life after warming

This Is What Happens When One Climate Disaster Follows Another

Ranchers in British Columbia have been using Jet Skis to herd cattle. Photo: Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters

In Glasgow over the past couple of weeks, we were treated to one vision of the climate future: halting, inadequate policy progress coupled with ever-rising hyperbole and rhetorical alarm. In British Columbia, Canada, right now, a different vision is unfolding: one climate emergency following in the wake of another, indeed made possible by the previous disaster, and in a prosperous, modern, well-governed corner of the global north, absolutely overwhelming local infrastructure and the capacity of public officials and local bureaucracy to manage the crisis.

In June, the Pacific “heat dome” shattered temperature records throughout B.C., forcing climate scientists to reconsider their models and killing hundreds of humans and more than a billion marine animals, along with harvests of whole regions of farmland — “the cherries roasting on trees.” The wildfire season overall burned more than 3,000 square miles this year, an area of land about the size of Puerto Rico, releasing probably a hundred million tons of carbon into the atmosphere and destroying the city of Lytton. And now, as happened in California with much more modest rainfall after the historic wildfire season of 2018, a “storm of the century” powered by an “atmospheric river” has hit Canadian mountains totally stripped of tree protection, producing mudslides and rockslides and landslides, trapping hundreds of cars on roads suddenly piled with debris including “families in cars without food or medications.” The storm closed major highways, downed power lines, forced the evacuation of thousands, shut down two of the country’s biggest railroad lines and its largest container port, and literally washed away parts of the region’s chief east-west roadway, the Trans-Canada Highway. A thousand train cars carrying grain are currently idling, and it’s estimated that the railroads won’t reopen for weeks. Some of the highways may take longer. Farmers have been “trying to save their livestock by towing them in boats in water that was five feet deep.” Others have been herding cattle by Jet Ski.

The storm itself was historic, but the impacts would have been impossible had the prior destruction not paved the way for these climate cascades. Just look at these images.

“It came down faster than the speed of sound,” one local resident said of a mudslide in a vivid interview with the CBC. “I just turned around, and I’m just watching the whole side of the mountain coming down and taking out these cars … everything just being swept away. Just complete panic.” She watched with her husband and 9-year-old son as three cars were carried off by the mud. “No sooner do we get back into our vehicles, the people that were in front of us are just screaming and running,” she said. “The look on their faces, it was like a tsunami was coming. It was the scariest thing that I’ve ever seen.”

A water-treatment facility in Merritt was flooded, mixing the local drinking water with sewage. A floodwall in Mount Vernon completed in 2016 and designed to withstand a crest of 38 feet barely held — the Skagit River reached 36.79 feet on Monday night.

“There were neither road nor flood warnings,” one resident of Vancouver told The Guardian. “It seems nobody expected the storm to be so devastating. The rain was just incessant for 24 hours.”

“The impacts have been significantly greater than expected,” acknowledged Mike Farnworth, the deputy premier of British Columbia, echoing the language of bewilderment and disorientation that accompanied the heat dome this summer as well.

This is Canada. We aren’t just failing to address the growing climate crisis to come; we’re unprepared even for the impacts already here — in part because they keep surprising us with their intensity and in part because, in places across the global north, we can’t seem to fathom our genuine vulnerability.

What Happens When One Climate Disaster Follows Another