The Toronto Star began its series “Undeniable” on Climate Change with the Ninja Storm of August 7, 2018 in an article entitled “When the Hard Rains Fall” by Moira Welsh.
It hovers, then strikes. A relentless rain that floods one part of the city but spares another, then disappears, as suddenly as it arrives.
So writes Welsh. “It’s August 7, 2018, and the rain falls hard. Two men trapped by the rising river water in their office elevator wait for help, watching fat bugs swim in circles, as the water climbs, nine inches every five minutes. Pedestrians out for an evening stroll are caught in sewage water that erupts from underground pipes. Streetcar passengers swim to safety as TTC vehicles flood and their electronic motors stall.”
“Thirty minutes before, when Environment Canada meteorologist Rob Kuhn arrived for his 7:15 p.m. shift in the Ontario Storm Prediction Centre, there was no indication the rains were coming. Yellow and red dots of incoming showers flickered across the radar screen. There was no lightning, no sign of rain over most of the city, just a tiny cluster of warm colours near York University showing a raincloud that would normally float downtown and disappear over Lake Ontario.”
When heavy rain falls, Toronto’s outdated infrastructure is vulnerable. “Nearly one-quarter of the city has a single pipe carrying raw sewage and stormwater,” writes Welsh. This “might have been sufficient in gentler times but is now overwhelmed by volatile storms that stall over a slice of the city and unleash rains of 70 mm or more.”
Toronto’s lack of greenspace is a large part of the problem. Trees, shrubs and other vegetation buffer and absorb rain. With much of Toronto’s greencover removed for urbanization, increased impermeable surfaces (such as concreate and asphalt parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, streets and rooftops), urban runoff has led to flash floods. I taught this simple logic of limnology thirty years ago in my limnology classes at the University of Victoria. Unfortunately, cities are built by engineers; ecologists / limnologists (and landscape architects) are seldom consulted.
The truth of the matter is that flooding would still occur without climate change, due to eco-unfriendly city infrastructure.
While the TRCA and other conservation and erudite organizations are attempting to bring ecology back into the city by helping to introduce and develop green infrastructure, the city and the province don’t appear aligned with this sustainable approach that some call “green resilience.”
City hall politics, says Dianne Saxe, have led to “gross under-investment” in green and stormwater infrastructure, such as permeable surfaces in parking lots, holding tanks and landscaping that directs runoff toward trees and greenery built into the hard cityscape. Saxe was Ontario’s former Environmental Commissioner, whose office has been eliminated by the current Ontario government.
The “most egregious” political decision, said Saxe, is the city’s refusal to charge property owners for storm water runoff that their homes or businesses create when paved property blocks the natural absorption of rain—something the city of Mississauga has instated under Mayor Bonnie Crombie. Mississauga fees are based on rooftop size and range from $50 to $170 per year. Some $30 million a year is collected in a dedicated infrastructure upgrade fund.
“A stormwater charge does two critical things. Number one, it gives property owners a financial incentive to keep the water on their property instead of just dumping it into the public realm at public expense,” said Saxe. “And, it provides the money the city urgently needs to improve the infrastructure to cope with the growing problem. …We need to not only slow the stormwater but also cool the air (with trees on parking lots, for example) as climate change gathers speed.”
“Climate is warming,” writes Welsh, citing UofT physics professor and climate change specialist Kent Moore, who tells us that Toronto temperatures have increased 1 to 1.5 degrees over the last three decades. Along with warming comes an intensification of the hydrological cycle—more violent storms, more intense rainfall and wind, irregularities in previously established patterns. More wildfires, droughts and floods. That’s what Canada can expect. In your region, whatever you don’t like about weather, that’s what you will get more of. It’s that simple.
Welsh begins and ends with the dramatic case of the two men trapped in a “drowned” elevator on the basement parking lot floor. After their rescue Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin—both tech entrepreneurs—rethink their lives past this trauma. Do they continue trying to build consumer drones or use their experience to find a different purpose? The answer, Freire says, lies with clean energy to combat climate change:
“I think we realized that if we were still here, we might as well do something that was meaningful.”
Is that what it will take to get everyone else onboard?
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.