Canadian Geographic: How climate change fits into Calgary’s record flood

This post first appeared on Canadian Geographic’s Compass blog.

It’s nearly impossible to get a hold of someone in Calgary right now.

Since the historic flood last week, many Calgarians are staying home to clean up their homes and neighbourhoods. When Canadian Geographic reached David Keith, a professor of public policy and engineering at Harvard University, he was dragging a dumpster up the driveway of his Calgary home to start the cleanup following the flood. His own house was damaged, but “a lot of people have got it worse,” he says.

Keith is probably right: of the approximately 75,000 people displaced from their homes, with billions of dollars in damage, many Calgary residents will have worse jobs this week than tearing out drywall. And as the cleanup begins, some are starting to wonder why it only took eight years for the high-water mark set by 2005’s “flood of a century” to be overrun.

As with any extreme weather event, it is not possible to definitively blame climate change for the flood. What is possible, however, is to compare it to previous records — and all the data thus far say that this flood surpasses any event on record, including the flood of 1932. Even with dams all the way up the Bow River built since 1932 — obstructions that should have slowed the flow of water — the peak flow was still stronger than 80 years ago.

That increase in intensity is predicted in climate change models, which have been forecasting more rain, earlier spring melt and increased flood risk in Alberta for a decade. It will only get worse over the next century, according to reports from government agencies,insurance bureaus and non-governmental organizations.

“(Climate change) is pretty solid science, despite what most of my neighbours say,” Keith says.

Keith believes that for many people in oil-rich Calgary, climate change will remain off the table as an explanation.

“I would actually be surprised if it changed people’s opinions,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence that people are profoundly motivated to avoid uncomfortable truths.”

As of Monday morning the Calgary Herald had run just one article and one reader’s letter mentioning climate change out of 84 articles published about the flood.

“The Calgary Herald has always ignored climate change,” says environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, whose article Calgary’s Manhattan Moment about the flood and climate change ran in The Tyee on Monday.

“Because the coverage of climate change has been so poor, people were not expecting it,” Nikiforuk suggests. “I think now people are in the stage of asking, ‘What happened?’”

Monica Zurowski, managing editor at the Calgary Herald, says that the last few days have been too busy to step back and look at the potential causes of the disaster.

“I think it would be premature to comment on that. The last few days have been a city and province in crisis,” she says. “It’s very hard to get a look or handle on why it happened.”

Zurowski admits, however, that over the course of reporting for the newspaper’s three special editions dedicated to the flood, reporters have spoken with experts who have brought up climate change. That reporting will come later as the city returns to normal, Zurowski says.

The cleanup in Calgary, Canmore, High River and many other communities in Alberta is expected to go on for months. As the mud is shoveled out of basements across the province, it remains to be seen what conversations will come next.

Letter to the editor of the Nanaimo Daily News

This letter was written by students (myself included) at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in Vancouver, in response to the publication of a racist letter in a Postmedia outlet, the Nanaimo Daily News.

Dear Sir,

As students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, we are embarrassed for you at what you consider fit for print.

The letter from Don Olsen entitled “Educate First Nations to be modern citizens,” published March 27, is one of the most racist, ignorant things we have read in any context, much less in a well-read newspaper. And it is only the most recent example of Olsen’s racism in your publication.

Olsen can’t even get his facts straight, suggesting that Aboriginal people contributed nothing to modern society. Among contributions by North American Indians are potatoes, corn, and important elements of the U.S. Constitution, namely the concept of personal freedom. He points out, correctly, that they never developed the wheel, which makes it all the more impressive that their trade networks spanned the entire continent.

As young journalists in Canada’s only Reporting in Indigenous Communities class, some of us have been trying to learn to tell their stories in a way that respects their history and culture. Others among us have been learning about the human rights violations that occurred within our country in living memory. One thing we have learned is that the bigoted misconceptions in Olsen’s letters have real consequences for these people and communities.

We find it incredibly disheartening that any newspaper would consider this to be an acceptable way to draw readers. It is incomprehensible to us that you would provide a venue for material that could just as easily be coming from the headmaster of a 19th century residential school.

There is no excuse for the Nanaimo Daily News to have repeatedly given Olsen a soapbox from which to hurl his racism to a wider audience.


Jimmy Thomson

Katelyn Verstraten

Rachel Bergen

Stephanie Kelly

Britney Dennison

Zoe Tennant

Hayley Dunning

Julia Kalinina (former student)

Sachi Wickramasinghe

Carlos Tello

Garrett Hinchey

Matthew Parsons

Blake Murphy

Meghan Mast

Sebastian Salamanca

Tiffany Kwong

Matt Meuse

Reyhana Heatherington

Emma Smith

Kirsty Matthews