You can walk a long way out into Lake Manitoba and still only be up to your waist in water. It’s a curious feeling: the lake stretches away as far as you can see, to the very edge of the horizon, and on a still day, it’s a great broad flat mirror of water. You can hear the voices of other people from hundreds of yards away, hear them as clearly as if they were right next to you.
There are pelicans — yes, pelicans — making crooked-neck, heavy-winged traverse low in the sky and, for someone used to colder, clearer water, swimming there is like suddenly finding yourself in a massive warm fish tank, complete with fish tank weed and missing only a massive goldfish or two (although there are brown-topped, white-underbellied carp around that almost fit the bill).
The bottom of the lake is fine sand cut into rills by the wave action, and looking back towards shore, you can see a long row of cabins, single file, right along the shoreline.
Well, you can see most of the cabins. Some of them are obscured by huge berms of clay and sandbags that stand so high you can only see the rooflines of the buildings, berms that are the remnants of an effort to stop the cabins from being destroyed by flooding two years ago.
The flooding did tremendous damage anyway — nature seems to care little for efforts to stand in its way, despite our efforts to tinker. Right now, apparently, Lake Manitoba is still about two feet higher than its normal depth, the result of diverting river water into the lake to help flood control in other parts of Manitoba. When the proper sort of opening is made at the downstream end of the lake, a lake that’s almost shallow enough to sit in will stretch out just knee-deep for a similarly great distance. Knee-deep water hardly seems menacing.
Looking at that huge lake and the leftovers of the flooding — there are still empty sandbags on the beach, in the water, poking out of the shore — you realize with a start that a whole heck of a lot of people in this country have weather-related destruction stories in their not-too-distant past.
In Calgary, it was only yesterday; the recent flooding in that province, according to scientists, has permanently changed everything from
river channels to mountain habitats. Not only that — others suggest that the type of weather pattern that caused the flooding may become the new normal for the eastern side of the Rockies, meaning large rainfalls could become far more common for a part of the country that has tended to be rain-starved — weather systems losing much of their moisture as they make their way up and over the mountains. Instead, moist new air masses may be sweeping northward, bringing Portland-type conditions to what was a much-drier west.
Of course, it’s early days yet; one series of storms does not make a permanent change. But there are clearly changes: this week’s heatwave in the West — 15 heat records broken on Canada Day in B.C. alone, and the American west is also breaking records, like Las Vegas’ 115 F record.
Nighttime temperatures are not falling either, and in the eastern U.S., from New Hampshire to Georgia, there were flood warnings, all the result of a unusual bend in the jet stream that scientists suggest is typical of what climate change models had predicted.
And we’re seeing changes here, too; hurricane Igor and tropical storm Leslie were both more substantial than the storms we’ve gotten out of hurricane seasons past; the proof of that is in the pipes. Culvert and bridge systems — as well as electrical systems — designed to handle theoretical “hundred-year” storm conditions were overwhelmed. Many have now been replaced with more robust systems — larger-bore culverts, for example, that consider a much larger volume of rainfall as the new hundred-year normal.
Those numbers might change again: that hundred-year storm seems like a fluid thing now, as even insurance companies caution that flooding in Canadian homes is certain to increase in coming years — and that insurance at current rates is unlikely to be able to address the damages that are to come.
We are, as the old Chinese curse goes, living in interesting times.
Standing in Lake Manitoba and looking towards the shore, waist-deep in what seems like the most massive, most placid puddle anywhere, and staring at the remnants of the sandbags of recent disaster —the wall of clay and sand that the lake just rushed right up and over — it’s easy to imagine that anything’s possible.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.