By Elizabeth Thorsen
As Foresight’s VP Operations, Elizabeth Thorsen leads strategic planning and partnerships, programs, HR, marketing, and events. Her experience includes working with the Regional Innovation Centre network in Ontario and supporting the creation of the Synapse Life Sciences Consortium, a cluster focused on commercializing health innovation.
In January 2021, I moved across Canada from Hamilton to Vancouver. While the move itself was not without challenge (a global pandemic, coordinating a move at a time when Ontario was on a strict lockdown, and driving across the Rockies mid-Canadian winter to name a few), I was excited! I’ve travelled to every province in Canada, and for me, there’s something special about the West Coast. Trees so tall you can barely see the tops and wide enough you can’t wrap your arms around them. Mountain views peeking down at me between buildings. Dips in the ocean no longer reserved for tropical vacations. I was sold.
I understood what I was leaving behind, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. No more -40 degree winters with icy snow banks piled high, no more sweltering summer days with the humidex over 40 degrees. Goodbye, Ontario! Instead I could expect consistent temperatures with a few warmer days in the summer and lots of grey rainy days in the winter. I packed up, ordered a SAD light, and embarked on a new adventure.
I think one of the great unifying things about Canadians is that we love to talk about the weather. A call from my parents usually starts with that very prompt, and the milder weather here was something I was looking forward to immensely! Unfortunately, after a pleasant first few months here, things escalated quickly, with weather events I could never have prepared myself for (and many I hope never to encounter again)!
Spring: No April showers or flowers
To be fair, my journey started off better than expected. I made it from Hamilton to Banff in 39 hours, missing an ice storm in the Prairies by two days, and I ended up just ahead of 30cm’s of snow in Revelstoke. The last 10 hours brought me to beautiful, rainy Vancouver, and I started to settle in.
The winter and spring were surprisingly dry and sunny! “It’s not that bad,” I thought. I was free to walk the seawall, enjoy the dry weather from my balcony, and I even managed a round of golf – in February!
Little did I know that was the first sign of what was to come. A record dry spring that led to droughts across Western Canada, jeopardizing crops and leaving forests dry heading into the summer. What seemed like an early summer (yay) actually dried the ground, making for perfect forest fire conditions. All that was missing now was the spark.
Summer: Bring on the heat (dome)
After 50+ days without rain, breaking decades old drought records, the summer arrived fast and furious. Already tinder-dry conditions paired with an intense heat dome to bring one of the longest and most intense forest fire seasons in history.
Moving from Ontario, I was hesitant to live in a place without air conditioning – but was reassured I wouldn’t need it! “The temperatures just don’t get that hot here – maybe one week a year you’d want it but that’s it,” I was told. But no one could have predicted the heat dome that saw temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius for an extended period (over 40 in some regions in BC!). As the inside of my condo hit 32 degrees, I started to doubt my decision to move here. This wasn’t what I signed up for! I’m grateful that I had the privilege of mobility – I could leave my condo and walk to a shaded park, I could go to a beach and cool down in the ocean. I was uncomfortable, but hundreds of people lost their lives due to insufficient access to medical services, access to cooling spaces, and other preventable causes. And this was just the beginning.
After the heat dome came the fires. Over 1,600 fires consumed nearly 8,700 square km in British Columbia (the third worst year on record – ever). To put that into perspective, it’s larger than the entire greater Toronto area (GTA), larger than Algonquin Provincial Park, and larger than the province of PEI by about half.
Entire communities were wiped clean off the map, and others were stuck under a thick fog of choking smoke which lingered for weeks, making the air almost un-breathable. For a time, the air in some of the worst hit areas was actually the least breathable in the world according to the Air Quality Index (AQI). All of the carbon that was sucked up into the trees was suddenly released into the air, polluting our lungs, leaving behind a thin layer of soot in our homes, and casting an eerie red glow in the sky which can only be described as apocalyptic in feel. Below the surface, things were even worse, with the fires destabilizing soil and infrastructure, a hidden sign of what was still to come.
Fall: Dropping the weather bomb
Adding to my ever-growing lexicon of new terms to describe these once-in-a-hundred-year weather events, in October I got my first taste of a weather bomb; three of them to be exact. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s what happens when the pressure drops at least 24 millibars in 24 hours, resulting in intense, hurricane force wind gusts, heavy rain, and an intense low pressure system felt by migraine sufferers everywhere.
The high winds were scary, and the rain was heavy, but with the addition of an atmospheric river (another new term and one I’d like to forget – essentially a river in the sky that can carry water equivalent to 25 Mississippi Rivers), things escalated quickly.
In November 2021, during my third weather bomb of the season, the atmospheric river unleashed hundreds of millimetres of rain on already soaked, destabilized lands across BC, quickly resulting in massive destruction to infrastructure, and loss of life. I want to clarify that in my location in Vancouver, while still scary to see, I had a couple chairs blow over on my patio, and some big puddles while storm drains struggled to keep up with the influx of rain. Less than an hour from my home and all through the interior were people trapped on highways between landslides and mudslides, extreme water levels flooding homes and farmlands, destroyed crops, and worse. My heart grieves for those who have lost their lives, their livelihoods, and who are still displaced and fighting to shore up infrastructure before the next storm.
At the time I’m writing this, BC is in its third state of emergency this calendar year. With the Lower Mainland cut off from the rest of Canada by road, there’s a feeling of isolation and fear. Grocery store shelves are bare in many areas, and fuel restrictions are in place to stop panic buying or hoarding of essential goods. While empty stores and drivers filling up jerry cans of fuel might sell newspapers, those people are the minority, and most British Columbians have banded together to buy only what they need, to support affected areas financially and with donations of food, medical supplies, and blood to the hardest hit areas. It will be a long time before we are ‘back to normal’, and a longer time still until we know the full costs of this disaster.
What is happening in the Pacific Northwest is, sadly, not unique. Intense ‘once-in-a-hundred-year’ weather events are becoming ‘once-in-ten-year’ events, or even more frequent in recent years. Floods, landslides, heatwaves… these are increasing in frequency and intensity across the globe. We need to act fast to ensure a liveable planet in our lifetime. It’s not about leaving a better planet for the future anymore, it’s about making sure we have air to breathe now. Climate change is happening, and denying won’t save us from the real impacts of what’s to come.
Now is the time to act. Making changes in our personal lives to live ‘greener’, choosing active transportation when possible, buying less and buying better – those are all great, and should be embraced. This must also be coupled with meaningful action from industry and government. We need to work together if we are going to have a hope of preventing these disasters, and adapting to the changing nature of a warming planet.
It’s going to be the hardest fight we’ve ever faced, but I’m all in.