Facing the Change: Toronto grapples with the effects of extreme weather

Canada's largest city isn't immune to the effects of climate change, Toronto government research has found. The weather may be getting more and more extreme, as seen with the prediction of rising temperatures and the possibility of extreme storms. Is the city prepared?
Toronto is only marginally more prepared for a major flood than it was in 2013. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The fall season of CBC Radio's Day 6 is underway with Facing the Change, a special series profiling five communities in Canada facing serious threats from climate change right now. The second instalment is Toronto.

Canada's largest city isn't immune to the effects of climate change, Toronto government research has found

In addition to sweltering hot July and August temperatures this year, there are predictions that summer temperatures in Toronto could reach 44 C by 2050, according to Toronto's climate driver study.

  "It's startling," David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Program at the UN's World Meteorological Organization, said of  recent NASA data pointing to a leap in global temperatures. "It's definitely a changed planet. ... It makes us nervous about the long-term impact."

Scientists say global warming is also causing more powerful downpours, droughts and rising sea levels.

Extreme weather has also hit Toronto in the form of massive storms. In July 2013 the city saw 126 millimetres of rain dumped in a matter of hours. The storm flooded subways and saw dozens of cars partially submerged in water and abandoned on major roads like the Don Valley Parkway. It also left tens of thousands of people without power.

The storm flooded many homes, including that of Bev Silva, who didn't know her former North York home was on a flood plain when she bought it more than 30 years ago.

Silva had dealt with repeated flooding for years, but in 2013 the cost of that repeated damage finally caught up with her.

"My daughter was alone in the house," Silva said. "She called me crying; she woke up in bed and the water was almost up to her knees."
Bev Silva sold her house in North York following the 2013 floods, after years of flooding. (Courtesy of Bev Silva)

In the basement, Silva could see a fridge floating in the water.

Because she'd had so much flood damage, Silva lost her insurance even though she says the flooding was caused by damaged city infrastructure.

'Immersed in water'

She says in her neighbourhood, whenever there was a flood, the water would just rise and there was no run-off.

"It was just a huge swimming pool. There was no grass, you couldn't see anybody's lawn, you couldn't even see the driveways or the curbs there was nothing, it was just immersed in water," Silva said.

Blair Feltmate, the director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said Toronto is only marginally more prepared for a similar storm now.

"There are programs to disconnect downspouts, and to provide backwater valves and sump pumps, for which the city deserves merit, he said. But they can only help so much.
Blair Feltmate is the director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. (Submitted by Blair Feltmate)

"By and large the overall impact of a flood of equivalent stature today would be the same," Feltmate said. 

And — no matter what the rest of Canada might say — massive flooding in Toronto would be a problem for the whole country.

"If it shut down the financial district for an extended period of time or shut down the head offices of major corporations, the cascading negative effects of that would be felt across the country," he said.

Feltmate says Silva's story is becoming more common — and that there's a growing housing market that's uninsurable because of sewer backup flooding. 

Power problems

The city says it is working on and implementing plans to be better prepared for extreme weather. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Toronto is also a city of high-rise buildings, not all of which are prepared for extreme weather. 

Roslyn Brown, a property manager of several low-income properties in the city, says power failures are a major concern. Renting a generator costs $10,000 a day, she said, and that just provides the tenant's most basic needs, like a working fridge. 

"You know, if you live in a house and you have no power, you go to your sister; you go to your brother; you go to your neighbour. That doesn't happen at our buildings; these people don't have many contacts outside of where they live," Brown said.

David MacLeod, senior environmental specialist at the City of Toronto, said the city is developing guidelines for back-up power in residential buildings based on natural gas generators, which wouldn't run out of power. 

Feltmate says the city needs these types of plans in place, if for no other reason than to ensure people can get out of their residences safely.

"We can't have a system that is management by disaster," he said.   

With files from Reuters