First published in the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal on Aug. 23, 2009

A huge and complex weather system covered much of Ontario last Thursday. Low pressure, centred over Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie, directed warm and humid air into southern Ontario. Conditions triggered intense lightning, major downpours with local flooding and a number of tornadoes.

An 11-year-old boy was killed by flying objects during the storm near Owen Sound.

In Vaughan, part of the urban sprawl north of Toronto, at least 200 houses had structural damage related to one tornado. Other tornadoes caused spotty damage in other locations. It is remarkable that no loss of life happened in this situation and tornadoes in other communities.

Meanwhile, in our region, the same low was responsible for unseasonably cool temperatures, brisk winds and in many locations, about 24 hours of continuous rain. In other words, a great day to stay indoors.

Four people riding bikes into Thunder Bay last Thursday had mixed weather luck. They started their day in Savanne, at the turnoff to Lac de Mille Lac, about 100 km west of Thunder Bay. Imagine pedalling into rain and head winds, sometimes in fog, often with trucks and other vehicles at nervous distances.

I do not recommend this but, nevertheless, they survived. Another kind of weather luck, I suppose.

Nadia Nowak and Martina Nowak started in Victoria, British Columbia
(BC) and, even more distant, Malkolm Boothroyd started in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon. Kesten Broughton cycled in BC, took a minor break and resumed in Regina, Saskatchewan.

They are part of “Pedal for the Planet”, rallies across Canada that use “green transport” – walking, bikes, trains, hybrid cars to reach Ottawa in mid-September.

It began on July 1, Canada Day, to make the point that Canada’s Parliament needs to ratify Bill C-311, an Act “to ensure Canada assumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change”. This would be a preamble to negotiations for a climate treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark in December.

The efforts of these four people and other groups that started in Atlantic Canada forces me to muse about the vastness of the country. In order to accomplish these distances, it is usually necessary to bike at least 100 km per day.

That is almost every day, although Friday in Thunder Bay provided a rest day. I hope the sunshine provided a reward for the previous ordeal.

Such an adventure would be easier in Europe!

Making sense of climate change

Some people attempt to attribute this cluster of tornadoes to climate change. Comments in a news story in yesterday’s Chronicle-Journal suggest a trend to more severe weather. Hurricane Bill, likely to strike Nova Scotia (probably Newfoundland today) will stimulate other debates.

Others probably try to dismiss human-induced climate change because it has been cool this summer. And who can deny this – a least in central
North America.

More weather extremes are likely part of changes in climate, although single events by themselves do not confirm or deny change. Trends and changes in frequency of events is the critical test.

At the global scale, both June and July had the highest ocean temperatures on record. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the world – so it is a huge warning flag.

A more visible indicator is the Canadian and global Arctic. This summer’s melting was very rapid in July. An ice area equal to more than Lake Superior melted every day in July. The rate of melting has slowed in August because the sun is lower. We will not know the total melt for another several weeks but this year will be in the same league as 2007 and 2008, the greatest arctic melting ever recorded.

The keen people who take part in the “Peddle for the Planet” are part of a broader movement. It includes most scientific organisations in Canada and the world and most national governments.

A few local people had the pleasure of meeting these keen cyclists for breakfast at the Hoito early on Saturday morning. With a wave, they were on the road again – destination Nipigon, then Schreiber, Marathon and points east. That is many 100 km days and I hope their weather luck continues.