What’s With the Weather?

Out west on the Canadian prairies they’re praying for the rain to stop falling. Here in Grey-Bruce and much of southern Ontario we’d like nothing better than a few old-fashioned rainy days. 

I hope by the time you read this you’ve had a good rain, especially if you’re a farmer. If not, you’ve got a serious problem. Your already heat and drought-stressed crops are dying in the field. I at least have the option of carrying buckets from the house to hand-water my tomato plants. Otherwise, they’d be goners by now. The whole garden would be a lost cause if here on the Bruce Peninsula we hadn’t got that nice little rain one night a couple of weeks ago. But even so it’s obvious from the look of a lot of fields here and elsewhere in Grey-Bruce that corn and other crops are already suffering, especially things that thrive on cooler weather, like canola. One farmer I talked to the other day said the early summer hay crop is way down.

It was not always like this. Growing up and living in southern Ontario there was an almost inevitable, reliable pattern to the sun and the rain and the seasons. Every week or so in summer a low pressure area would move in like clockwork from the west or southwest bringing a typical stay-indoors rainy day or two followed by more sunny weather. If one week passed without rain, not to worry, next week’s system would take care of that. Few places on earth had such a predictable rhythm of weather. Farmers could plant their crops and rest reasonably assured there would be no shortage of rain.

There were occasional exceptions of course – heat waves and drought were not unheard of – but they were more the exception than the rule.

However, in the past 10 years, or so it seems to me, hot, dry summers have become the norm. On the peninsula we see a lot of weather blow over or pass us by completely. On the weather radar thunderstorms building up with promise over central Michigan mysteriously dissipate somewhere over Lake Huron with maddening regularity. You learn not to get your hopes up. I understand as never before why the weather is the favourite topic of local conversation. And I find myself wondering if the Bruce hasn’t always been the exception to the southern Ontario’s historically reliable weather pattern.

At any event, this summer – keeping in mind it’s not even half over yet – is the worst so far. And I take no comfort in knowing we’re not alone, that most of southern Ontario is suffering this weather along with us. And don’t even get me started about smog alerts. People from the city can hardly believe it when they discover we get them up here too, even in winter, as of this past February. So far this year there have been more than 30 smog alert days.

Summer had not even officially arrived when we and the rest of southern Ontario had that extraordinary heat wave in early June. My 85-year-old mother who was born and raised and lived most of her life in Toronto, and now lives in Owen Sound, said she’d never seen anything like it.

Are we imagining things?

No, said Dave Phillips, Environment Canada’s best-known weather expert. “If you look at the last 18 summers in southern Ontario, 16 of the 18 have been warmer than normal (and) 13 have been drier than normal,” he told me this week in a phone interview.

Historically, there was always a dependable pattern to our weather, said Phillips. It was one of southern Ontario’s natural “blessings.”

But that appears to have changed. “It’s almost as if we’re in a new climatic regime.” And “variability” rather than dependability is becoming the word that best describes our weather. “It’s almost as if the norm is no longer possible,” he said.

Phillips stopped just short of blaming global warming, not just for Ontario’s changing weather, but also for other unusual weather events, like a major hurricane (Dennis) so early in the season. One has to be cautious about drawing that conclusion on the basis of a few years worth of unusual weather. But the evidence is starting to add up. There’s no doubt Canada is warmer now than it was 50 years ago, he said.

He said the June heat wave was unprecedented in the 167-year history of official weather forecasting in Canada “Never have we seen a hotter June than that. It shattered every record going by a long shot.”

Since the first of May most parts of southern Ontario have received far less than the normal amount of rainfall. Toronto got just 46 millimetres of precipitation in that period, instead of 190 ml. Since June 15, as of mid-week, the Owen Sound area got less than 10 ml of rain. “Normally it should get something close to 80 ml,” Phillips said.

Meanwhile, the drought is aggravated by the intense and prolonged heat wave. Normally, the Owen Sound area would get four days a summer with the temperature over 30 C. But the Wiarton weather office has recorded far more than that already. In June alone there were seven days when the temperature reached or exceeded 30 C.

The growing frequency of unusually warm nights is another big change in southern Ontario’s historic climate pattern. It’s unusual to see up to 10 nights in a row when the temperature doesn’t fall below 20 C, Phillips said. And “a 20 degree night is a tropical night,” he added.

This week, as far north as Moosonee on James Bay in Northern Ontario, the whole province was in the virtual tropics. The polar bears are no doubt in a foul mood.

Phillips said the immediate cause of all this is a huge high-pressure area stalled over the U.S. Midwest.

There’s still considerable controversy over the issue of global warming and climate change. Many scientists around the world are convinced it’s happening and something must be done now to eliminate or reduce the amount of man-made greenhouse gases making it happen. But decisive, effective political action is painfully slow, mainly because the present U.S. administration under President George W. Bush is in denial, or just wilfully ignorant, claiming strong action to tackle global warming could ruin the U.S. economy. That’s nonsense. A sensible response would regard the search for global warming solutions as a chance to explore new economic opportunities, as part of a whole new socio-economic paradigm that could hold the key to the world’s sustainable survival. Whatever happened to American ingenuity, the national character trait that helped win world wars and once made the U.S. the world’s economic engine?

The global warming-climate change issue made next to no progress at the recent G-8 summit of industrialized nations though it was supposed to be one of the top two items on the agenda. Bush’s signing of a document that said global warming is a reality that’s happening now was regarded as a step forward. But there was no timetable for action.

It boggles the mind. I’m not a scientist or a climatologic. I have no such credentials, just some common sense and the observations of a life lived in southern Ontario watching the climate change drastically. But for what it’s worth I have no trouble reaching the conclusion that global warming is to blame.

Imagine you’re a passenger on the Titanic, you and several thousand other people and the crew. The ship has struck an iceberg and the water is pouring in. At some point one would think everyone should be able to agree and say “the ship is sinking.”

We’ve reached that point folks.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.

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