Two strong winds that changed our world

Russell Wangersky
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Confederation Building under wraps. July 16. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

First, the photograph. I don’t often have a photograph with my column, but they say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and usually my column only runs about 750. So here’s 1,000 words of photographic information inset in this column, showing that the provincial Tories have decided to go with an artistic rendering of the muzzling effects of Bill 29 — their “improvements” to access to information legislation in this province that have had the effect of dramatically restricting that access. Either that, or they’ve simply decided to practise safe government. I’m betting on the first.

• • •

Away from Confederation Building, and off along the North Harbour Road towards Branch, it’s fascinating to see the changes on the landscape meted out by the tail ends of a hurricanes and a post tropical storm — Igor and Leslie — over the past few years.

One of the first things to catch your eye is that the fallen trees deep in the country now let you see the coastline from many parts of the road.

 It used to be that only the map would tell you how long the hike was down a river to the sea.

Now, the distance — at least the line of sight — is clear, and in its own way, it changes the experience.

But that’s just the beginning.

When you get in on rivers like the Little Barachois, it’s easy to see that the changes were dramatic and almost instantaneous — it is 50, 100 years’ worth of damage, done, at most, in a couple of days.

The huge flow of water not only swept into the trees on both sides of the river, but ripped away whole stands of trees, stripping the ground right down to bare soil. The trees, roots and all, are now tossed together in huge jumbled log jams further down the river course, almost always at the spots where the river makes a sharp right- or lefthand turn — and there, the piles of broken and shattered trees can be house-high. A place no one would have wanted to be when it was happening.

The noise and the force must have been astounding.

On the O’Keefe River, the change in topography is equally stunning — except it’s a flatter river, and on it, whole islands that used to split the river in two were simply undercut and swept away, leaving the river moving in almost a straight line in places where it used to curve.

We all know about the damage to man-made structures this pair of storms wrought — seeing the damage on these rivers, with raft-marks on trees as high as 20 feet up their trunks, lets you know what a 100-year storm really means, even out away from culverts and hydro lines and flooded homes.

Looking around, it’s easy to see how out of the ordinary this damage looks. There are fundamental changes in hydrology and vegetation, signs of truly remarkable wind and water. Rivers that curved are now straighter — and shallower. Pools have been filled and rocky obstructions just brushed aside.

Well downstream and a good mile from any cabin, you find river lands strewn with sheets of vinyl siding.

Forget whether or not we’re ready for a new and stronger round of hurricanes. Human infrastructure took its own significant amount of damage — out in the country, the damage to trees and rivers is remarkable.

And that’s only from storms that barely registered as category one hurricanes. Imagine what the circumstance would be with something stronger.

I think one of the reasons the damage is so significant is because Newfoundland forests, at least on the east coast, are used to strong winds: primarily evergreens, they almost work together to hedge out wind damage (despite their relative inability to root deeply in the shallow soil) because they move together and dissipate the wind’s force: what’s interesting about the hurricane damage is that it broke into the hedging all along its track, and, with the province’s regular and relative strong winds, that damage spreads year by year.

There are places where the footprint from the two hurricanes is getting bigger and bigger, as exposed trees along the edge of windfalls find themselves unable to withstand the force of less cataclysmic storms.

And here’s a thought as we cruise through a relatively dry July: two years in, a lot of the fallen wood is drying.

The fire load in many places is also remarkable — especially for a time like now, when the fire index is also high.

There will be masters’ theses and more, I’m sure, as a result of Igor and Leslie and whatever storms come next. But they have carved away 30 years of familiar ground, in the equivalent of geology’s heartbeat. Remarkable.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor.


Geographic location: North Harbour Road, Little Barachois, O’Keefe River Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Tony Rockel
    July 22, 2013 - 20:46

    Wild Rose is a hoax (we can only hope). But I suppose there people out there who really are that dumb.

  • Daniel Corbett
    July 21, 2013 - 01:51

    Wow Russell! The Confederation Building sure has changed since I saw it last. You mentioned an artistic rendering of the muzzling effect of Bill 29 but apart from symbolism, have you considered the possibility of some sort of weird psychosomatic disorder? The physical manifestation appears in the face of the building while the emotional issues reside in the hearts and minds of the luminaries within. There is an aversion to any form of light or transparency. Literally and figuratively they are deflecting the light of day and rejecting any form of disclosure even southern exposure. Only God knows what they get up to inside those walls!

  • Winston Adams
    July 20, 2013 - 10:44

    And what is also remarkable, to me, is that knowledgeable people know that our species are causing an escalation of this type of destruction by global warming, from fossil fuel burning. But most people can afford, and want to, and do travel more than ever, and so helps to worsen the problem. While watching the flooding in Calgary, they plan their airplane trip to Myrtle Beach. It is like it is always someone else that should show restraint, let me live for the moment, and hope it doesn't strike in our back yard. Some years ago there was concern about our individual carbon footprint. The footprint gets bigger, as the concern gets smaller. There is still the joy of more oil discovery, personal trucks instead of smaller cars, and lots of CO2 which ends up in the atmosphere. We have no movement here for better conservation and efficiency. We close our eyes to the plight of some small island nations that are being swallowed by the rising sea, or our north, where homes are sinking in the melting permafrost. The damage you describe here is from relatively low level storms. How long will our luck last before we get our one in a 500 year storm. These seems to come every 50 years now . What goes around , comes around. But we disassociate our thoughts from cause and effect. Just notice how few will comment on line on your piece. Someone usually says " global warming is a left wing conspiracy". And that comment to many will counteract everything you say, because it gives them comfort to disregard their carbon footprint. Every month or so you write on this subject, but it gets little attention. In Calgary they disregarded a study in 2005 for measures that would have cost 300 million, and now see 5 billion or more in damage. Alberta, being oil country, I guess they will blame China for spewing too much CO2. As we too are now oil country, we can blame Alberta, and China, but it's not us, right?

    • Wild Rose
      July 21, 2013 - 05:51

      Global warming is a hoax.