BC’s Wacky Winter Weather

Yeah, that.

That is a wayward barge that was pushed onto the beach during last November’s atmospheric river — the storm that caused so many problems in our province. An atmospheric river is a band of heavy moisture up to several thousand kilometres long, but just a few hundred kilometres wide, that develops over tropical ocean areas before moving north and inland. (I’ve now added the term to my meteorological lexicon, along with heat dome.)

The atmospheric river that ran over southern BC last November dumped about a month’s worth of rain on the region in just 48 hours. Along with all that moisture came some strong winds, which is how this barge ended up on Sunset Beach in English Bay. It has its own Twitter account and is a constant reminder that not all is well, climatically speaking, in my home province.

(C’mon. You didn’t think I’d let a winter go by without talking about the weather, did you?)

That storm, the first of four atmospheric rivers to hit southern BC in one month, knocked out an unprecedented amount of BC’s infrastructure.

For starters, the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed its banks and then flowed downhill into Canada, completely flooding the Sumas Prairie in the Fraser Valley for an entire month. Located about an hour east of Vancouver, the Sumas Prairie is on the other side of the mountain in this photo, but you get the idea from the photo of the geography involved.

The first time I drove through the Fraser Valley was as a teenager when my family moved from Alberta to BC. After so many hours of driving through endless mountain passes, I could not believe how absolutely horizontal the landscape was.

“And they say the prairies are flat,” I remember thinking.

But that’s a river delta for you, and its rich soil is why the Fraser Valley is home to more than half of BC’s dairy and poultry production. Close to a million animals died during the floods, and thousands of acres of blueberry plants were also ruined. We’ll be feeling the effects of this flood for years to come as the farmers work to bring their fields and farms back into production.

Two other communities, Merritt and Princeton, were also flooded. To give you an idea of the scale involved, the area of BC under flood watch last November was equivalent to the size of Belgium.

Then, in addition to the floods, a series of mudslides and washouts extensively damaged all the railways and highways connecting Vancouver to the BC Interior and the rest of Canada. Five people died, and 275 people spent two days trapped between mudslides on one major highway until they were evacuated by helicopter.

With our transportation network knocked out, nothing from Canada’s largest port could get to the rest of the country and no shipments for export could get to the Port of Vancouver (including grain shipments at a most critical time of year).

The pipeline that brings fuel to the Lower Mainland was initially shut down as a precautionary measure but then remained shut for three weeks, which led to gas rationing in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. Fuel was brought in from the US by barge.

Talk about supply chain issues.

It was three weeks before the trains started running again. The largest and busiest highway in BC, the Coquihalla, reopened to commercial traffic only on December 20 and to all traffic last week. That it reopened as quickly as it did is quite the engineering feat: more than 130 kilometres of the highway in 20 different sections were extensively damaged, including five collapsed or heavily damaged bridges. It’s not business as usual — the highway will remain an active construction zone for the foreseeable future as all of the repairs are temporary.

There is scarcely nothing left of Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge where the Nicola River changed course and took the road out with it. The Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon reopened only this week. Just to give you a bit of an idea of what the engineers working on the repairs are faced with, this is what parts of the Fraser Canyon look like.

I missed out on all those atmospheric rivers while I was in Alberta. And although I also missed out on Vancouver’s first white Christmas in thirteen years, I did get back home in time for another spectacular dump of snow.

Which was … stunning.

But then, just over a week later, a king tide and wind storm pummelled the city and our world-famous Stanley Park seawall.

Some of the damage was caused by logs set free by the November floods that came down the Fraser River and have been in the water since.

Why am I writing all this? Well, last year was pretty tough on all of us, but, to be honest, I don’t have much hope that this year will be any easier. If it’s not the pandemic, it’s drought and wildfires. And if it’s not drought and wildfires, it’s flooding and mudslides. We call these events natural disasters, but there is nothing natural about once-in-a-century storms happening every year. Atmospheric rivers are not new to BC, and they aren’t all bad. (They play an important role in maintaining BC’s water supply.) But they are increasing in intensity and frequency, so much so that oceanographers are coming up with a rating system for them, like the ones used for tornadoes and hurricanes, to help us better understand their risks.

What I find most sobering is the realization that BC has climate refugees. Months later, people who had to evacuate because of the wildfires or the floods are still out of their homes. Many will never go back to their communities.

It’s a lot to take in about the place where you live.

One last note: Barge Chilling Beach is a bit of an inside joke for those of us who live in Vancouver. Google “Dude Chilling Park” if you want to know more. The sign is temporary and has since been taken down.

5 responses to “BC’s Wacky Winter Weather”

  1. dianaed14 says :

    What a horrendous experience. Don’t get to hear of this in England but it is climate change and quite serious. I hope that you are comfortable and getting supplies.

  2. Jolandi Steven says :

    I love this post of yours, Elizabeth. I’ve never heard of an atmospheric river before, and your explanation is very insightful. I often marvel how people can still claim that we do not have a climate crisis on our hands. The weather behaving in ways it is not supposed to all over the world is a clear indication that something is terribly wrong. Like you point out so eloquently, a once-in-a-century storm is not suppose to happen every year. I was gutted when I learned of fellow blogger Caroline Helbig (Writes of Passage blog) and her husband’s death at the beginning of January when a tree fell on their house in Vancouver during a storm. Mother Nature can be very violent, and the consequences can be devasting.

    • Elizabeth says :

      Oh! I remember hearing about that on the news. Falling trees are definitely a hazard in this city. A big one came down on my sister’s property a couple of winters ago, but fell away from their house, fortunately (though it did take out the greenhouse).

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