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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for July 2017

Water and the Canadian identity

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From Renzetti`s Globe and mail article

Last Canada Day, Elizabeth Renzetti, the Globe & Mail columnist, chose to highlight water: the attachment that we, Canadians, have for it.  Water is everywhere in Canadians’ lives, from canoeing to showering; we take water for granted (and waste a lot of it); and, more than others, we are blind to our water issues.  A piece well worth reading (link here).

From the paintings of the Group of Seven to our tourist brochures, water is everywhere in our collective imagination and it binds us.  Renzetti describes

the mundane magic of a Canadian landscape: a gorgeous, fast-flowing body of water, surrounded by trees and flowers and birds. A group of men sat on rocks in the middle, speaking a language I didn’t recognize. A young couple had hauled their infant in its stroller down the trail and dipped the smiling baby into the water, a Canadian baptism. My children stopped complaining. We all sat with our feet in the creek, strangers united by this water.

This is one way to think of Canada: We are strangers united by water. Oceans surround us on three sides, at least a quarter of a million rivers flow in all directions.

Renzetti has an insight on water that few of us have: a brother, Steven, who was an expert on water.  He unfortunately died this February, a big loss for his family, of course, but also for the university where he worked (Brock) and for the community of water thinkers across the country.  A sample of his thinking can be found in this 2010 Tyee article here.

And it is true that we have plenty of issues: while we use and waste more water than pretty much any other nation, we also pay too little attention to its safety (witness the Walkerton tragedy) and its quality.  Our waters are polluted.  This is especially true away from the big cities, especially in the North.  Though the North occupies a special place in our identity, Canadians are mostly ignorant of its everyday realities.  Quoting Renzetti  again:

We love water, we are drawn to it, but for years we have taken it for granted. Perhaps we’re not quite the guardians we hoped we’d be. We may be on the verge of paying the price.

A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund found that a number of the country’s watersheds were threatened by pollution and habitat loss – and the problem could be worse than we know, since data-gathering is so poor. Across the country, Indigenous communities endure water that is not safe to drink, with some water advisories lasting for years.

We don’t know enough about water in this country. We consume too much. We’re the second-highest per-capita consumers of water in the world! We don’t charge enough for it. We don’t think enough about it, because it’s everywhere. One day the well might run dry, when we are looking the other way.

“Looking the other way”, “data gathering is so poor”.  Indeed.  What was already a poor situation in the 90s was made worse under the government of Stephen Harper, with cutbacks affecting data gathering on water quality, a situation that has not been rectified yet by the current government.  Regulation is no better; just the week, the government announced it was giving the okay to gold miner Seabridge to dump tailings in fish bearings streams of the Nass River watershed.

First Nations, of course, also have a special relationship with water (see Honoring Water here, or Indigenous Perspectives here).  But a special relationship to water is true of all Canadians, and that expresses itself in our fine art production, which abundantly features water, but also in our folklore.

Think, for instance, of two of the best known (and best loved) folk songs of this land, the Log Driver’s Waltz and the Blackfly Song, both by Wade Hemsworth.  Blackflies lay their eggs on running waters, so it makes sense that they would torment a surveyor working on a project to dam a river, the Little Abitibi.  As for the log driver, if you don’t get the importance of water, you weren’t paying attention.  Enjoy!



Written by enviropaul

July 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm

The Montréal flood of 1987

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Thirty years ago, there was a huge cloudburst that paralyzed the city.  Ici Radio-Canada has put some video footage on-line, and it’s quite interesting.  It’s in French, of course, but the images are quite eloquent.  Here is a link to the article that features the video; the translation is from me.

The Décarie Expressway, thirty years ago.

The city had been under a heat wave, and when a cold front came a huge storm was created: over 100 millimetres of rain fell in an hour. A storekeeper witnessed the storm:

The wind started blowing, and all of a sudden you couldn’t see anything, it was like white smoke.  But it was rain! Trees were all bent.  Water started coming here through the roof, through the windows, even through the toilet.  We have three feet of water in the basement!

Weatherman Pascal Yiakouvakis explained that there was wind, rain and hail.  For hail to form, the storm cloud has to be very tall, at least ten kilometers – one can imagine how much water that represents!  More water fell in one hour (100 mm) than normally falls in an average July in Montréal (90 mm)  That is also much more than the stormdrains can handle: their design capacity is for 40 mm/hr.

Traffic was paralyzed, even emergency vehicles could not move.  Drivers had to be rescued, using ladders, from the below-ground level highways like the Décarie Expressway.  Hydro Québec reported a loss of power to about 350,000 households, without knowing exactly where: the storm had damaged the main computerized data control system.  The Montréal Métro had to shut down, the tunnels were completely flooded.

In the wake of the flooding of Gatineau, Rigaud, and areas around Montréal this past spring, one wonders what, if anything, has been learned.  The two instances of flooding cannot be compared, of course; the 1987 flood was a local cloudburst (Longueuil, on the south shore, got barely 10 mm during the storm) of short duration, while this year’s flooding was due to relentless rain over a large area for over a month.

But still, would it not be a good idea to berm the subway entrances so that flooding is minimized? The same scenario happened in New York City after the storm Sandy, and this is something considered. Does it make sense to put a highly in a large ditch?  Not really – actually, any highway is a long scar through a neighbourhood, and it traps users whenever something goes wrong.  Surface streets with regular intersections are far more resilient.

Does the engineering approach of stormdrains work?  Yes, it does, but it has its limitations.  Whether a system can drain floods according to its design specs depends on maintenance, among other things; today (July 15th) CBC reported about a flood in a Montréal underpass because sand and gravel had accumulated in the combined sewer pipe.

But even should the system work as designed, the design criteria are no match for a storm from hell.  Green roofs can shave off a few millimeters from a storm, preventing the worst; cities as diverse as Chicago and Paris have now mandated them on new construction. Ditto for infiltration basins and rain gardens; we are starting to see these here and there (for instance, nearby Township of Langley has some interesting plans).  And our combined sewers could do with expanded storage: much larger pipes can be used in strategic locations, creating underground reservoirs that let sewage flow freely but can store storm waters when necessary (and also prevent release of combined sewage and strom waters, or CSOs; that`s their key design function).

But to find really aggressive approaches, one has to look overseas – and nowhere better than the Netherlands.  Rotterdam, for instance, has created a good number of, well, holes under the ground surface, where cloudburst water can accumulate before flooding streets and houses.  For instance, the underground parking lot of the biggest art museum in town (Boijmans van Beuningen) is designed to flood automatically under cloudburst conditions.  In another instance, a local school has a sunken outdoor basketball court; as much as two meters of rain can gather there.

Vancouver has at least one large tunnel, abandonned and condemned, that could serve as a temporary receptacle for deluge-like storm waters.  I expect this is also true in Montréal as in many Canadian cities that have been flooded in the last decade.  But I rarely hear anything like that mentioned.  How about you, Calgary?  Toronto?  …anyone?


Written by enviropaul

July 15, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Snopes and Breitbart on climate

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A year or so ago, I wrote a series of short pieces that give examples of logical fallacies in environmental issues.

Snopes just published a piece that fits very nicely as a complement to that series.   The topic is the very common trope that global warming is a fraud or a hoax; the originator is James Delingpole writing for Breitbart News.  It is unusual for Snopes to wade into technical debates; but the claim by Breibart is so egregious, and so widespread in the popular media, that, I assume, Snopes felt it warranted a response beyond the more technical (and at times difficult for a lay public) sites such as RealClimate.

Some headlines from Breibart News.

What is interesting is that the study has the trappings of scientific respectability; it is presented as peer-reviewed.  Here are a few quotes from the Delingpole article:

The peer-reviewed study by two scientists and a veteran statistician looked at the global average temperature datasets (GAST) which are used by climate alarmists to argue that recent years have been “the hottest evah” and that the warming of the last 120 years has been dramatic and unprecedented.

What they found is that these readings are “totally inconsistent with published and credible U.S. and other temperature data.” That is, the adjusted data used by alarmist organizations like NASA, NOAA, and the UK Met Office differs so markedly from the original raw data that it cannot be trusted.

This is a pretty strong claim, likely to appeal to Breitbart readers who distrust anything published by government.  But strong claims need strong evidence.  The Snopes post, as is their practice, does not have attribution but whoever did the soul-deadening fact-checking work deserves a medal.  I will suggest that anyone interested read the full article, here.  The “peer-review study” is authored by James Wallace, Joseph D’Aleo, and Craig Idso, and the link to it can also be found in the Snopes article.

The report claims that temperature data has been falsified, and that these claims have been peer-reviewed.  Snopes debunks both claims.

The report looks like it is peer-reviewed.  It is not; it is merely getting endorsements from a few people with “PhD” after their names.  Further, it is published as blog post, which is different from appearing  in a peer-reviewed academic journal.  In a proper journal the reviewers are unknown to the writer, and the standards are high.  This is a sort of appeal to authority fallacy…except that the authorities endorsing the claim are nothing of the sort, and the endorsement process itself misleading.

The claims themselves are plain wrong, using the common tricks of citing data out of context, and (in this case) blatantly lying as to what the data actually means.  Quoting Snopes:

This statement implores us to falsely interpret the figure as showing changes to the raw data itself. As previously mentioned, however, this chart (and many similar ones in the “study”) shows changes between two versions of corrected data. To make the point Delingpole thinks D’Aleo is making, you would need to show that corrected records of climate relative to raw data make recent temperatures warmer than the raw data, and older records cooler.

Snopes writers are being polite.  It can boiled down to this: the National Climatic Data Center, the agency that publishes the data discussed in the “study”, reported recently that a new algorythm enables the production of better quality data, and present the new, corrected data.   The corrections in questions are fine-tuned details accounting for things such as satellite altitude loss, etc. The corrections do not in any way affect the main results of numerous measurements, which confirm what everyone knows: it’s warmer, globally.  Delingpole claims the opposite, that it has become colder.  This is just plain factually wrong and is a lie, no more no less.

This is where an analysis of logical errors has to quit; lying is no mistake, no logical error.

As misinformation and “fake news” seem to be the theme of the decade, I’m glad for sites like Snopes.


Note: please don’t confuse the blog RealClimate, written by bona fide climatologists, with the intentionally misleadingly named blog RealClimateScience.  The latter is maintained by climate change  denier Tony Heller writing under a pseudonym.  This info comes thanks to the folks at DeSmogBlog, a site that all environmental fact checkers should know.

Written by enviropaul

July 14, 2017 at 4:23 pm