BY EDWARD KEENAN
In the wake of yesterday’s storm and the resulting blackouts and floods, an interesting side discussion has started about Environment Canada’s warning system. Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading this Global story on why Toronto was not issued a warning about yesterday’s storm until about 6 p.m., at which point the city was already underwater. The short answer:
“We did see a complex of thunderstorms near the Barrie area and that complex morphed or merged with another one coming from the west over Toronto around 5 o’clock,” said Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada. “The merger with the second complex of thunderstorms coming from the west probably amplified it sufficiently and caught [the forecasters] off guard, just pure and simple.”
Fair enough, if unsatisfying. But the longer story details a bit of the terminology and process Environment Canada uses—for instance, they had issued a “Special Weather Statement” before the storm, advising of the possibility of “local heavy downpours giving 30 to 40 millimetres of rain in less than one hour.” What usually happens, as I understand it, is that Special Weather Statements get upgraded to Watches, which get upgraded to Warnings, depending on Environment Canada’s estimation of the liklihood of an event happening.
This came up again as soon as I finished reading the story and checked Twitter, where a bunch of reporters started repeating a City of Toronto Advisory that said Environment Canada had issued a storm warning for tonight and tomorrow. Which led helpful #weathergeek Laurence Lui to clarify:
Some of us started pointing out that we got no actual warning yesterday, only a special weather statement, and whatnot, so Lui clarified a bit more:
Agreed, Laurence, agreed.
A couple of things here: if Environment Canada’s core job is to inform meteorologists of what’s-a-coming, then it’s fine, I guess, if they have some specialized system of language they use to mean specific things. But their advisories—of various grades—are relayed to us, the general public. And when they are, it would be useful if they used forms of regular English we all understand to let us know where things stand.
For instance, I, up until last night, was blissfully unaware of the implications of 30 to 40 mm of rain in one hour. I recall millimetres from my education as the teensy-tiny unit of measurement, and have a hard time visualizing how that level of rainfall over the course of an hour is likely to disperse (or not). I didn’t even know if it was a lot or a little, in other words. And after this storm, there’s a good chance I may forget the precise amount (126 mm) that fell yesterday.
Likewise, the current, revised, City of Toronto advisory says that Environment Canada is advising of a possible “low pressure trough” over Southwestern Ontario. Okay. That’s unhelpful. Thunderstorms, hail—these things I understand. “Mass flooding” I get. “Winds likely to blow your house down and fell giant trees” makes some sense to me. But I wouldn’t know a “low pressure trough” from a “medial collateral ligament” or a “Static Warp Bubble.”
So first of all, it would be helpful if the expected or possible outcomes of the weather were communicated: winds that make it unsafe for walking, big chance of basement flooding, and so on. And really what we want to know is things like: YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE CAUGHT OUTDOORS or STOCK UP ON CANDLES. I don’t know if it’s fair to ask Environment Canada to try to be so specific and helpful in its warni… uh, advisories, but someone should, and perhaps there should be a universal translator that tells news agencies and inquiring members of the public that “100 mm of rain in an hour” means “batten down the hatches and keep your car away from underpasses.”
Further, for us out here in the general public, a warning is a warning is a warning, even if it’s a watch or a statement. For most of us, a warning is a piece of information we are given about a possible or likely adverse event that allows us to prepare for it. You can call it what you want, but any piece of information that serves this purpose is, for my purposes, a “warning.” By contrast, a “warning” like the one Environment Canada issued yesterday while I was wading through flooded streets is not a warning at all. It’s simply a statement of the current conditions, which is somewhat less useful. If, as Lui suggests, Environment Canada uses “warning” to mean severe weather is underway, then their use is almost always questionable, in my opinion. I think that, by definition, a warning comes in advance of the thing it is warning about.
Whatever the case—for most people’s purposes, all Environment Canada’s information is a warning, in as much as it is information that will help you prepare for the weather of the future. It would be more helpful if they, rather than hoping we’ll all grok their fine distinctions between Watches and Statements, just had some kind of level system. Like “LEVEL ONE WARNING” meaning that there’s a small chance this will happen and “LEVEL 10 WARNING” meaning DUCK AND COVER NOW! Or maybe a series of Code Yellow to Code Red warnings. Or a simple system of percentages. “Environment Canada warns of a 20 per cent chance of high winds and hail this afternoon…” or something.
I don’t know. I just think that Environment Canada ought to adopt a system—or we ought to—that lets people know in a language they’ll be able to understand what’s coming and how bad it’s likely to be, so they can prepare themselves. It should warn us, you could say. Even if they wouldn’t put it that way themselves.
PHOTO: TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR