T.O. 2050: Bad weather ahead

T.O. 2050: Bad weather ahead


The city’s skyline, obscured by smog, on October 13, 2004: There will be more foul-air days – with the attendant health problems, including asthma attacks and strokes – as pollutants get baked in the abundant sunlight and heat. More people are expected to crowd emergency rooms.

Unless we seriously put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions, in a few decades this city will be beset by long stretches of extreme heat, drought, freak storms and flash floods

Mar 25, 2007 07:42 AM

toronto star

There’ll be no relief at the lake or from your taps, which when they do work will sputter out water with a dank odour – the result of algae blooms spreading across Lake Ontario’s warmed surface.

Frayed nerves will result in more shootings and stabbings.

The North isn’t the only place in Canada that will suffer gravely from our fossil fuel addiction. Toronto will be hard hit, too.

“In terms of the number of people affected, the urban communities are the least resilient and the most vulnerable,” says Eva Ligeti, the province’s former Environment Commissioner.

Now head of the Clean Air Partnership, an environmental charity that recently published a “scan” surveying the threats of climate change to Toronto, Ligeti says that with just one kind of climate change impact, “the whole system would be under pressure. Imagine two weeks with no electricity, no access to gas. Just imagine what that would be like.”

Toronto city mayor David Miller has come out with his rescue plan: an 80-per-cent cut to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He hopes the provincial and federal governments follow suit. That way, complete catastrophe might be avoided.

But it won’t help us in the short term. Our course was set years ago, since greenhouse gases linger in the atmosphere for a century.

“I wish the governments had responded to the alarm bells 25 years ago,” says Gord Perks, a Toronto councillor who is also one of the city’s best known environmental activists. “Even if we all stop emissions tomorrow, the climate will change. We’re all committed.”

So, what are we in for? What will Toronto look like over the next 50 years?

To get an idea, cast your mind back two summers, the hottest in the city’s – and the country’s – recorded history.

The mercury bubbled above 30 degrees on 38 days – 25 more than average. Factoring in the humidex, it surged above 35 degrees a record 44 times. There was no relief at night – it was hotter than 20 degrees for more than three weeks.

It was also the most polluted summer on record. The air was thick with smog for 44 days – more than double the summer before.

By August, we were in the midst of the biggest drought in 50 years – less than six centimetres of rain had fallen since the beginning of May. People slumped in the city’s 24-hour cooling centres. The province’s electricity supplier was facing the threat of rolling blackouts. It issued a record 12 pleas to consumers to turn down their air conditioners.

But then came Aug. 19: the biggest rainstorm to hit the city since Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which killed more than 80 people overnight.

More than 10 centimetres of water fell in an hour – almost double the amount unleashed by Hazel. The city’s rivers quickly bloated, taking out bridges, gas lines and sewer pipes, trees which then downed electrical wires, and a large portion of Finch Ave. Water gushed down roads, rising as high as 1.5 metres on one stretch of Steeles Ave. About 4,000 basements flooded – some right up to the ceiling. Hundreds of houses were without power for days.

That’s what we’re in for, most experts agree.

“It was a dress rehearsal,” says David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. “That will be the normal, average summer in 50 years.”

More hot days. More hot nights. More smog, as pollution is baked in all that sun and heat. No rain, then unpredictable “extreme weather events” – climate-speak for intense storms.

“The highly unlikely will become normal,” says Keith Stewart, a climate change expert with the World Wildlife Fund of Canada.


All this means bad things for our health. The city is expecting double the number of heat-related deaths by 2050 – from today’s average 120.”People can cope on a short term basis with elevated heat,” says Monica Campbell, the manager of Toronto Health’s Environmental Protection Office. “But when it’s uninterrupted and they don’t get relief, that’s when we get an extreme exponential rise in mortality. And we can expect more multi-day heat waves in the future.”Another 22,000 people are expected to crowd emergency rooms across the province every year, on top of the current 60,000, because of reactions to air pollution – from asthma attacks to strokes. And 340 more of them in Toronto will die prematurely, over the 1,700 now.Then, there are the diseases and illnesses that will arrive with the muggy weather.Hot summers, warm winters and especially dry springs make ideal breeding conditions of mosquitoes.West Nile virus surfaced in Ontario and killed its first victim in 2002. Three summers later, 38 cases were reported in Toronto. Those numbers are expected to climb.The black-legged ticks carrying Lyme disease recently infiltrated Ontario, gaining a foothold in the southwest. By 2050, they are expected to have spread almost all the way to James Bay.That might spell the end of summer afternoons at the park in shorts and sandals, says Quentin Chiotti, a scientist with Pollution Probe. “It might be like ultraviolet radiation today – people won’t let their kids go out without protection.”


Meanwhile, extreme weather events will overwhelm the city’s infrastructure. According to Don Haley, a water management technical specialist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, such weather will batter the city twice as often.Flash storms will tax the city’s storm sewer system, one-fifth of which is more than 80 years old. The newer parts were built to handle a storm like Hurricane Hazel, expected to come once every 100 years. To grapple with the Aug. 19, 2005, storm, even the new pipes would have to be 50 per cent larger.”When we put a storm sewer in the ground, it’s not there for two, five, 10 years,” says Haley. “They are long-term investments. With climate change, it’s like your cellphone. It doesn’t take long to get out of date.”The city couldn’t replace its system of sewers with models large enough to swallow a storm of that size, says Lou Di Gironimo, the city’s general manager of water. “The infrastructure would be so massive, it wouldn’t make sense,” he says. “You couldn’t afford it.”That will mean that, like today, the overflow will be dumped into rivers and lake. And since in the older parts of the city, storm water and sewer pipes are combined, that means E-coli. Translation: more beach closures.”The irony is, we want access to clean water so people can cool down,” Campbell says.The city’s watersheds are already stressed. All the urban concrete makes for more run-off and erosion. The streams and rivers swell quickly. Unforeseen storms could turn them into death traps.”In the city, we have magnificent park systems that coincide with river and valley systems,” Haley says. “You have people in the valley taking advantage of a beautiful sunny day in downtown Toronto and you have a really high-intensity local storm in the north part of the watershed, and the next thing you know you have a flood moving downstream with very little lead time for us to be able to warn people.”Despite the increased precipitation, the level of Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes is expected to drop anywhere from .3 to 1.5 metres, according to Gail Krantzberg, a former director at the International Joint Commission, which oversees water quality in the lakes.That’s because milder winters will mean ice stops forming over the lakes. “It’s like taking the cap off a pot of water,” says Krantzberg, who is now director of McMaster University’s Centre for Engineering and Public Policy. “It just evaporates.”That could spell disaster for hydroelectric generation. Some estimates predict as much as a 54-per-cent cut to power production from rivers, which currently churn out a quarter of the province’s electricity. Today, that would mean rolling blackouts, especially as people in the city crank up their air conditioners. But we might get off the hook if, by 2050, we’ve exceeded the city’s goal of 25 per cent energy from renewable sources by 2020.The predicted drop in Lake Ontario won’t affect Toronto’s water supply – the level would have to decline by more than nine metres before the three pipes stretching out into the lake would sputter in air. But warming will affect the quality of water. Lake waters are expected to cook by as much as 4 degrees – good conditions for blue-green algae blooms. Although not hazardous, they do make water taste musty.

And if people use more water to nurture their wilting lawns and gardens during droughts, water shortages are likely to occur. That’s what happened in the summer drought of 1988. Water use skyrocketed, draining the city’s reservoirs to a critical point. Water pressure was down throughout the city, and some people in high-rises in North York didn’t get any.

Grace Koshida’s parents had to go down seven stories to the laundry room of their condominium to fill buckets with water. Without strict lawn watering bans, that will happen again.

“That’s what we’re concerned about,” says Koshida, a researcher at Environment Canada’s Adaptation and Impacts Research division.


All these climate changes will likely have an impact on the wildlife that has managed to survive the city’s pollution and vast stretches of pavement thus far.You won’t catch many brook or lake trout by 2050. Cold water fish will be doomed as lake waters warm, to be replaced by warmer water species like smallmouth bass. And oriole and warbler spottings in the city will become rare as migrating birds discover that the insects they once ate in spring in the city have long ago hatched and disappeared.But, for the city’s scavengers, climate change will mean an expanded smorgasbord. “They’re going to get nourished in winter,” says Justina Ray, a wildlife biologist and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada. “The more nourished they are, the fatter they are, the more they reproduce.”Possums that have recently arrived from the U.S. deep south will become more of a mainstay, once the frosts that harm their ears and tails disappear.While such changes might not seem so dire for an urban environment, in fact they can still have big implications.Phil Myers is the curator of mammals at the Museum of Zoology and an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. His studies show that in his area – which resembles ours in several ways – a number of southern species of chipmunk, flying squirrel and mouse have begun to replace the local population.”These are the most common mammals that are changing,” says Myers. “They aren’t polar bears or pikas high up on mountains or red foxes in Northern Europe. These are backyard animals to all of us, and they’re changing.”What’s frightening is that these things have a pretty fundamental ecological role. They control a lot of injurious insects, and they are important consumers and dispersers of tree seeds. It’s possible our forests will take on a totally different appearance as a result of this.”Changes to fauna caused by climate change also have health implications. The white-footed mouse that has migrated from the south and become dominant in Myers’ area is a reservoir for the larvae of deer ticks, he says. And the deer ticks are carriers of Lyme disease.


And what of the social implications of climate change in the city?According to some studies, as the city’s temperature rises, so will its crime rate. Extreme heat frays nerves and gets people cranky, says Iowa State University psychology professor Craig Anderson, who has written on climate change and violence. “When people are uncomfortably hot, you get more aggressive behaviour or a variety of kinds, including violent crime.”For every extra degree Celsius on the thermostat, he predicts an additional 20,000 assaults and murders in the United States.In light of all this, it’s no wonder the term “adaptation” is no longer considered a cop-out in environmental circles. We have to think not only about how to stave off the worst consequences for the future, but also about how to adjust in the meantime.Miller’s plan calls for a “vulnerability scan” of the city – a look to see which parts need protection first.Meanwhile, Ligeti of the Clean Air Partnership is putting the finishing touches on a study looking at the adaptation plans of eight other cities. She says Toronto’s insurance plan should include roofs painted white to reflect the sun or planted with gardens, porous sidewalks to absorb the water from flash floods, and trees.Lots and lots of trees.They provide shade to cool buildings, their leaves and limbs catch water from rainstorms, their roots suck it up, they purify air, converting carbon dioxide – the most potent greenhouse gas – into oxygen.It’s a lovely irony that a problem created by our most complicated technology can be treated, in part, by something so basic and simple.Perks agrees. “Frankly, green space does a better job dealing with rain than sewers, tanks and tunnels,” he says. “The engineers can’t fix this. Nature can.

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