Spring is arriving – slowly! The excitement over mild weather and the awakening of the plant world will soon have us forget the never-ending winter and late, cold spring. Alas, let’s actually not forget; instead, we should get used to a new norm in weather and temperatures!
In April, Franz Hartmann, Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), gave talks at two community meetings hosted by Green 13 and Green Neighbours 21 on ‘Getting Ready for a Hotter and Wetter Toronto’. He spoke to dozens of attendees about a first-of-its-kind report commissioned by the City of Toronto which models and predicts expected weather changes by 2040.
“The results are very scary. We’re not ready,” says Hartmann. He means the predicted and dramatic increase in summer temperatures.
Our current infrastructure, especially electricity, is not set up to handle large spikes in demand, which hotter summers and greater air conditioning usage will cause as AC becomes a necessity in every household. Highrise residents and the elderly will be hit especially hard if the system fails and blackouts become a regular occurrence.
Whether you believe in or deny climate change, man-made or not, doesn’t matter one tiddly bit; what matters is the fact that significant weather changes are already upon us, and that we need to expect and prepare for them, regardless of their cause.
Hartmann’s audience was frustrated at how little attention City Hall has been giving to something so important. There, conversation is dominated by debates over a casino, an island airport expansion or the Mayor’s latest antics. In January the Toronto Environment Office presented the predicted changes to the Parks and Environment Committee. The report’s findings are based on global, regional, and local weather models and examine 30-year weather norms.
While extreme weather events are not uncommon, they typically occur only once every 100 years, i.e. the so-called 100-year-storm, flood or drought. What this study reveals, however, is a greater number of severe weather events happening more often. For example, within the past 12 years Toronto has seen three 100-year-storms, the highest summer rainfall ever in 2008, and the earliest heat wave last year. We can expect an average annual temperature increase of 4.4°C, milder winters with less snow but more rain, wetter summers with more intense storms and more heat waves and days over 30°C.
The implications of these extreme changes affect us all and in many ways.
• Insects and pests: Milder winters with less snow and frost enable pest insects to thrive and affect not only humans but other animals, trees and plants, and our food crops.
• Infrastructure: Increases in high winds, storms, floods and tornadoes cause destruction to residential homes, roads, bridges, power lines and sewers. Repairs are costly to homeowners, as well as our municipal and provincial budgets, and have implications for tax and insurance payers. The annual report on natural catastrophe losses produced by Munich Reinsurance (who insures insurance companies’ risk) Geo Risks Research, Natural Catastrophe Service, shows that since 1980 the number of severe or catastrophic meteorological (storms), hydrological (floods, mass movement) and climatological events (extreme temperatures, drought, forest fires) have been increasing steadily from just below 400 events in 1980 to 750 to 1,000 per year and rising since 1998.
• Health: Longer and more severe heatwaves and smog days increase the number of hospital visits, sick days from school or work, and deaths due to respiratory illness, heart and circulation, and other heat related sickness.
• Food: Late frosts, droughts, wet summers and wind damage can decimate food crops, affecting the wellbeing of farm animals and crop yields, which in turn raise our grocery and prepared food prices. Last year`s mild March followed by April frost killed early fruit blossoms and erased many local apple and peach crops across southern Ontario. In the US, the 2012 summer drought brought the biggest loss in its agricultural insurance history. Importing crops from other countries results in higher prices and raises other environmental factors of high ‘food miles’.
What the city is doing: Toronto Hydro, Toronto’s water, transportation, planning and housing departments and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA) are working together on adaptive measures through infrastructure management, preparing for and managing increased flooding, housing and cooling needs, peak demands on electricity, and the necessity and benefits of more trees and parks.
What we can do: Hartmann suggests we talk about these issues with friends and neighbours and collectively urge our politicians to take urgent action. Changes in our neighbourhood and across the city should include more permeable paving, green spaces, trees and shade to reduce local ‘heat island’ effects, green roofs or ‘cool’ roofs (flat roofs painted white to absorb less heat), disconnected downspouts, raingardens and bioswales to manage stormwater and less local car traffic and idling (I had to sneak that one in).
As a home owner, you can implement one or more of these suggestions yourself. For greater effect, mobilize neighbours on your street, join your local residents or neighbourhood association or a local environmental community group. Contact one of these local groups: Citizens for a Safe Environment, DECA, East End Sustainability Network, East Toronto Climate Action Group, your nearest ‘Friends of’ parks group or Greening Ward 32. Working together is easier and brings greater change sooner – and change will (have to) happen, ‘weather’ we like it or not.
If you would like to hear Franz Hartmann’s presentation, write to me – he will gladly present in the east end if we organize it.
Martina Rowley is a local environmental communicator