Calgary Summer Snow

By no means do Canadians corner the weather market – we do spend a considerable amount of time talking about it. Who could blame us – the photo below was taken yesterday in Calgary, Alberta. Barely 24 hours earlier, the mercury hovered around 25 Celsius ( 77 degrees Fahrenheit, Americans). Calgary’s temperature plunged courtesy a healthy Arctic outflow wind and voila – 10 centimeters (4 inches) of snow. A snowfall warning for today predicts a possible 10-20 centimeters additional white stuff.

 Late summer snow on the Prairies isn’t unusual or particularly remarkable, Canadians understand summer can end without warning. Environment Canada issued the following weather alert….
 I like late summer snow – it reminds me why Canadians make the most of what little summer we’re given.

Bitumen Greed

When I think of oil  I picture John Wayne capping a well in classic 60s style, or lazy pumps rocking up and down across the landscape. Oil pools beneath the ground; oilmen drill and pump it to the surface, move it to refineries by pipeline, then distribute it via freight systems to its final destination. There are mishaps like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska or the bungled well in the Gulf of Mexico; the latter received 24 hour news coverage for weeks – an epic ecological disaster. Fouled beaches impacted tourism, shellfish beds destroyed, fragile marshland and glades gasping beneath globs of crude oil. Count down clocks clicked until another attempt was made to contain the devastation. Debates raged over blame and compensation, newsmen interviewed every forlorn shrimp man and business owner along the Gulf Coast. For weeks on end – analysis, impact reports, and human interest stories; and without fail, an ever present split screen showing crude oil spewing from the underground well.

Oil spills come and go, they blaze across media outlets for a few weeks, then forgotten until the next one reminds us to be more careful. Out of sight, out of mind.  The oil most people think of is pumped from reserves deep in the earth; vast pools of crude, waiting in underground lakes. Until an accident impacts the environment –  no visible damage on the horizon.

Bitumen is another story. This tar like, semi solid substance is found in sandy or clay like earth known as tar sands. The 141,000 square Km Athabasca Tar Sands in northern Alberta gives Canada the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi oil, this is Bitumen – in the earth, not beneath it.

In 1967, Sun Oil Company was the first to commercially extract crude from the sands using water and surfactants to separate the oil, initial production was around 30,00 barrels a day. Now 64 oil companies, most of them foreign, produce upwards of a million barrels a day.  Production is expected to increase at the same rate, the government has no intention of conducting business any other way. Alberta has one of the lowest royalties in the world for its oil, in 1994 the federal government gave tax breaks of 100% for capital investment; to be “written off” as “accelerated capital cost allowances”. Canada has rolled out the red carpet to foreign investment with just one stipulation – once the land has been strip mined, it should be restored to “equivalent land capability”, although land use does not have to be identical.

The tar sands area around Fort McMurray is, or was Boreal forest and muskeg. The Athabasca River runs through the sands and provides the massive amount of water needed to process Bitumen. The water is heated using ridiculous amounts of natural gas; so much so that Alberta may have to reduce natural gas shipments to America to keep up with the tar sands. Huge tailing pools contain by-products of the refining process. Mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxic waste products seep into the ground, and spill back into the Athabasca River with nothing more than an “oops – sorry” from the oil companies. Hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres, as far as the eye can see, wiped off the face of the earth.

Ponder those weeks spent watching images of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, then look long and hard at the pictures. Granted the gulf supports many more people, shrimp are much more popular than Northern Pike, and the livelihood of northern Canada’s mostly indigenous population doesn’t hold a candle to the plight of oyster men in Louisiana.

Call Me Crazy

Call me crazy, I won’t care. A week or so from now I’ll find myself in Battleford, Saskatchewan, and I couldn’t be happier. I grew up in the country; my rural childhood had seasons, wildlife, and something I perceived as isolation. Aside from the occasional rocking thunderstorm, and the time lightning struck and demolished the tree next to our house – it lacked extremes.

Canada is a very large country, a place with vastly different weather patterns. My farm childhood pales in comparison to that of the prairies. I grew up with lakes and mountains. I lived in a valley, surrounded by fruit trees and sagebrush. Sure it snowed, but never enough to halt our daily march to the school bus, or heaven forbid – issue a “snow day” at school.

In my early twenties I spent a winter working at a hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta. This is the place responsible for my fascination with weather extremes.  I barely had time to wrap my head around the sun peering just above the edge of the horizon for a few hours each day, when terms like ice fog and snow rollers entered my vocabulary. Ice fog was my first lesson in the wonder of very, very cold weather.  I  knew about block heaters for car engines, you plugged your car in at night to keep the engine fluids from freezing. I didn’t know that despite this, at -40 or -45 degrees Celsius a coin still had to be flipped each morning to see who had to go out and get the thing started. I had no idea my car tires would become flat where they sat on the ground, and that everyone thunked along the road until their tires warmed up. I had no frame of reference to ponder temperatures so cold , water vapour in fog would form ice crystals that hung in the air. Barely able to catch my breath; snow rollers assaulted the house. Far from scientific my explanation of this phenomenon is summed up as high wind blowing across the prairie picking up snow, this snow forms balls, pushed by the wind and growing as they roll along,  they smash into the side of your house with a rather astounding thwack.

Officially hooked on weather, I sought it out rather than waiting for it to come along. While extremely cold weather seemed to offer the most excitement, I wasn’t picky. Any weather rush would do.

Hail storms fueled my hunger. Driving through “tornado alley” in the states gave me goose bumps. One night as we drove across South Dakota a tornado was visible between the lightning flashes. I see my first flash flood as if it were yesterday. We were at the Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border when massive thunder clouds started to build on the horizon, within minutes the wind was blowing sand  with such force it stung. All around me people scrambled for cover as hail and rain fell with force beyond imagination. I didn’t move, I couldn’t take my eyes off a red rock cliff; transformed into a muddy waterfall. Out of nowhere an old Navajo man appeared, he talked to me, explaining why mother earth had sent this storm. Never before or since have I felt as “spiritual” as I did that moment.

Last summer in Cuba, tropical storm Emily passed over Havana. Sitting at the edge of our hotel’s roof top pool, I felt the storm before I saw it. Oblivious to the pounding rain, wind, or frantic appeals by hotel staff to clear the roof; I smiled as funnel clouds formed, dropping down and retreating, teasing me with their elegance and power. The hotel staff literally pulled me from the roof as lightning lashed with a fury that surprised and rejuvenated me. Deposited in my room just in time to witness a lightning bolt strike the building next to us. Every hair on my body stood on end, the building rocked as deafening echoes bounced off the battered city. It was incredible, one of my best days.

So now I’m off to Battleford. A tiny blip, planted squarely in the centre of the Canadian prairie. A place where freezing rain, blizzards, and wind chills are a fact of life. I’m going to visit a place where weather changes in the blink of an eye, and best of all; a place where the endless sky, unobstructed by mountains or city lights will give me a front row seat to auroras. The northern lights show will hopefully be the icing on an extreme weather shot in the arm.

Snow Rollers –

Delicate Balance

What better way to start the new year than with a ponder. Something to think about, talk about, learn more about.

Scientists from Harvard and GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research,  have announced that melting ice due to global warming,  effects volcanic activity. Water is heavy; as it flows to and collects in our oceans, extraordinary pressure is put on the tectonic plates. In a nutshell – continents get lighter, oceans heavier.  By looking at core samples up to a million years old, evidence of volcanic ash were present in times of warmer climates. The conclusion being; extra pressure forced more magma towards the surface.

Climate change is not the hot topic it was a few years ago. Al Gore has faded from the talk show and speaker for hire circuit. In 2011 Stephen Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol; an international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions. Certainly a move that sent a jubilant cry throughout the “oil sands” in his home province of Alberta. Big business has settled nicely into the practice of trading carbon credits. Global warming came as a boom for the plastics industry; it created “environmental awareness” demanding millions of recycling bins. Ironic that plastic production is one of the worst offenders, not to mention the millions of barrels of oil required.

Life is a delicate balance; every action has a reaction. Life could not exist without a precise natural order. Cycles of climate change are part of that order. Are greenhouse gasses speeding up the process? Who can say for sure.

I look at it much like the “dust bowl’ in the 1930’s. Credited as the worst man made disaster in North America. A natural ten year cycle of drought occurred; the problem was, poor farming practices had stripped the great plains of grass. With natural grass gone, along with the 5 foot root system that kept soil in place – the plains simply blew away.

Global warming is a natural occurrence, charging full speed towards modern greed and indifference. Glaciers and the ice shelf are melting faster than they can be replenished. Ocean levels will rise, weather will become increasingly severe, and it seems volcanic activity will increase. Taking the lesson of dust bowl farmers; we can’t stop natural cycles, but can take steps to soften their impact.

Jacobshavn Glacier retreat lines

Jacobshavn Glacier retreat: The rapidly retreating Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland drains the central ice sheet. This image shows the glacier in 2001, flowing from upper right to lower left. Terminus locations before 2001 were determined by surveys and more recent contours were derived from Landsat data. The recent stages of retreat have widened the ice front, placing more of the glacier in contact with the ocean. Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, Cindy Starr, based on data from Ole Bennike and Anker Weidick (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland) and Landsat data.