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How climate change fits into Calgary's record flood

Posted by in Nature on Monday, June 24, 2013

The record flooding in Calgary displaced about 75,000 people. (Photo: Mark Derry)

It’s nearly impossible to get a hold of someone in Calgary right now.

Since the historic flood last week, many Calgarians are staying home to clean up their homes and neighbourhoods. When Canadian Geographic reached David Keith, a professor of public policy and engineering at Harvard University, he was dragging a dumpster up the driveway of his Calgary home to start the cleanup following the flood. His own house was damaged, but “a lot of people have got it worse,” he says.

Keith is probably right: of the approximately 75,000 people displaced from their homes, with billions of dollars in damage, many Calgary residents will have worse jobs this week than tearing out drywall. And as the cleanup begins, some are starting to wonder why it only took eight years for the high-water mark set by 2005’s “flood of a century” to be overrun.

As with any extreme weather event, it is not possible to definitively blame climate change for the flood. What is possible, however, is to compare it to previous records — and all the data thus far say that this flood surpasses any event on record, including the flood of 1932. Even with dams all the way up the Bow River built since 1932 — obstructions that should have slowed the flow of water — the peak flow was still stronger than 80 years ago.

That increase in intensity is predicted in climate change models, which have been forecasting more rain, earlier spring melt and increased flood risk in Alberta for a decade. It will only get worse over the next century, according to reports from government agencies, insurance bureaus and non-governmental organizations.

“(Climate change) is pretty solid science, despite what most of my neighbours say,” Keith says.

Keith believes that for many people in oil-rich Calgary, climate change will remain off the table as an explanation.

“I would actually be surprised if it changed people’s opinions,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence that people are profoundly motivated to avoid uncomfortable truths.”

As of Monday morning the Calgary Herald had run just one article and one reader’s letter mentioning climate change out of 84 articles published about the flood.

“The Calgary Herald has always ignored climate change,” says environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, whose article Calgary’s Manhattan Moment about the flood and climate change ran in The Tyee on Monday.

“Because the coverage of climate change has been so poor, people were not expecting it,” Nikiforuk suggests. “I think now people are in the stage of asking, ‘What happened?’"

Monica Zurowski, managing editor at the Calgary Herald, says that the last few days have been too busy to step back and look at the potential causes of the disaster.

"I think it would be premature to comment on that. The last few days have been a city and province in crisis,” she says. “It’s very hard to get a look or handle on why it happened."

Zurowski admits, however, that over the course of reporting for the newspaper's three special editions dedicated to the flood, reporters have spoken with experts who have brought up climate change. That reporting will come later as the city returns to normal, Zurowski says.

The cleanup in Calgary, Canmore, High River and many other communities in Alberta is expected to go on for months. As the mud is shoveled out of basements across the province, it remains to be seen what conversations will come next.

  Comments (6)

Perhaps now that his own riding between the Bow and Elbow rivers has again suffered from extensive flood damage, Prime Minister Harper might finally lift his environmental blinkers and give some thought to climate change as a potential and likely ongoing cause, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oil fields as an urgent policy.

Submitted by Callum on Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One thing to keep in mind is that while the media keeps calling the 2005 flood a "100 year flood" or the "flood of the century", that's not how hydrologists characterized it scientifically.

Calgary's mayor yesterday addressed this on the radio, calling the 2005 flood officially a "once-in-20-year" event, or even a "once-in-17-year" event.

Submitted by One of the High & Dry in Calgary on Tuesday, June 25, 2013

There have been 8 major floods prior to 1933. The 1932 flood (≈1520m3/s) appears similar to the 2013 flood (1700m3/s). The 1879 and 1897 floods were estimated at 80,000 cubic feet per second (≈2265 cubic meters /second). We have had 73 years of minor fluctuations and this has lulled us into a false sense of security, while there are several engineering reports and a few paragraphs in a UoC textbook to suggest otherwise.
I found out since I was attempting to figure out how to soften the blow by the flood crest for 2-3 days by means of using fill levels of the Ghost to allow less water out towards Calgary then enters the Ghost from upstream.
It is hard if not impossible to explain the 73 year 'break', but whatever the case, we may want to look into re-formatting the Ghost usage to find a balance between electricity, irrigation and flood control.
Also we should re-open the discussion on flood fringe building and permitting. It is not too late for next time. We ALL know now that it will happen again. We learn by mistake: 1879, 1897, 1902, 1915, 1916, 1923, 1929, 1932, 2005, 2013.

Submitted by Timmy Two Shoes on Thursday, June 27, 2013

I'm certain that climate change added to our spring floods in southern Alberta, as well as our weather this summer which, up until August, was the coldest, wettest spring and summer I've seen in 40 years in Calgary.

But there is another issue that contributed heavily to the floods; decades of logging in the foothills. The best explanation comes from author Karsten Heuer who said, "A healthy forest does three things with water: soaks it up, slows it down, and spreads it out. Protecting forests in the mountains and foothills can decrease the intensity of flood waters reaching our communities."

Submitted by Roger Gagne on Wednesday, September 11, 2013

And what do the rest of Canadians say about climate change? This survey doesn't ask your name, address, or phone number; just your opinion and postal code. The larger a word appears in the word clouds, the more often it has been used in the survey responses.

Submitted by Roger Gagne on Wednesday, September 11, 2013

There is a good possibility that this could occur again in the next 2-5 years. Choice Reroute Elbow river and create more upstream water storage for power generation and irrigation.
Bow river build dams and spread out the flood over a longer time. Choice 2. Build Levees and move those in Flood plain out. Including thoise downstream in Sisika First nation.
Choice 3.. Do all of the above.
Choice 4. Don't do anything and have a repeat of 2013 FLOOD
Looks like we are headed for Choice 4.

Submitted by Bob Lewis on Tuesday, October 29, 2013

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