Weather extremes and adapting to an increasingly dangerous world

In 2022 there were 129 tornadoes recorded in Canada showcasing a dramatic increa
In 2022 there were 129 tornadoes recorded in Canada showcasing a dramatic increase in extreme windstorm events. (Western Communications)
On a sweltering summer day, kids run across a soccer field as winds swirl and dark clouds form in the distance. Within minutes the downpour begins and panicked families race to take shelter in their cars as tennis ball-sized hail pummels the area, denting cars and shattering windows.

Scenes like these are playing out more and more in heavily populated areas across Canada. 

In Ontario last year, two storms unleashed hailstorms of similar intensity, one occurring just minutes away from the outdoor Boots and Hearts music festival near Orillia, where 40,000 people had gathered.

Together Greg Kopp, engineering professor and research lead of the Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP), and Paul Kovacs, director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) have studied and seen firsthand the increasingly disastrous impacts severe weather is having across the country. 

"Last year we found Canada has been experiencing close to $7 billion in direct damage from floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other extreme events," said Kovacs.

"That is striking because going back 40 years we used to be talking closer to $30 million."

A changing reality 

The connection between climate change and severe weather may seem straightforward: a warming planet means increased severe weather events. However, according to Kopp the connection is more complicated to explain. 

He points to last summer’s record wildfire season as an example of the intricate system at play. 

"What we saw with all the fires and smoke is that it changed the nature of storms," said Kopp.

"They still happened, but they were generally weaker, so you get this complex interplay of one thing affecting the other."

Kopp is the lead researcher with NTP, which was founded in 2017 and aims to better detect tornado occurrence throughout Canada , improve severe and extreme weather understanding and prediction. 

Greg Kopp, professor in engineering, research lead of the Northern Tornadoes Project. (Western Communications) The project also works to mitigate against harm to people and property while investigating the implications of climate change.

Since its founding NTP has uncovered a concerning trend: Canada is experiencing a significantly higher number of tornadoes than previously thought. 

In 2022 the NTP team recorded 312 total events and 129 tornadoes, the most ever recorded in Canada and up significantly from 2017. 

"A pattern we are seeing is more severe windstorms in Ontario and Quebec," said Kopp.

He explained this trend mirrors changes observed in the United States, where there are less tornadoes in the traditional "tornado alley," but the southeast is getting worse.

"What worries me is that these storms we’re studying seem to be heading to more populated areas."

The threat

As director of ICLR, Kovacs focuses on weather events that can cause physical damage. 

He defines an extreme weather event as anything outside of a typical day, posing threats not only to individuals but also to their assets.

 "You can face injury, property damage, or in some cases, total destruction,- Kovacs emphasized.

The interdisciplinary team at ICLR, which also includes Kopp, is dedicated to mitigating the loss of life and property resulting from severe weather and earthquakes. 

According to Kovacs, Canada and the world can anticipate increasing losses due to climate change. 

Paul Kovacs, director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. (ICLR/Western Communications) "The primary risk for the next decade is the impact of extreme weather events,- Kovacs said.

Teams at ICLR and Western are working together to find evidence-based solutions to prepare Canadians for the escalating frequency of extreme weather. 

Kovacs hopes that by identifying and supporting practical solutions, the alarming rate of growing losses can be managed more effectively.

Practical solutions 

What is exciting for Kovacs and Kopp is the availability of solutions that are tangible and easy to adopt.

Kovacs said a backwater valve can stop basement flooding and can be installed in areas where flooding is becoming an increased risk. And hurricane clips and straps can hold homes together during high winds or tornadoes Kopp echoes that many of the solutions to severe weather damage are straightforward.

"The solutions for wind damage to homes are as simple as using bigger screws," said Kopp.

"You can get these six-inch-long screws to hold the roof down. Our work shows if you add these screws now your roof is strong enough for a tornado."

When the NTP team surveys the damage from windstorms they  look to see what was damaged on a building and what was not.

They work in the WindEEE lab at Western to test houses under extreme wind loads to understand what breaks in wood frame houses under severe events like tornadoes.

According to both Kopp and Kovacs, the issue is not identifying the solutions, but rather communicating them and seeing increased adoption.

One way that is being done through ICLR is the Protect Your Home From booklets for snow and ice storms, severe wind, basement flooding, earthquakes, wildfire, hail and extreme heat. 

These booklets, available on the ICLR website , outline actions that homeowners can take to protect their homes from each potential threat. 

In terms of policies and codes the site also contains information packets for municipalities on several topics including their Resilience in Recovery Program, which was designed to support build back better initiatives in Canadian communities following severe losses.

"It’s not just about communicating the risks, but also letting people know that there are ways to mitigate them," said Kovacs.

"I think one of the greatest challenges is people don’t understand their own homes and how they’re put together," said Kopp.

It is for these reasons that through NTP and ICLR the pair have been working with builders to help trickle down the solutions to homeowners. 

This has been done through direct meetings with builders and the development of ICLR programs and materials such as the The Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC Protocol) was developed to assist engineers in factoring climate change impacts into plans for design, operation and maintenance of public infrastructure.

"We have the opportunity to work with builders who are trying to construct in the right place with the right things. The huge increase in losses directly affecting so many people is leading builders to act," said Kovacs.

Looking to the future

As our understanding about how climate change impacts severe weather evolves, Kopp’s research is more important than ever. 

"We’re still working to actively capture data on what’s happening on the ground, because there are changing patterns and we need to understand what’s happening," said Kopp. 

It’s why his team of researchers are attempting to identify every tornado, downburst, windstorm, and hailstorm in the country. 

"These are large tasks when you say them, but that’s what we’re trying to do so that information can be used to get to a consensus on what’s to be done," said Kopp.

And above all’he’s optimistic about the future. 

"I would like to think the challenge of climate change will brings us together rather than tear us apart. Canada is a strong country and I think we can do these things together," said Kopp.

Kovacs is equally hopeful about the work that is underway to help Canadians mitigate the impacts of climate change and severe weather.

Just last week it was announced that ICLR is opening a hub in Winnipeg , the first outside of Ontario to help continue the work to help Canadians protect their homes.

"The world is watching and learning from our work here at Western. We are making a difference, and that’s really exciting."

Our Warming Planet , a series featuring Western researchers and scholars addressing the great challenge of our time.