State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

New York, New Orleans, Charlottetown and Everywhere Else

I’m in Atlantic Canada giving a series of talks about Hurricane Sandy and what it did to New York (based on my book, Storm Surge). I’ve been talking about what happened in New York, hearing from people here about what has happened and could happen here, all the while thinking, along with the rest of the world, about what happened 10 years ago in New Orleans. The differences are many, but there are a few common threads.

The disaster in New Orleans was almost uniquely awful in modern American history. This was due to both the extreme vulnerability of New Orleans, with its areas below sea level and its very vulnerable populations, and the failures of government both before (poor construction and maintenance of the levees) and after (the inadequate and sometimes even counterproductive post-storm federal response). But even if Katrina isn’t likely to happen everywhere, something can happen almost anywhere—including, we now know, New York. And further to the north and east.

I have been in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces—Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island so far—for the last two weeks. This past week was the first of two on a speaking tour I’m doing in eastern Canada. (So far: St. John’s, NL; Halifax, NS; Charlottetown, PEI; St. John, NB. Next: Montreal, QC; Ottowa and Toronto, ON). It’s been organized by MEOPAR, a federally funded research network on the theme of maritime risk, and sponsored by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

While up here, I’ve been reading up on the history of disasters in the region. Among those have been quite a few caused by hurricanes. This surprises many Americans, who don’t think tropical weather systems can get up here—and it’s true that they are often “post-tropical” (an originally Canadian term that our National Hurricane Center has adopted) by the time they do. But as Americans learned in Sandy, that doesn’t mean they can’t be destructive. The most recent ones have been Juan, which flattened all the trees in Halifax’ Point Pleasant park in 2003; Igor, which caused catastrophic flooding in Newfoundland in 2010, and Arthur—which I remember because it passed right over New York City as a relatively weak (and already post-tropical) system—which strengthened again and left 300,000 people without power after it hit Nova Scotia.

Hurricane Juan approaches Nova Scotia in 2003. Image: NOAA

Powerful winter storms come here, too, of course. These can bring heavy snow, ice, powerful winds and coastal storm surge. They’re more frequent than hurricanes, so the region is more used to them—though not the coldest part of the country, this is still Canada—but an unusually strong one could still cause a genuine disaster.

View to the North Atlantic from Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland.


(There are also natural disasters that don’t originate in the atmosphere. The Burin peninsula in Newfoundland was hit by a serious tsunami in 1929, caused by offshore seismic activity. And a pure human-induced disaster figures importantly in the region’s history: A large fraction of Halifax was utterly destroyed in 1917 when two ships, one of them loaded with explosives bound for the war in Europe, accidentally collided in the harbor, causing the largest human-made explosion in human history before Hiroshima. Thousands were killed and many thousands more left instantly homeless, the day before an early winter blizzard hit.)

I’ve had opportunities to talk to some local emergency managers, people from environmental nonprofits and government agencies, as well as local scientists about how risks here are driven by development decisions made by individuals, local government and corporations. The Atlantic Provinces have a very long coastline, and an awful lot of homes and critical infrastructure sit right on it. Storm surge, coastal erosion, and sea level rise are all serious concerns. Potential supply chain disruptions from a disaster could be as serious here as nearly anywhere in the developed world, with hundreds of thousands living on islands—Newfoundland gets most of its essentials by boat, and Prince Edward Island is critically dependent on a single bridge, which goes down regularly even without a major disaster.

The Irving Refinery in St. John, New Brunswick (not to be confused with St. John’s, Newfoundland), the largest oil refinery in Canada, sits down by the water on the Bay of Fundy, here shown close to low tide.


Like everywhere, the climate is changing up here, and people know it. My perception from the media is that Canada has as much denial as the United States does, but I have seen zero evidence of it during these past two weeks. Instead, I have heard about people’s first-hand perceptions of the changes they’re seeing on the ground. Those motivate concern about the enormous global challenge, and a genuine desire to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions and increase use of renewable energy.

While mitigation may be global, though, all adaptation is local. Increasing resiliency in the face of environmental risks requires understanding exactly what those are.

People are working hard on that. In Charlottetown, PEI, for example, I had the privilege of a guided driving tour from Tanya Mullally, the provincial emergency management coordinator of the PEI Emergency Measures Organization. She took us past a wide range of critical facilities (a hospital, the central provincial government building, pipes that carry steam heat and fuel) that are very close to the water, and explained how she uses Sandy as the primary case study when her organization runs disaster training exercises for other local government agencies. Adam Fenech, a climate scientist at the University of PEI with a large group studying climate change impacts on many different sectors, showed us his remarkable software program, CLIVE—basically a virtual environment that allows you to see sea level rise interactively as you fly over a place.

Adam also took us to see some homes at risk right by the sea, and one property which formerly had a cottage on it and is already, now, completely under water. This is probably not just due to sea level rise, though that’s one part of it. PEI is quite flat, almost a giant sand bar, and the contours of its coastline would be transient to some extent anyway. Here, as in New Orleans or New York—where the human influence on Katrina or Sandy can be debated, but clearly wasn’t a necessary prerequisite to the disasters, and where the poorly maintained levees or unprotected subway tunnels can’t be blamed on any lack of scientific understanding—many of the measures that are needed to prepare for climate change would be good ideas anyway. We’re often not as well adapted as we should be to the climate we already have, and understanding our risks today is a critical first step towards understanding what they’ll be in the future.

Adam Sobel is director and chief scientist of the Columbia Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, and author of Storm Surge.

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