When An Atmospheric River Strikes My Home…

Landslide caused by atmospheric river onslaught on a highway in California

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

August 13, 2051 (diary entry from A Diary in the Age of Water)

This excerpt is from a work of fiction.

A Diary in the Age of Water describes the harried life of limnologist Lynna Dresden and her young daughter Hilda in the near future reality of climate change.  Published in 2020 by Inanna Publications, aspects of the diarist’s experience, such as this passage, appear dangerously prescient—given the recent atmospheric river disaster in British Columbia.

My home. Where I raised my family. Where my heart still lives…

Collapsed Highway #1 north of Boston Bar, BC due to November atmospheric river (photo by Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press)

The Atmospheric River that Stormed British Columbia

Atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of concentrated water vapour in the air that extend thousands of kilometres from out at sea and carry as much water as fifteen Mississippi Rivers. They strike as a series of storms that last for days or weeks and dump inches of rain or feet of snow.

Science behind atmospheric rivers (image by NOAA)

The atmospheric river that flowed across the southwest corner of British Columbia in November 2021 brought strong winds, record rainfall and severe weather phenomena: from squalls, water spouts, and tornadoes, to massive once-in-500-year floods and landslides. From 100 to 200 millimeres of rain fell over a short period—a month’s worth in a few days.

The province called a state of emergency.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, including the town of Merritt (due to flooding and sewage overflow), the Sumas Prairie area, and parts of Abbotsford, to name a few.

Flooded Highway #1 in Abbotsford, BC due to November atmospheric river (photo by Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press)

The town of Hope was cut off and isolated from the rest of Canada by massive landslides. All major highways were impacted with dangerous mudslides and flooding.

Deadly Mudslides

Mudslides are like stealthy terrorists, striking like a gunshot. Once compromised, the hillside collapses within an instant as dirt and debris turn to liquid. First there’s a rumble, then a thunderous crack and within an instant a collapse and slide to gravity. Once in motion, mud—slick like water—washes down in a torrent, bringing the trees embedded in its liquified soil with it in a roaring force of destruction. One such mudslide caught several cars on Highway #99 near Lillooet and instantly buried them, killing at least four people.

Mudslide near Lillooet buries several cars (and people), BC

One couple who had stopped their car along with others on the highway for a smaller slide, barely escaped the larger deadly slide by speeding away as it buried others:

“I hear this cracking sound and I turn around and he forest is just moving, coming down maybe 30 feet behind me” … “I heard a thunderous sound. And I saw the trees sliding down the mountain and I looked at it and I was frozen for a minute, then I heard other people start yelling and then it just clicked that I don’t know where my wife is.”

Melissa and David Medeirose

While some people, covered in blood and mud, managed to stumble out of their wrecked vehicles, others were too completely buried by the deadly slurry.

Overturned vehicle caught in the deadly mudslide on Highway #99 near Lillooet, BC (photo by CTV News)
Aerial view of deadly mudslide over Highway #99 near Lillooet, BC (photo by Vancouver News)

At this writing Highways #3 over the Hope-Princeton, #1 through the Fraser Canyon, and #99 are still closed but officials anticipate opening them soon. Opening the Coquihalla Highway will take longer. Significant damage to that highway occurred due to water surges, heavy rains and landslides. A major thoroughfare for trucks carrying goods, its disruption is already impacting many communities.

Damaged highway in storm’s wind, rain and flooding, BC of November atmospheric river
Bridge on Coquihalla Highway washed out in flooding and heavy rain, BC, due to November atmospheric river (photo by Jeremiah Steberl)

People in Kamloops and Prince George reportedly went into a frenzy of stockpiling and emptied the shelves of store goods—despite not directly being affected by the storms and not being cut off from the rest of Canada. One friend described the reaction as “just a gut response to disaster.”

Tornadic waterspout makes way toward UBC in Vancouver, BC, in November 2021

Earlier in November, a tornado that originated as a tornadic waterspout in the Salish Sea uprooted and battered many large trees in the UBC forest, forcing the city to close down University Boulevard for cleanup and repairs. Previously considered rare, water spouts will likely become a more common phenomenon associated with atmospheric rivers on the westcoast.

Afternath of tornado that swept through UBC Vancouver, BC, in November 2021

Why This Disaster Now?

British Columbia was primed for it. First came the unprecedented heat waves that affected the forests and the ground. They exacerbated the severe summer wildfires. Particularly bad in 2021, the wildfires razed entire forests and made the forested landscapes hydrophobic (repelling water). A wildfire superheats the air, dispersing waxy compounds found in the uppermost forest litter layer. These compounds coat mineral grains in the underlying soil to make it hydrophobic.

Areas near towns like Merritt, impacted by the recent rains, also burned in the 2021 wildfires and this helped destabilize slopes.

The rampant deforestation and increased disfunction of forest ecosystems through poor forest management practices, and wetland destruction in the province also don’t help. Destabalized slopes and soils (caused by clearcuts and poor restoration, wildfires and diseased trees) are a recipe for more runoff, leading to landslides and flooding.

Man standing on a cut ancient red cedar tree in new clearcut in Gordon Valley, Vancouver Island, BC (photo by T.J. Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance)

That climate change has exacerbated these events is clear. One need only review the recent unprecedented floods in western Germany, eastern Belgium and in the Henan Province of China, the extreme heat and wildfires in Siberia and the Canadian north in the last two years, and the heat dome over western North America mid-summer of 2021.  

Climate Change Is a Water Phenomenon that Increases Extreme Weather Events

Scientists agree that extreme weather resulting in flooding will become more frequent in some regions as climate change accelerates. While we normally view and report climate change on a global and decades scale, it is experienced on a local and day-to-day scale through weather patterns and events.

“We’ve changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans with our greenhouse gases,” says climate scientist Paul Beckwith at the University of Ottawa. While these large scale changes are reflected in globally increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperatures, their effects express regionally in unique ways–which is why some feel increased temperatures and drought, while others experience increased torrential rain. This is no paradox; this is weather.

Because climate is essentially a water-driven phenomenon, we see the most obvious impacts of climate change in water events: torrential rainfall; hurricanes; tornadoes; melting polar ice or permafrost; sea level rise and ocean acidification; atmospheric rivers and associated deluges; the great oceanic current; drought, wind storms and heat.

In her entry for March 6, 2055, the diarist writes:

These “rivers in the sky” move with weather, and a single plume can carry more water than the Mississippi River at its mouth. When atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapour as rain and snow. Atmospheric rivers, with ancillary high impact winds and extremes, are among the most damaging weather systems on the planet.

Before leaving for the university this morning, I watched a news report on the storm that devastated the northwest coast of Britain last week. Over a thousand people were affected by the sudden deluge, severe winds, and flooding. Scientists are blaming another major AR. That’s the tenth so far this year for both Britain and Western Europe. Not surprising either. Due to the global temperature increase, the air holds more moisture, so these atmospheric rivers are growing in frequency and intensity. They are consequently wreaking havoc on the Atlantic west coast and the European coasts. I can hear Daniel’s ghost hissing in my ear: Between the relentless sea level rise and these storms, we’re fracked. The ARs that roar about like angry banshees have picked up the slack left by the stagnating great ocean conveyor.

March 6, 2055 (diary entry from A Diary in the Age of Water)

While we are already experiencing the portent described in Lynna’s diary on atmospheric rivers, I hope that is where the prediction ends. No earthquakes, please! It’s just fiction…

Flooded Highway #1 in Abbotsford, BC, from November atmospheric river (photo by Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press)

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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