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Climate change, positive feedback loops, and what is an atmospheric river?

I recently read an article where experts say Canada’s risk for major fire events is steadily increasing, and a primary culprit is climate change. This news isn’t rocket science, but the warmer our climate becomes, the more destructive the consequences, including a prolonged fire season and an increase in lightning strikes.

Residents of British Columbia experienced this firsthand with back-to-back wildfires in 2017 and 2018. This trend now serves as a prediction of what residents can expect in the future. Sadly, Canadians are becoming all too familiar with this “new normal”: rising temperatures are making way for drier conditions, coupled with frequent lightning strikes, and we have a recipe for more wildfires. But here’s the twist - researchers now believe that wildfires themselves are accelerating global warming. This the behemoth of all positive feedback loops!

A positive feedback loop in climate change is something that accelerates a warming trend and can be described as a “vicious cycle”

As if wildfires weren’t enough of a problem, several weeks ago I was watching the weather forecast for the Vancouver area and the meteorologist warned of an “atmospheric river” event.

I did a doubletake. A what? Did I hear that correctly? Apparently, I did!

As the name implies, it’s a river-like system in the sky that can transport massive amounts of tropical or subtropical moisture in the form of water vapour. Typically, the south coast of BC can experience more than 20 atmospheric rivers each year, and this number is expected to double in the next 50 years due to climate change. To give you an idea of the potential impact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. calculates “a strong atmospheric river transports an amount of water vapour roughly equivalent to 7.5 to 15 times the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River.” That’s a whole lot of water!

As a result of the aforementioned atmospheric river event, BC’s coast was thoroughly soaked resulting in mudslides and rockslides, flood watch alerts for the southern coastal region and heavy flooding and evacuations in low-lying areas. All this and the snowpacks hadn’t started to melt yet.

This reality may feel a little daunting, to say the least. That’s why our governments and businesses must have emergency plans in place to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to and recover from the inevitable weather-related disasters we expect to see in the future. In fact, a perfect example of is the partnership between Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) and GeoBC. Together, they are enhancing the province’s approach to emergency management with geographic information systems (GIS) to provide the tools, insights and processes to intuitively integrate, synthesize and visualize data; thereby enabling informed, mission-critical decisions.

Many of the GIS tools EMBC and GeoBC have implemented are configurable templates that leverage core ArcGIS technology and are designed to support key emergency management workflows. The vision was to have a Common Operating Picture through which internal and external stakeholders could access the same information, in real time where possible, to establish situational awareness at the local, regional and provincial levels.

Similarly, the new Emergency Management Operations Solution was developed to provide you with the ability to make informed decisions when they matter most. It will allow you to:

  1. Model potential impacts of an event
  2. Monitor changing conditions
  3. Conduct damage assessments in the field
  4. Communicate the status of the event and location of field teams
  5. Provide executive-level briefings
  6. Share information with the public

Learn more about the EMO Solution at

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

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