BEFORE YOU PROCEED, please understand that the text which follows contains more than one element of humour. Given that at the time of writing here in BC, many regions, communities, persons and places are negatively affected by extreme weather-related events. In various situations there has been loss of human life, death of livestock, loss of homes and livelihoods. Severe impacts continue to affect vulnerable communities including many First Nations. It can be argued that during 2021, the effects of extreme weather and climate change on our lives has never been more devastating here in British Columbia, one of the wealthiest and most beautiful places on earth. We the privileged are not immune from forces described and experienced by so many communities and nations especially in the global south in recent decades. Welcome to reality Canadian friends. The world and its climate are changing rapidly, and dangerously. There is still time to do things differently. Let’s do it then, together.
Words matter, even in an age where visual images seem to be preferred. Even with photo essays however, text amplifies or sets the context for journalistic art and truthful storytelling. Expression through words requires a vocabulary where meanings are agreed upon (thank you Dr. Johnson), a language trove containing everything from slang to philosophy to precise scientific and analytical language. Such precision includes meteorological classification which itself has presented many new words or phrases to Canadians on all coasts, mountains and plains. Allow me to explain.
Here in BC our weather lexicon is expanding, quickly. Most recently, we continue to experience atmospheric rivers. The term is poetic and imaginative. It’s a sort of Wind in the Willows meets Cascadia. The term “atmospheric river” may conjure images of water flowing through the air, like in a fantasy novel. In a way, that’s right — only this weather phenomenon is totally natural, and responsible for providing a vast portion of much-needed moisture to many regions on the planet. Depending on their strength and duration, atmospheric rivers can also be dangerous.
Wrong place, bad timing and too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. But it’s not the only bad thing. Just a few weeks ago we learned of a Bomb Cyclone. Such an occurrence was news to me, and likely to most. A midlatitude bomb cyclone can cause many weather events, such as storms and heavy rain. A tropical cyclone, on the other hand, which is also known as a hurricane, mainly produces heavy winds. Bomb cyclones can play out like a normal storm, and don’t result in the strong winds of a hurricane.
It’s good to know the difference between the two cyclones, as it is likewise good to know whether you are confronted by a Black Bear or a Grizzly. When you meet such a beast there are two very different responses required, so remember which one is necessary and determine, quickly, who’s who in the zoo. If you run when you should play dead, well you may actually become dead. You have been warned.
Here in BC this past summer we learned about the Heat Dome – and we learned from personal experience. Hundreds of vulnerable persons lost their lives in urban areas, and the residents of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon lost their town. I recall one Wednesday afternoon walking the dog in Kamloops as the hottest I have ever experienced – and I have travelled to some pretty hot places over the years. A heat dome is created when an area of high pressure stays over the same area for days or even weeks, trapping very warm air underneath – rather like a lid on a pot.
Curious to discover more weather-related terms I turned to a Weather and meteorology glossary on Environment Canada’s website for assistance. There I discovered several things:
None of the three terms mentioned above were included. I guess terminological practice and real time experience has not caught up with codification.
Much of our weather-related historical language connects with east coast nautical experience. I remember visiting the Newfoundland Pavilion at Expo 86. A projected film opened with a sequence showing an Outports fisher tapping the barometer prior to setting out to sea. Forewarned is forearmed! Many of the terms on Environment Canada’s list refer to weather above, on or under the sea. Almost every entry in the “I” category refers one way or another to ice. One reference to friendly ice describes a thin layer which can be punctured by a surfacing submarine – no kidding. Americans can be forgiven in thinking that all of Canada is covered with ice and snow for most of the year; reading this list, it would seem to be so.
On the West Coast we are familiar with La Niña and El Niño flows but like the bears above, I can never remember which is which. Also familiar to west coastersare both drizzle and fog. I remember being in Lima, Peru some years ago. The city is shrouded by a strange weather environment where the flow of air is westward and downward from the high Andes to sea level. In such a flow condensation and drizzle appears and remains for most of the year. One comic in our party suggested it is no surprise the Mayans worshipped the sun god. One rarely sees the sun.
In the BC interior we receive with increasing regularity Severe Thunderstorm Warnings, Smoke Advisories and other Special Weather Statements. These come as headings above Weather Forecasts (A statement of expected meteorological and environmental conditions for a specified time or period, and for a specified area or portion of airspace), themselves a subject of much controversy. I find the weather in the Thompson Rivers Valley less predictable than on Vancouver Island where I guess you simply look out to see, unobstructed by mountains or other topography. In Kamloops we experience one of two weather systems at any given time – sometimes a flow moving south down the North Thompson River: alternatively, a flow arriving from the southwest bringing weather from the coast enroute to the Rockies. My favourite memory however comes from my Northern BC/Yukon days. The CBC morning show was broadcasting live from the Faro Diner. They lost their weather feed from Whitehorse, so the host created his own prediction. Literally he described what he saw first through the front door, then out the back door, and finally what he saw from the side window. Correct or not, it was ingenious. As Rick Mercer says of eastern climes, a day’s prediction sure; two days, maybe; five days out, get out the dartboard. One does what you can.
Staying with the interior, we have recently been treated to wonderful displays of Aurora borealis. Of this I have my own memory from my Fort Nelson days. One night around 7:30 p.m. walking home from a day of music teaching, the entire darkened sky brightened with a bright three colour rainbow which next expanded to the full sky and dissipated, all in about a minute or so. Locals described my experience as a lifetime opportunity. Back in Kamloops, local photo club photographers have had wonderful nighttime entertainment recently.
Other favourite terms include Mesopause (Top of the mesosphere situated at about 80-85 km above Earth’s surface.) – on first glance I though this meant something different! Also noteworthy is Millibar (A unit for expressing the atmospheric pressure) which reminds me of a local Kamloops politician. With a nod to international politics, a Polar Low (An intense storm system that usually forms in polar regions during outbreaks of very cold air, over relatively warmer ocean waters) – this can well be applied to the recent antics of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As more storms threaten both east and west coasts, as concern grows among Innu people living and working on our Arctic Coast, as a tepid COP-26 agreement reluctantly promises only minimal action and an inadequate timeline, weather will increasingly be in the news and part of our daily experience.
We shall continue to name what is happening; let’s hope we find a way to name what must now happen to mitigate the horrendous challenges ahead. May our speech become action, and soon.