20 January 2006
Over the years, various governments have proposed programs and technologies designed to weather-proof or climate-proof their countries or vulnerable regions within them. The objectives of such programs could be interpreted in either of two ways:
(1) To insulate human activities from the influence of weather and climate conditions, most likely extremes in precipitation (rain or snow) and in temperature;
(2) To reduce the exposure of a weather- and climate-sensitive activities to climate-related hazards.
The first objective is quite idealistic and can be misleading to the public, because such a goal may be unattainable. To date, no society rich or poor, industrial or agricultural, has been able to fully insulate its people and human activities from climate- and weather-related anomalies. Yet, a phrase such as ìclimate proofingî suggests that there are programs in place that can now, or if not now in the near future, achieve such an objective.
The second objective is much more realistic, in that it suggests that climate-proofing is a process and not just an end state and that, while the objective may be unattainable, effective operational steps towards achieving an increasingly protected society is an attainable goal. This objective is most likely the one that governments have in mind when they propose such “proofing” activities either for society as a whole, or for specific climate-sensitive social and economic sectors, or for known vulnerable regions. Both objectives are designed to minimize, if not eliminate, the chance for surprises and to mitigate, if not prevent, the unwanted consequences of anomalous weather or climate.
The fertile soils of Western Canada became a dustbowl in the Great Depression. Saskatchewan Archives Bd., Regina, R-B15082-3 (1930s).
For example, the history of successful agriculture in the Canadian prairies has been punctuated by drought episodes. The prairie provinces suffered as much as the U.S. Midwest during the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s (so of course they received no attention in U.S. history books). In the 1970s, following the recurrence of severe drought in the Canadian prairies, the government launched a program to ìdrought-proofî the prairies. Drought-proofing measures included changes in land-use practices such as leaving stubble and crop residue in the ground after harvest. This was done to retain snow and to protect the topsoil from being eroded by wind action. Expectations for successfully drought-proofing this region, however, were soon undermined by nature, as droughts and crop losses continued to reappear in the region. Today, Canadians in the region are more specific in their activities by, for example, calling for the drought-proofing of farm water supplies.
Despite the confusion that surrounds the concept of drought-proofing, it is still being proposed by U.N. agencies as well as by various national governments. Two recent examples come to mind, Australia and India. During the 2002 drought in New South Wales, the government pursued a drought-proofing strategy, calling on farmers to review the way that they manage their property (land and water resources) for drought. Drought-proofing in this situation means mitigating the potentially adverse impacts of very dry conditions by devising ways to keep moisture in the soil by resorting to no-till practices and by upgrading irrigation facilities (see, for example, www.abc.net.au/nws/stories/s604472.htm).
The U.N. development program has partnered with Britain, Australia, and development agencies in creating drought-proofing activities in India on an experimental basis (e.g., Orissa and Rajastan). Its plan is to encourage the use of technologies for the purpose of rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging in order to make water supplies in rural areas more reliable and available and they are present, especially when there are conditions of meteorological drought (www.undp.org.in/news/press/press207.htm). But not everyone has bought into the notion of climate-proofing. For example, Indian policy analyst Devinder Sharma has argued that drought-proofing measures should not be imported from other countries but should be home-grown). In September 2002 he suggested the following:
It comes as a rude shock. The American agriculture that we studied in the universities and appreciated has crumbled with one year of severe drought. It is well known that Indian agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on monsoons. But with the kind of industrialisation that took place in the United States, and with the amount of investments made, we were told that US agriculture is not dependent upon rains. Now, though, the drought-proofing that we heard so much about appears to be a big farce.
The U.S. government has also attempted weatherproofing. In late 1999, the U.S. weather research program launched a national computing system for forecasting purposes. But within a matter of days, a forecast of light snow for the Washington D.C. area proved wrong, when a major winter storm developed, depositing 12 inches of snow in the metropolitan area. More recently in March 2001, a storm of major proportions — referred to by some forecasters as a potential “storm of the century “– had been forecast for the lower half of the northeastern U.S. It was forecast to be a “Nor’easter,” the magnitude of which had not been seen since the 1950s.
A Nor’easter (www.theweathernetwork.com)
The forecast prompted people in the region to prepare for several days of having to cope with snow-related disruptions. Stores were emptied of shovels, salts, mechanical snow-removing devices, and the like. Although a major storm did develop, its track unexpectedly shifted more than 100 miles to the north. Most of the snow-related disruptions failed to occur in the D.C. area. Once the storm system had passed by his state, the Governor of New Jersey threatened to sue the National Weather Service for the adverse costly impacts of what he viewed as a grossly “erroneous” forecast.
While labeling a program as climate-proofing or weather-proofing represents the hopes of the climate and weather forecast communities, it is a poor way to capture the attention of the public. First of al,l the notion can be interpreted to mean that such a goal is attainable, with the availability of new forecasting tools and techniques in the new understanding of the workings of the climate system. Second, it raises false hopes which are onlysquashed by the next surprising climate or weather anomaly.
A forecast is just a forecast. It does not come with a guarantee. Instead, it comes with an invisible “buyer beware” label.