Map by Google Maps, Illustration by Jun Cowan, via LinkedIn

Watching what has been happening in British Columbia has been sobering, especially because two of the towns affected were places I was offered jobs, back in 2007.

If we had moved to Merritt, and stayed there, there is a very good bet our house would have been flooded when the so-called “atmospheric river” happened.

It’s curious, these new phenomena. I took a 300-level meteorology course in university, and taught elementary level meteorology to air cadets. I even pay attention to the weather in a manner more than the average bear. And I’ve never heard of an “atmospheric river” before. But maybe that’s just me. And perhaps the rest of humanity.

Google Trends noted it was used 14 times each in November and December, 2005, and in 24 individual months since then, it has appeared no more than five times in any given month. Then this week, it spiked. I’m guessing it’s the new “polar vortex,” a big scary word to mean something that has happened lots in the past. This weather phenomena used to be called the “pineapple express,” which Google Trends notes has been used with some regularity since March, 2007. But it probably sounded too nice, like something you would put on pizza.

Why am I harping on words? Because words are important. And so is one word, in particular: floodplain.

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How does an area come to be known as a “floodplain?” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. It’s a plain, that floods. And usually there’s a river in the middle of it.

So if it’s a floodplain, but most people don’t remember the last time there was a major flood, does that mean it’s no longer a flood plain? Or is it just a matter of time before, guess what, it floods again?

I point this out because on LinkedIn on Nov. 17 I saw this post, by Jun Cowan, whose LinkedIn profile says he’s a deposit-scale structural geological consultant. He has a PhD in structural geology for the University of Toronto, and a masters in fluvial sedimentology, in other words – the sediments in rivers. He might know that of which he speaks.

Cowan said, “An educated geologist taking one look at the Google Map view of Merritt gives a clear picture of what is going on there. Merritt is built smack in the middle of a river floodplain, where signs of past river positions are clearly visible (oxbow lakes). The process of rivers changing to a lower location in the floodplain, termed ‘avulsion’, is a natural and repeated phenomenon in river floodplains and it happens usually during floods (the reason why it’s called a ‘floodplain’). Most people will not experience this event in their lifetime even if they live on a floodplain. The residents of Merritt are finding out, right now, the terrible consequences of living on a floodplain.

“All this is just common sense to a geologist who studies how the environment behaves over time because we study the ancient record and the rocks tell these stories. But it seems as though most aren’t aware and they are surprised by these natural events.
“I think it makes sense to increase the geological education in our world rather than closing down geology departments so that we’re more aware of our environment. What do you think?”

Indeed.

The problem or blessing of British Columbia, depending on your perspective, is that most of the habitable land is the floodplains between the mountains. It’s otherwise rather difficult to live on a slope or icecapped mountaintop.

I explained to my kids this way: mountains act like giant funnels. When we got seven inches of rain in 40 minutes in Estevan in 2016, resulting in our basement getting water damage, that rain was evenly distributed for the most part. But when you have a mountain with a 45 degree slope, that rain isn’t going to stay on that mountain very long. It’s all going to funnel into those valleys, and voila, the floodplains will flood. You’re not just getting the six or seven inches that fell on you, but of everything uphill from you, and in short order.

Along the way, mudslides will occur, as has happened for time immemorial. That’s why mountains don’t stay pointy forever. Eventually, they erode.

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Is anyone asking how these floodplains formed in the first place? Would not heavy rains, going back thousands, nay, millions of years, wash sediment off mountains, causing them to create these flat valley bottoms in the first place?

But surely, anthropogenic climate change caused the destruction in British Columbia. The National Post’s Terry Glavin thinks so. On Nov. 16, the columnist wrote, “And yes, of course what happened last summer, and what is happening now, are catastrophes consistent with models developed by the International Panel on Climate Change, going back decades, that predicted extreme weather events set in motion by global warming.

“And yes, the just-concluded COP26 extravaganza in Glasgow was seized of all this, despite the chasm that persists between what the world’s presidents, prime ministers, strongmen and supreme leaders say they’re prepared to do, and what the loudest activist voices say we all need to do. But we could do with a lot less of the punditry making the rounds to the effect that the crisis on Canada’s west coast is a teachable moment, or some sort of consciousness-raising opportunity, to the effect that Canadians need to wake up about the reality of climate change. We’re awake, already. Only one in ten Canadians subscribe to the notion that human activities have no meaningful impact on global climate. British Columbians, perhaps particularly, have been awake for years.”

You got that? Your gas-guzzling pickup caused B.C. to flood. Not heavy rains in a region that gets heavy rains, with floodplains with plains that flood, and have done so, since the dawn of time. It’s all your fault. Expect to hear more of that in the coming months, especially from B.C. Premier John Horgan.

You probably heard it here first.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

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