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Rivers of the Sky: The Catastrophic Reality of Atmospheric Rivers


What is an atmospheric river, you might ask. And why should I care?

An atmospheric river is best understood as a long band of moisture in the atmosphere that originates from tropical regions, carrying warm air and water towards other regions. They carry an average of 39 trillion litres of water per day, and are considered a relatively normal and essential occurrence. The rainfall from an atmospheric river often lasts a day or two, and provides the necessary water supply to most continents. However, their intensity is fuelled by climate change with their presence becoming increasingly catastrophic. Recent studies show that atmospheric rivers are only meant to grow in size and force, lasting up to 5 days instead of the usual one or two with the ability to cause severe flooding and landslides. One of these intense atmospheric rivers has coined the famous term the Pineapple Express, characterized by its strong and persistent presence.

Many regions have experienced devastation from atmospheric rivers, including the United States, Iran, Australia, England, France and Norway. More recently was Canada’s West Coast, which saw a year’s worth of rain over the course of 3 days. The heavy rainfall began 13 November 2021 and went on to break numerous rainfall records within the province of British Columbia. The lower mainland was hit the hardest with flooding, causing highways to close, evacuation orders, and the eventual death of 600,000 livestock that were unable to be rescued. Although the province’s interior also experienced similar levels of flooding, they were predominantly impacted by landslides which destroyed highways and railways connecting the lower mainland and interior, estimating that full repairs could take up to 12 months. Towns have been cut off from the rest of the country without access to these highways, causing food and gas shortages all over the province. Four casualties were reported as a result of landslides, and a total of $450 million in property damage (excluding infrastructures and uninsured properties).

However, the atmospheric rivers aren’t the only environmental factor at play in British Columbia. Scientific reports argue that Canada is warming at a rate two times faster than most countries. The summer of 2021 saw record high temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius and more than 1,600 wildfires, burning a total of 8,700 square km in the region. Old growth forests in the region are crucial for preventing and reducing the severity of effects caused by atmospheric rivers, and flooding in general. The dense canopy provides protection from rainfall impacts and erosion, while the deep roots absorb and hold water to prevent overpowering runoff from entering rivers. Despite this well-known factor, the province’s industry-driven forestry policies ignore the real value of these forests. Local Indigenous groups have been fighting for the rights of these forest for decades, carrying out numerous protests and blockades. One group, the Rainforest Flying Squad, has been actively advocating for old growth forest protection in British Columbia since 1993. Yet their efforts are consistently silenced.

Most Canadians falsely believe that the logging of these forests has already been banned, considering that a panel of foresters in 2020 deemed the practices unsustainable and provided a list of recommendations. However, the government has yet to implement any of these recommendations into policy. Instead, additional permits for old growth logging were approved, totalling to a 43% increase in 12 months. Without these forests, British Columbia is exceptionally more vulnerable to natural disasters. But it’s not just western Canadian old growth forests that are at risk; even in many European countries the fight for protection carries on.

It’s important to note that although the atmospheric rivers cannot be prevented, environmental policies can help protect us in the future from their devastating effects. This means active and persistent protection of old growth forests that provide protection from landslides and flooding, as well as policies of climate change mitigation. As previously mentioned, atmospheric rivers are considered a necessity and are not innately devastating. But when combined with surges in climate change and mass deforestation, we can only expect their impacts to intensify. As a part of the public, the topic of climate change can feel overwhelming to us and out of our inherent control. It’s important to remember that signing petitions, volunteering, and simply bringing awareness are all meaningful ways to advocate for effective policy change.

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