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Climate changed: Fiona demonstrated wild hurricane future, and need to adapt

Fossil fuel emissions likely increasing the intensity of tropical storms from southern Atlantic
Remains of a home destroyed during hurricane Fiona are seen in Port aux Basques, N.L., Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

As she stood near the remnants of flattened homes in Port aux Basques, N.L., Denise Anderson said the thought of continuing to live next to the ocean is hard after a deadly storm foreshadowed the violence of weather to come.

“I grew up in this area, I wanted to come back to this area, but now I’m not so sure I want to,” she said two days after post-tropical storm Fiona damaged the home where she has lived for three years, destroyed her neighbours’ houses and swept one local woman out to sea.

Across the East Coast, similar emotions about the way climate change is altering life can be heard, as residents rebuild their homes and cope with weeks without power, and political leaders are asked how they’ll prepare the coastlines and power grids to meet the next gale.

About 200 kilometres to the south across the Cabot Strait, in Reserve Mines, N.S., Reggie Boutilier pointed out a missing portion of his roof and wondered when the next storm would come. “It’s only early in the hurricane season, and I’m thinking we’re off to a bad start,” he said the day after Fiona hit.

The scientific predictions on what’s to come aren’t reassuring.

Canada’s Changing Climate, a federal summary of climate science released in 2019, said fossil fuel emissions are likely increasing the intensity of tropical storms that form in the southern Atlantic and head north to the Canadian coast

Blair Greenan, a federal scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography who worked on the report, said in an interview that water temperatures off the Maritimes have gone up 1.5 C over the past century, adding a potent source of increased energy for the storms.

Anya Waite, a professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University, said the “sobering” reality is the warmer water shoots heat and moisture into storms like Fiona, giving them a longer duration and, often, a wider path.

While utility spokespeople referred to Fiona as “historic” in their news releases, Waite — also the science director of the Ocean Frontier Institute — says storms of this magnitude will become increasingly common. “We will be getting storms that have a lot more longevity because of the surface water being so much warmer,” she said.

A “perfect trifecta” of conditions — general sea-level rise over the past century created by melting glaciers, storm surges and lower barometric pressures during storms — is also increasing the likelihood of coasts being swamped during hurricanes, she added.

“In terms of adaptation … one of the main things is we will just have to move away from the coast,” she said. “We love the coast so much that people are clinging to their last rock as it goes under. We can’t do that.”

Peter Bevan-Baker, the leader of the Prince Edward Island Green Party, saw an altered landscape as he drove around the Island last Friday, with thousands of trees down, farmers’ barns destroyed and beaches that define the Island suddenly washed away. “The Island is changed forever,” he said in an interview.

Meanwhile, thousands of people remained without power nearly two weeks after the storm hit, and complaints rose about the lack of basics such as heat, electricity, gasoline and even food for seniors in provincially operated buildings.

Yet, during briefings last week, the privately owned utilities Nova Scotia Power and Maritime Electric, which serves P.E.I., dismissed the suggestion that power lines should be buried, saying underground lines would cost up to 10 times more without eliminating the risk of outages.

Bevan-Baker said these kinds of “standard” answers don’t recognize the changing climate realities. “I understand burying lines is an enormously expensive proposition, but so is rebuilding if it’s a storm like this every few years,” he said.

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said that while further studies on how utilities should adapt may be useful, the time for action arrived with the 170 kilometre-per-hour gusts that buffeted the region.

Endless scenario planning can become “a substitute for action,” he said in an interview.

He said where housing or infrastructure was destroyed close to the shore, the rebuild needs to occur further inland. More crucially, modelling is needed on potential coastal damage throughout the Atlantic region, in order to set rules on building that take climate adaptation into account.

Solutions will vary. In some instances, higher seawalls will protect towns; in others, development may have to retreat, while tidal flats and marshes are created to absorb some of the sea’s fury, Feltmate said.

Bevan-Baker points out that in P.E.I., there are close to 30,000 undeveloped lots near the coast, and yet there’s still no provincewide land-use plan taking into account future storm surges.

Joanna Eyquem, a geoscientist who also works with the University of Waterloo climate adaptation centre, said the providers of key infrastructure — whether utilities, railways or ports — “really need to step up to the adaptation challenge” and consider climate change in all they’re doing, something that is still not universal in Canada.

By contrast, in the United Kingdom, most similar organizations and companies report climate adaptation progress every five years, in addition to making mandatory climate-related financial disclosures annually, she said.

Feltmate said ordinary citizens have to act as well. His studies show many homeowners in flood-prone areas still don’t have generators to run sump pumps if the power goes out and haven’t graded their land to slope rainfall away from the buildings.

While some of the adaptation is costly, Feltmate points to research indicating that for each dollar spent — whether in cutting trees around power lines or creating power grids that are more decentralized — there are savings of five to six dollars in averted damage.

After prior severe storms, such as Juan in 2003 and Dorian in 2019, similar messages were delivered, and governments in the region briefly seemed attentive to the changing realities. But during election campaigns that followed, climate adaptation policies were only sketched out broadly and the focus shifted back to ailing health systems.

Will this time be different, after roofs are replaced, harbours rebuilt and freezers restocked? There are signs that even if officials are slow to change course, the urgency is sinking in at ground level.

In Burnt Islands, N.L., fisherman Murray Hardy gestured around his basement after shovelling out the mud deposited by Fiona’s tidal surge, saying he’ll prepare for the next hurricane by emptying out the space and replacing gyprock before mould sets in.

“What am I going to do? You got your home,” he said, when asked if moving was an option. “I expect more of this. All they talk about is global warming and the tides and such. I’ll just clean all this out.”

—Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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