and Montreal regions got a total of about 80 hours of rain, far in excess of the 45 to 65 hours they typically get in a whole year. An estimated 70 to 110 millimeters fell in parts of eastern Ontario and southern Quebec -- possibly more in some parts of the "black triangle," an area south of Montreal that suffered massive power losses. Ultimately, the region got about two years' worth of freezing rain in five days. It was roughly two to three times worse than the worst ice storms of the past, which had dropped about 25 to 35 millimeters of rain.Several factors influence the severity of ice storms, including the amount of precipitation that falls, the duration of the event, and the extent of the area affected. This storm would have been extreme by any of these measures, but all of them together made it catastrophic. By Saturday, when the rain finally stopped, an enormous region stretching from the middle of Ontario to southern Quebec, east to the Atlantic provinces and south into the New England states had been coated with a deadly glaze measuring up to 9 centimeters thick in the worst-hit locations. This was more than double the thickness of ice deposited in the worst previous ice storms in 1986 and 1961.Trees snapped under the strain, showering the ground with broken branches and wrist-thick shards of ice, the sound echoing through the streets like volleys of gunshots. Power lines, looped like icy garlands on a Christmas tree, hung to the ground until, burdened beyond bearing, they too snapped and tumbled into the snow, hissing and crackling with energy that had nowhere to go. It didn't take long for the crackling to stop, though, as utility poles and transmission towers  began to crack and topple, littering the bleak winter landscape with piles of fractured wood and twisted clumps of metal. Like decapitated behemoths, crippled pylons stretched as far as the eye could see, resembling the abandoned relics of some otherworldly war.The lights went out. The heat went off. At the height of the storm, more than four million people in four Canadian provinces and four U.S. states were left freezing in the dark as the electrical lifeblood of modern industrial civilization was relentlessly choked off by the ice. "The only person with power around here is Mother Nature and clearly we're no match for her," one Montreal resident told the CBC.Power to the island of Montreal, the second largest city in Canada, hung by a thread; four of five transmission lines feeding high-voltage bulk electricity from James Bay hundreds of kilometers to the north were cut off. On Thursday night, with ice still accreting on every surface, Montreal came within a hairsbreadth of a total blackout. "It was a very, very close call," Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard revealed later. "The line was watched ... the whole night. We really thought we might lose Montreal." City officials said that Montreal had been on the verge of losing its water supply, as well as heat and electricity, and that firefighters had been prepared to bulldoze buildings if necessary to keep fires from getting out of hand. By the second week, up to 100,000 people had moved into shelters; thousands more took refuge in hotels or with family, friends, or complete strangers who still had heat. But most people tried to tough it out in their frigid homes, with periodic visits to shelters or friends' homes for a hot meal, a shower, or a chance to get warm for a while. The elderly, distraught at the idea of abandoning their homes, often refused until police were given extraordinary powers to force their evacuation if necessary. Some who left never returned -- at least one heart attack was attributed to the stress of moving -- but some who stayed met an equally unhappy fate, dying of hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning from using poorly ventilated heating devices. In the end, at least 25 deaths were attributed to the storm.Hospitals and nursing homes struggled to care for their patients and to deal with the influx of storm-related injuries and illnesses, counting on overworked emergency generators to keep chaos at bay. In Canada, more than 14,000 soldiers were deployed, the largest peacetime military mobilization in the country's history. More accustomed to peacekeeping in far-flung war zones, they were glad to help their own people but astonished at the damage nature had wrought. A soldier who'd served in Bosnia commented that Montreal was just like Sarajevo "without the bullets" -- although dodging falling ice projectiles couldn't be much of an improvement. U.S. Vice President Al Gore, touring the worst-hit areas of Maine, said the area looked like it had been hit with a neutron bomb.It was hard to imagine that things could get worse, but then winter returned with a vengeance; in the second week, a cold front moved in, accompanied by heavy snow and high winds. In Quebec and Ontario, temperatures dropped into the double digits below freezing; in the Montreal area, where more than a million people were still without heat, nighttime temperatures plunged to -35°C with the windchill. Then it started snowing. Upstate New York and New England were clobbered with up to 45 centimeters of snow.Utility companies in the region had an unprecedented crisis on their hands. More than 5000 utility workers were pressed into service, working around the clock in 16-hour shifts, battling freezing temperatures and blowing snow in a desperate struggle to patch together a fragile and badly crippled power grid. Utilities from all over North America sent people and equipment. (One linesman from Hawaii, who commented wryly that he'd been surfing just the day before, had to borrow clothing suitable for -20° temperatures.) In the first few days, when the rain just kept coming, it was a hopeless task. "We're fighting a battle we can't win right now," said one weary worker with an ice-encrusted face after repairing a line for the third time.In the early stages, many people were unable to accept that technology would not quickly get the upper hand over nature. It took several days for the full import of the crisis to sink in. People who live in this part of the world are no strangers to vicious winter storms; they've seen snow and ice before. But this storm left them shell-shocked. Many who were camped out in freezing homes or shelters for weeks remarked how humbling it was to have been brought to such a state so abruptly. It had shaken their faith in both their own resilience and that of the social order.It was clear by the end of the first week that the storm would likely become the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history. Early predictions that it would become the first billion-dollar loss for the Canadian insurance industry proved true. The total tab for property and business losses and repairing the power system is expected to exceed $2 billion.For many, the most disconcerting aspect of the storm was that it took barely three days to cripple a power system that had taken five decades to build -- a system that boasted half the installed hydroelectric capacity in North America. Hydro-Québec said its power lines had been built to the highest standard in North Maerica, able to withstand ice up to 4.5 centimeters, nearly four times the national Canadian standard. Yet it was facing daunting losses: an estimated 40% of its distribution network would have to be rebuilt at an estimated cost of about $650 million. More than 30,000 hydro poles worth $3000 each had been downed, as had 130 major transmission towers worth $100,000 each and more than 800 smaller pylons. Hydro spokesperson Robin Philpott tried to put these numbers in perspective. "Never have we lost a tower before," he told the CBC. "This is beyond nature."Montreal Gazette journalist Mark Abley wrote that from November to April, daily life in most of Canada depends on holding nature at bay. We pretend we've conquered nature and nature mostly "plays along, jabbing us occasionally in the ribs. You could even say that Montreal, like every other city in a harsh climate, is built on a foundation of denial." The ice storm cracked that foundation as surely as it did transmission towers and trees. This was perhaps a good thing, for in the immediate aftermath some people obviously started thinking ahead; companies that deal in alternative energy technologies like solar energy reported a jump in consumer interest. But it wasn't long before many people started saying that the technological infrastructure should have shielded them better from the wrath of nature or at least put them back in the game more quickly, regardless of the storm's unprecedented severity. Those who remained without power a month after the storm were clearly bewildered about why the system couldn't bounce back more quickly. "This is not a third-world country," complained one woman.The ice storm would have been bad enough  if it had been an isolated event, bit it was only an early salvo in a barrage of bad weather that hammered many places in early 1998, thanks largely to El Niño, a periodic warming of the waters in the eastern tropical Pacific that affects worldwide weather patterns. In early 1998, both coasts of the United States were mercilessly pounded by a relentless series of storms that brought heavy snow and rain, freezing rain, high winds and waves, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes. The Appalachians were buried in more than 120 centimeters of snow in two successive blizzards; at one point, about 300 cars were stranded on an interstate highway in Tennessee.Southern states were hit with heavy snow, torrential rains, and high winds. In March, after an unseasonable warm spell caused fruits and vegetables to bud, crops were badly damaged when a vicious cold snap dropped temperatures below freezing. One TV report described the frost-encrusted plants as "cropsicles." Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called it "one of the strangest winters in decades." Following the warmest and wettest January and February on record, the U.S. tornado season got off to an early and aggressive start. In late February, a dozen powerful tornadoes ripped through central Florida in the middle of the night, flattening hundreds of homes and businesses, overturning tractor-trailers, and capsizing boats. One boat ended up on the second story of an apartment building. The intensity of the tornadoes, with wind speeds reaching 330 to 400 kilometers per hour, was unusual for Florida. At least 39 people were killed and more than 260 others were injured. The conditions that created the tornadoes were quite rare; Florida was hit with as many twisters in one night as normally occur in three months in an El Niño year. It was the most destructive and widespread tornado barrage in the state's history and the deadliest weather event to hit the region since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Insured damages were estimated to exceed US$100 million. The devastation taught everyone a lesson about El Niño's two-faced nature; while it had spared Florida a bad hurricane season the previous fall, what it delivered in the winter of 1998 was not a happy alternative. In March and April, outbreaks of multiple severe tornadoes hit half a dozen eastern states. Powerful twisters cut a swath across the southeast, destroying or damaging thousands of homes and killing more than 100 people. In Alabama, a rare F5 twister nearly a kilometer wide with winds in excess of 400 km/h remained on the ground for 34 kilometers, barely missing the city of Birmingham. "There is really no place to hide from a storm of this strength," a local official told CNN, saying the tornado "picked homes up and wiped them completely off their foundations." By mid-April, 1998 was already the most deadly tornado season in 14 years; 102 deaths occurred in the first three and a half months, about twice the normal average for January through April. In fact, these deaths exceeded the total annual count for any year since 1984. Tornado experts said that, while the number of tornadoes was not unusually high, more were hitting densely populated areas. On the U.S. west coast, the name El Niño was mud -- literally. California was hammered by week after week of storms that dropped record amounts of rain and whipped up ocean waves that ate away at cliffs and bluffs. They shed rocks and soil -- and houses -- into the ocean like glaciers shed chunks of ice. The heavy rains produced flash floods throughout the state and put 20 square kilometers of vineyards in Napa Valley under water. Rain-sodden hillsides collapsed in mud slides that took hundreds of homes with them; one half-million-dollar home was deliberately demolished to keep it from falling on another one below. Many owners engaged in an agonizing death watch, sometimes waiting weeks while their condemned and vacated homes teetered on the brink before taking the final plunge. One woman told CNN she had thought El Niño was "El Nonsense ... but I guess it's not." Huge sinkholes cut gaping wounds in roads, highways, and overpasses, abruptly plunging vehicles and their unsuspecting drivers into torrents of mud and water; in San Diego, a 180-meter-long hole bisected an interstate highway on-ramp. Rivers of mud rolled through the streets, sweeping up cars, furniture, people, and everything else in their path. Thousands of cattle died from exhaustion caused by trying to wade through the deep, heavy mud. Meanwhile, higher elevations received huge amounts of snow; up to 90 centimeters fell in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Authorities warned that spring melting of the snowpack could cause flooding well into the summer. By the end of February, many parts of California had received twice the normal rainfall for the season, and San Francisco and Los Angeles had beatencentury-old records. Nearly two-thirds of the state was declared a disaster area and estimates of the damages topped US$500 million. By April, hard on the heels of a very wet winter, much of the U.S. south was hit with record-breaking heat and drought. Florida experienced an unprecedented heat wave -- 24 days of temperatures above 35°C. Forest fires burned out of control in Florida, forcing 12,000 people to evacuate. More than 300 homes were burned. Timber losses and firefighting costs are estimated to be more than US$400 million. In Texas crop losses from drought were estimated at more than US$1 billion. By August, southern Texas faced a stunning reversal when torrential rains from tropical storm Charley caused extensive flooding. One town received nearly six times as much rain in one day as it had in the previous eight and a half months. The U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) calculated that a 17-day heat wave in Texas, which would normally recur once in a thousand years in a climate that was not warming, would become a one-in-three-year event by the middle of the 21st century if global warming continues at its present rate. The extreme weather events of recent years have certainly attracted public attention but it's still questionable whether they've prompted people to give serious thought to the implications of global warming. During the 1998 ice storm, the general reaction seemed to be that nature runs amok once in a while, and there's not much we can do about it, but fortunately nature only rarely runs badly amok. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard commented that it was not in the government's power to "issue orders to God. What happened never happened before." Although Hydro-Québec would look into new technology to prevent future power outages, "we'll never change the weather," Bouchard said. A news report about the debate over costly measures to bury hydro lines said consumers must decide whether to spend huge amounts to protect against events that "might only happen once a century." The fact that a storm like this "never happened before" is not the issue; what's important is how often it might happen again. Can we really be sure such events will only happen "once a century"? Was the ice storm just one of those times when nature ran amok or was there more to it? Rather than saying, "we'll never change the weather," we should be asking if we're already changing it -- whether these record-breaking extremes are linked to global warming caused by greenhouse gases we're emitting into the atmosphere. Later in this book, I'll explore evidence that global warming will indeed increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. And this is only one of many potentially serious effects it's likely to have: climate change is expected to affect everything from agriculture, water supplies, and food production to the spread of human diseases and conflict between individuals and countries. The evidence is especially disquieting given that the nations of the world seem reluctant to tackle seriously the central problem of global warming: reducing greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, our primary energy source. Unless we bite the bullet soon, the generations of the 21st century will likely face an even more daunting series of floods, droughts, storms, and heat waves than we've endured recently. The history books may well record that the 1990s were merely a dress rehearsal.

From Our Editors

 Lydia Dotto examines why we continue to struggle with the environment and focusses on our procrastination in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions -- the primary cause of climate warming. Storm Warning explores the danger and potential for devastating and perhaps catastrophic consequences as we struggle to deal with this environmental problem. Respected science writer Dotto examines the controversy over the causes and effects and considers the available options.

Editorial Reviews

"Lydia Dotto is Canada's premier science writer and she has chosen a topic worthy of her skills. This is an excellent treatment of the leading environmental issues of our time. She has provided a comprehensive overview and her urgent call for action cannot be ignored. This book should be read by every politician and business leader who has to be convinced of the reality and magnitude of the consequences of human-induced climate change." -- David Suzuki, chairman, David Suzuki Foundation"Lydia Dotto takes us on a timely guided tour through the brave new world we have made for ourselves: the era of violent weather ... An impressive overview." -- Robert Fripp, Globe and Mail