By Alan M. Field

At a time when California, Texas and several other American states are suffering through droughts brought on by long-term changes in climate patterns, many Canadians may take solace in the fact that their country has long been endowed with a plentiful, dependable supply of water. If anything, rainfall in Canada seems to be increasing along with the country’s average temperatures. According to a recent report by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, over the past sixty years, as average temperatures in Canada have increased by more than 1.3 degrees Centigrade, or about twice the global average, Canada’s weather has also become wetter, with an average 12 per cent increase in rainfall across the country. As a result, noted the IBC analysis, “Canadians now cope with an additional twenty days of rain per year,” compared with average rainfall totals in the 1960s.

But there is a darker side to that prospect. The same IBC report indicates, “It is projected that for some regions in Canada, storms that used to strike every forty years will occur every six years by 2050.” Added the IBC report, “This combination of a wetter environment and warmer temperatures has led to more violent, extreme weather patterns – such as storms and floods. Over the past two decades, storms and floods have increased in frequency by a factor of 20, making overland flooding the most frequently occurring natural disaster and the one that affects the most people worldwide.” In Canada, there were 289 significant floods between 2000 and 2013, the equivalent of two major floods a year, representing almost 40 per cent of all natural disasters (of all origins) ever recorded in the country. Floods have been occurring more than twice as often as the next most-common disaster, according to the report.

Many Canadian scientists, officials and executives worry that these changes threaten long-term prospects for maintaining and expanding Canada’s troubled transportation infrastructure, already in need of billions of dollars in upgrades. According to Chris White, Vice-President of Federal Affairs at the IBC, “flooding is a lot more persistent concern, and the government is working with industry to mitigate the risks.”

Michael Lowenger, Vice-President of Operations and Regulatory Affairs at Railway Association of Canada (RAC), said that over the past few years, its members have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, especially flooding, on their infrastructure and operations. “We know that such situations have become much more frequent and larger” in scale. “The sorts of huge floods that used to occur only once in a century are now taking place every twenty-five years or so. They are repeating themselves more frequently, and it is affecting our operations.” Lowenger said that while most of the floods have occurred on the great plains of Alberta and Manitoba, parts of the Rockies have been “drier than usual,” leading to landslides that may also be damaging to rail operations nearby.

Although the availability of insurance for water damage is limited in Canada, Canadian insurers have been suffering losses at or near $1 billion per year for the past five years in a row. In 2013, that figure amounted to “a staggering $3 billion or more,” according to an IBC analysis. Many of the catastrophic losses were caused by water-related damage, worsened by aging sewer and storm water infrastructure incapable of handing current levels of precipitation.

So while water is still plentiful in Canada, the key question – according to British Columbia-based hydrologist Bob Sandford — is how excess runoffs from the Rockies can be channeled for useful purposes rather than allowing these waters to flood the lands and communities, and cause damage to transportation infrastructure. Sandford, among other functions and titles, is EPCOR Utilities Inc.’s Chair of the Canadian Partnership in support of the United Nations’ “Water for Life” Decade, Director of the Western Watersheds Research Collaborative, and an associate of the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for Hydrology. Alberta Ventures magazine recognized Sandford in 2013 as one of the year’s 50 most influential Albertans.

Dave Sawyer, CEO of EnviroEconomics, an Ottawa-based economics consultancy, said, “Increasingly, climate change is exacerbating the challenge of maintaining northern land-based transportation routes” in Canada. He noted that ice road networks are “increasingly compromised as a warming climate shortens operations when ice thickness is insufficient to support heavy traffic flows. “With increased regional mining activity in the Canadian North, more trucks can be expected on ice roads, with melting conditions an obvious concern for mining operations.” Sawyer added that highways and airport runways are also facing increasing risk from melting permafrost, including accelerated erosion and instability. The Alaska Highway provides a good example, as operating costs are as much as ten times higher in those parts of the highway that are located over permafrost. “Many remote First Nations communities are also finding themselves especially vulnerable to the reduced road access because of their inland locations and their reliance on roads and trails to maintain their cultural and economic way of life,” Sawyer added.

The science behind extreme weather events

Why are so many extreme-weather events taking place in Canada, and elsewhere around North America? Sandford noted, “What we are seeing is that the hydrology has begun to change in the north – where warmer temperatures are beginning to warm permafrost. There is less snow now, and what snow we do have remains for a shorter period of time. We are seeing that what is happening in the north is also beginning to happen everywhere else in the country.”

Sandford explained, “Water is moving from one place in the hydrosphere to another. Instead of having snow and ice, we are getting a lot more liquid water; and also a lot more water in the atmosphere. How we know that is that we are observing very clear, very rapid changes in the Arctic. Five times faster than what is happening in the rest of the continent. We are also seeing the loss of glacial ice. We have lost 300 glaciers in the period between1920 and 2005. That is water lost; water that allows our waters to be refilled and flow at levels that we have become accustomed to, and which we rely on in terms of making that level of water available to agriculture and industry.”

Sandford explained that the loss of Arctic sea ice appears to be allowing the ocean to absorb more moisture and more heat – and this is affecting temperatures on the ground. As a result, the Jet Stream in the Arctic has been impacted to such an extent that it now moves more slowly and acts more erratically. “That air from the Arctic moves down the big hill which is the world, and as it does, the world turns – and in that turning, that creates the Jet Stream. So what’s happening – because temperature conditions in the Arctic are different, it is affecting how those winds operate. And it is affecting the behavior of the Jet Stream.”

When it comes to water management infrastructure, vulnerabilities include damage due to ice jams, and failure to operate correctly due to inadequate capacity to face extreme intensity rainfall events. In the Canadian prairies, this pattern of precipitation and hydrological flows is also changing, Sandford said. “And this is where the flooding scenario in Manitoba has been of greater interest to us” in recent years.

Sandford said that the Manitoba flooding in summer 2014 was bigger even than the flooding in 2011. The “highly problematic” thing, he said, was that “this flood was not directly linked to winter snow melt. A lot of this water is going into the atmosphere – and this should be expected. The warmer the atmosphere, the more water the air can carry.” This is one of the most fundamental laws of atmospheric physics. As he noted, “a law called the Clausius-Clapeyron relation decrees that for every one degree Celsius that you increase the temperature of the atmosphere, its water-holding capacity will increase by seven per cent.” Sandford added that this law, established in the nineteenth century, is “really important” now because “you are seeing a lot more evaporation from higher temperatures; the Great Lakes have been declining for some time. The atmosphere is able to carry more water vapour, which fuels more extreme weather events. And this has enormous impacts on transportation: everything is being disrupted by that” or, in some cases, will be disrupted in the future.

Segmenting high-risk from lower risk hazards

What kind of research and risk mitigation efforts are industry groups and researchers undertaking? As early as April 2008, the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) created a Climate Change Task Force to raise awareness of climate change and related issues among TAC councils, committees and the general membership, and to encourage initiatives that incorporate adapting to climate change in the work of the Association. The Task Force mandate was renewed for an additional two-year term in 2014, and will end in April 2016.

Alberta’s provincial government also launched its Climate Change Strategy in 2008, beginning the process of developing a provincial Climate Change Adaptation Framework, which provides guidance to Government of Alberta ministries because the transportation sector is so vital to Alberta’s economy. According to a 2012 report by ICF Marbek, a Canadian energy and environmental consulting firm, Alberta’s transportation networks not only moves about 40 percent of the province’s international exports to market – the remainder is moved by pipelines – but are “the one system that virtually all Albertans utilize and rely on daily.

The report outlines strategies that identify and prioritize the potential climate change risks posed for the transportation sector. The three kinds of risks are:

High Risk: Road traffic disruptions and increased accidents from more frequent rain, freezing rain and wet now.

Moderate Risk: Road washouts and blockages from more frequent high-intensity, low duration rain events, causing landslides and overwhelming storm water management facilities associated with transportation infrastructure.

Low Risk: Reduced visibility and traffic disruptions due to increased wildfires and smoke.

Furthermore, the report went on to identify specific measures for managing each of these kinds of risks. For example, for the high-risk events noted above, the report recommended:

• Increased winter highway maintenance, including improved anti-icing measures;

• Upgrading requirements for vehicle safety and driver education (such as winter tires and studs);

• Improved road-weather information systems, and related efforts to raise awareness of high-risk events;

• Changes in the geometry of road design;

• Increased monitoring of road-traffic disruptions and accidents to determine if they are induced by climate change; and

• Identifying alternate transportation modes to using roads, where feasible.

In a key finding, the report noted, “Modes of transportation which involve permanent infrastructure such as railways and roadways are the most vulnerable to changes in climate that involve atypical temperatures or precipitation. The same also applies to water management infrastructure.” As an official [of Transport Canada] said in an [off-the-record] interview, permanent infrastructure has been planned, designed and developed using criteria based on historical weather patterns. “If future conditions are significantly different from the present and past patterns, this could lead to a premature degradation or failure of the infrastructure.”

Some examples of the vulnerabilities affecting railways and roadways include:

• Extreme heat could lead to pavement softening on permanent roads, which may in turn induce longitudinal depression in the wheel paths and the migration and collection of liquids on pavement surfaces. Ageing and high-volume truck traffic pavements are particularly vulnerable to these types of problems.

• The cumulative effect of successive freeze-thaw cycles could cause expansion and cracking, scaling, crumbling, and potholes; leading to shorter pavement life and potential safety hazards.

• Changes in the frequency and intensity of precipitation may also affect road and rail infrastructure due to flooding (primarily in valleys and urban areas) and slope failure or landslides (primarily in mountainous regions).

For many communities in northern Alberta and other provinces, winter ice roads and bridges provide a cost-effective means of transportation when ground or watercourses are frozen (i.e. the Athabasca River Delta).

The role of Public-Private partnerships

In both the public and private sector, there is growing awareness of the impact of such weather-related events as flash floods, avalanches, and storms on both the public and private sectors. “Recent major ground hazard events around the world, including Canada, have resulted in catastrophic consequences and this has put a focus and urgency on this important area of research.” added Dave Gauthier, Postdoctoral Fellow, Queen’s University, and Chair of GeoHazards6, a conference sponsored by the Canadian Geotechnical Society in June 2014.

In the railroad sector, where no single institution has the research capabilities to tackle comprehensive initiatives, the University of Alberta established Canada’s premiere education and research program on Railway Engineering, known as the Canadian Rail Research Laboratory (CaRRL), in 2011. The laboratory is co-funded by CN, CP, the University of Alberta, Transport Canada and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). CaRRL’s major research projects deal with the impact of extreme weather events on the reliability of railway infrastructure, including train safety, unplanned delays and stoppages of trains.

Another private-public partnership known as the Railway Ground Hazard Research Program (RGHRP) also brings together Canada’s two largest railways, CN and CP, along with the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and Transport Canada, with support from the Geological Survey of Canada. RGHRP undertakes scientific research aimed at better understanding the mechanisms that cause various ground hazards, developing guidelines to manage the hazards for railways, as well as developing and identifying analytic tools and technology to mitigate those hazards. Tom Edwards, Senior Geotechnical Engineer at CN, said at the conference that “with over 48,000 route kilometres of track, Canada has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world. The geographical diversity, climatic extremes, and geomorphic processes active in Canada make rail infrastructure susceptible to ground hazards.

RGHRP has been a forum not only for increasing the body of knowledge about various hazards, but, more importantly, developing state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and risk mitigation methods.” At its (GeoHazards6) conference, the partners agreed that their collaborative efforts have resulted in increased safety, reliability and resiliency of the rail network, while making it possible for industry “to facilitate the adoption of new research and techniques that mitigate the effect of the increased frequency of extreme weather events,” according to Chris Bunce, Chief Environmental Engineer at CP. In a sign that academia is playing a key role, nearly three dozen graduates of the University of Alberta’s specialized advance training programs are working either within the rail industry or within the private sector to provide engineering consulting services.

For its part, the Transportation Association of Canada has been sponsoring sessions that enable its members to use sophisticated, data-based “Asset Management Tools to Reduce Climate Change Impacts” on their companies’ operations.

Quantifying the dollar value of costs and risks

Despite growing awareness of such environmental risks, environmental economist Sawyer argued that, until recently, there “has not been a lot of good guidance” about the economic impact of extreme weather events on Canada’s transportation infrastructure, and the agencies and firms that depend on it.

How should people be thinking about quantifying the economic impact? The answers are not obvious. Sawyer said transportation stakeholders need to assess the precise impact of these climate changes from a range of different perspectives. A first step is to analyze the dollar value of the benefits that transportation infrastructure provides. As Sawyer explained, “Transportation infrastructure can provide a variety of implications and beneficial effects,” such as lower costs for those companies that extract resources, and reliable access to remote areas. For communities, efficient transportation systems speed up and lower the cost of access to consumer goods, fuels and construction materials, while providing greater access to job opportunities.

“People intuitively understand these costs and damages,” said Sawyer. But if they want to take measures that are more strategic – rather than simply reactive and short-term – they “must be more analytical and precise” in their assessments of the costs and payoffs of the various alternative measures. “The further you get away [geographically] from the actual damages,” said Sawyer, “the closer you get to the guys who focus on the associated costs [with taking such measures],” and the stronger the tendency to deny that serious changes are taking place in the environment. “The municipalities believe [climate change is happening] because they have experienced massive floods” and other serious events, so they have had to make decisions.

Sawyer said that two kinds of costs from infrastructure degradation are involved in climate change-related risks. They are:

• Increased maintenance, repair and capital costs that are needed to adjust operations to new climate constraints. For example, regions with discontinuous permafrost must now contend with such disturbances as “ground slumping,” “tilted trees” and sinkholes, which cause massive problems for all-weather and seasonal roads, railroads and airport runways.

• Loss of infrastructure service and business disruptions, where the “impaired infrastructure decreases the benefits provided by the infrastructure, translating into a loss in economic value to users.” For example, in 2006 Tahera Diamonds, which had recently opened its Jericho mine, was affected by melting ice. Capital projects were delayed, and the company was almost forced to airlift supplies to the mine, at considerable extra cost.

“Infrastructure is the most expensive thing that we review,” said Sandford. It is too expensive to think about replacing entire systems of transportation. “So we are going to have to look at where pinch points are, and redesign those first,” he argued.

How much money will it take to minimize the bottlenecks? It’s impossible to provide a simple assessment. This much is clear: If extreme winter events continue to increase, Canada’s transportation infrastructure will face a rising tide of costly expenditures, or suffer the consequences. Sandford noted that the cost of disaster relief in 2011 in Manitoba was one billion dollars, dramatizing that “there is a direct link between hydrology events and the economy. In addition, the province still faces over one billion dollars in unsettled law suits.”

Canada has an estimated infrastructure deficit of at least $80 billion, according to experts [compared with $580 billion in the U.S.]. That means “Not only do you have a lot of infrastructure that is carrying beyond what it is designed to carry, and which needs to be repaired in order to properly function, but now you add these expenses [of mitigating the risks of climate change] on top of all that. And so you can begin to see the problem that this creates for municipalities, state governments, and the federal government.”

Maybe the best place to begin is to tackle one common irritant. In British Columbia alone, there are some 400,000 culverts. “You have to decide which of those culverts have to be enlarged in order to withstand heavier flows during more extreme weather events,” said Sandford.