Gatineau flooding 'tip of the iceberg,' climate scientist warns

As water levels continue to rise in the national capital region, a climate scientist is warning flooding and extreme weather events are here to stay, and says homeowners should prepare.

Region received more than 3 times normal rainfall for April

A Pointe Gatineau man wades through floodwaters carrying a sump pump to his home. (CBC/Jean Delisle)

As water levels continue to rise in the national capital region, a climate scientist is warning flooding and extreme weather events are here to stay, and says homeowners should prepare.

Swollen rivers and streams have threatened hundreds of homes in the Outaouais thanks to recent heavy rainfall — three times the normal amount since April 1.

University of Ottawa climate scientist Paul Beckwith says that's due to a changing climate, and says we're seeing its effects "on a day-to-day basis" in weather patterns.

"What we can see is that the jet streams are behaving differently. They're much slower, wavier, and storms are therefore moving slower. So when they're carrying water, they're hovering over an area longer than they would be normally, so they're depositing more water," Beckwith told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"Normally you think of climate change as being something that's happening over 20 or 30 years. But what we're seeing is the conditions on the planet are changing rapidly. So the arctic is a lot warmer than it used to be, so that's throwing off the heat balance on the whole planet."

A car sits stranded in flood waters on Rue Saint-Louis in Gatineau on Tuesday, May 2. (Radio-Canada)

'Tip of the iceberg'

Beckwith points to an increase in extreme weather events across North America as proof. "We've changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans with our greenhouse gases, so we're seeing the consequences of this now," he added. "It's only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak."

Paul Beckwith is a climate scientist with the University of Ottawa. (CBC)
Voluntary evacuations and road closures have been underway in Gatineau and other west Quebec municipalities this week due to floods. As flood water creeps closer to homes, Beckwith warns this could become more regular occurrance for people who live near rivers or in low-lying areas.

"I think in the very near future, the elevation of a house will be on the MLS [real estate] system," he said. "So when you buy a house, you'll know the local elevation. So houses that are on higher ground will command higher prices. Houses on lower ground — if you flood now, you're going to flood in the future."

Look for flood damage

So if you're a homeowner at risk of flooding, he recommends having a working sump pump to reduce and prevent flood damage. If you're in the market for a home that happens to be close to water, keep an eye out for evidence of past floods.

"Look at the basements very carefully, because you can usually tell if there's any signs of water damage. Also, ask what's on the basement walls. Are they insulated? Do they have some waterproofing on the outside, which they do in newer homes? Look at the elevation of that house relative to the other houses on the street," Beckwith said.

Municipalities, meanwhile, need to upgrade infrastructure to improve drainage. Increasing the diameter of pipes in the sewer system is one such fix, according to Beckwith.

"It's just a matter of time before it happens to just about any city the way climate change is accelerating."

Barricades block off a flooded area in Gatineau after heavy rain fell Monday, May 1. (Radio-Canada)