Ottawa's wild weather 'the tip of the iceberg,' some experts say

Ottawa-Gatineau has experienced seven tornadoes and two floods in two years. Does that mean we're in for more?

Others believe tornadoes, flooding more difficult to predict

A view of the tornado from Highway 17 near the east-Ottawa neighbourhood of Cumberland on June 2, 2019. (Jason Desmatais)

In 2017, Ottawa was hit with devastating floods. The next year, six tornadoes touched down in the region, ripping homes apart.

This year, a double whammy: more flooding last month, and on Sunday evening, another tornado.

The weather in the capital is beginning to feel downright biblical.

And while experts aren't forecasting swarms of locusts just yet, several warn Ottawa should be prepared to deal with more of nature's wrath as the climate continues to warm.

"This is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak," said Paul Beckwith, a climate systems specialist and professor at the University of Ottawa.

"You know that it's going to get a lot worse."

Alexandre Parent, meteorologist with Environment Canada, says the tornado touched down in Orléans before crossing the Ottawa River. 0:48

Rapid change

Environment Canada confirmed a tornado touched down Sunday evening in Orléans, and while the damage wasn't nearly as widespread as last September, the twister did damage homes and trees.

"Hopefully this is going to be the last one for a long, long time, because we had one last year," said resident Daniel Major after surveying fallen trees in his neighbourhood.

But tornado alley-type conditions are appearing farther north and east than they typically have, Beckwith said — another sure symptom of the changing climate.

"We're in the process of rapidly changing, and there's really no new normal," he said.

Debris litters an Orléans yard on June 3, 2019, the day after a tornado struck the east Ottawa suburb. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Environment Canada cautions against jumping to conclusions, however, and said all those tornadoes may just come down to bad luck.

"There's really no way of knowing," said Peter Kimbell, the weather agency's warning preparedness meteorologist.

Kimbell, who lives in Ottawa's east end, saw Sunday's tornado with his own eyes.

Despite what happened here last September, 2018 was a relatively quiet year for tornadoes in Ontario, he said, making the likelihood of another tornado touching down even lower.

"It happens, but it's ... pretty uncommon, and it's pretty unlikely," he said.

Few records to rely on

In Ottawa, several government agencies and local utilities have sought studies on the risk to their infrastructure.

One of the experts they consulted is Simon Eng with Risk Sciences International, who found Ottawa is hit with a major storm roughly every 14 years.

But while Ottawa has a history of serious tornadoes, it's difficult to project what's coming because proper tornado tracking only started roughly 30 years ago, Eng said.

"So it's very difficult to say what those changes have been if we haven't had a very good record going further back into the 1970s."

The former head of the Canadian Weather Service, climatologist Gordon McBean, doesn't deny Ottawa's had crummy luck lately.

But he said natural disasters such as tornadoes and flooding will occur more frequently now, so cities like Ottawa have to be ready.

"The reality is that we have to first of all increase our systems for warning and inform our Canadians, so that when they hear a tornado alert warning they don't run to the window to see what it looks like," he said.


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