Nature strikes randomly and inevitably; planning and preparation can ease the pain


Canada borders on three oceans, stretched across six time zones, encompasses mountains plains forests and tundra. It hosts weather patters that range from arctic to moderate, from seemingly endless rains to drought, from numbing cold to heat waves.


With all those landforms and weather types, the possibility of extremes – things that go bump in the night, loom up in the fog, howl down from the sky – is ever present. And with them comes human catastrophe. For all the talk of terra firma, our Earth is an unsettle place. Major seismic events have occurred in the past in Canada on the west coast, in the High Arctic and St. Lawrence Valley and on the Grand Banks. Landslides might be expected in mountainous terrain. And indeed, mountainside snow and rock slides have taken their toll. So, less expectedly, have flatland slides, were unstable clays have given way at the cost of homes and human lives.


The sea, sometimes so serene, can rage ferociously. It is not surprising that bad weather is at the heart of 80 percent of ocean catastrophes. Winds, waves, ice and fob are formidable foes for ships and their crews. Storms on land can be no less fierce: witness the disasters that wind, rain and hail have wrought on farms and urban areas. Floods alone have ruined the lives and livelihoods of countless Canadians.


Natural disasters have often been considered inevitable. History and mythology are filled with tales of such catastrophes. The fatalistic “they are inevitable” response to the fears in an ancient one, but today we know that by taking reasoned actions, we can often prevent disasters or mitigate their impact.


Over the past 10 years, the insurance industry in Canada has paid more than $1 billion to 400,000 owners of homes, business and vehicles to repair damage and compensate for losses caused by major natural hazards. On average, insurers pay more than $100 million each year to settle the claims arising from events like thunderstorms, hailstorms, wind and floods. While these costs are significant, they pale in comparison to the potential losses in the event of a severe earthquake in a major urban centre. A recent study estimated that the losses from a major earthquake in the Vancouver area could range from $14 billion to $32 billion.


Foreign aid for disaster relief, rather than development, has tripled in recent years. The cost of reconstruction can be crippling. Development plans that take into account the threat of natural hazards can save lives and property.


If natural disaster does strike, quick and planned response can help. At the federal level, Emergency Preparedness Canada, in cooperation with provincial governments, develops policies and programs to prepare for emergencies. It monitors potential or actual civil emergencies. It monitors potential or actual civil emergencies, and coordinate or supports emergency plans. All levels of government in Canada – municipal, provincial and federal – have departments whose job is to respond to emergencies. Canada has also taken part in the UN’s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, established in 1989 to decrease the cost of lives and property. For as the world’s population climbs and settled areas become larger, the “targets” for typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes grow.



Ocean dangers lurk offshore because many of our coastal waters experience icebergs, as well as sea ice, which can threaten offshore structures, fishing and navigation. It was an iceberg that sliced open the hull of the Titanic in April 1912 with the loss of 1,500 lives


Tornadoes are unmistakable rotating columns of high velocity wind that bring devastation to anything in their path. They move quickly and unpredictably, sometimes causing a wide swath of destruction, at other times “skipping”, touching down, and in either case uprooting trees, flipping cars and demolishing houses. Canada probably gets more tornadoes than any other country except the United States. Southwestern Ontario and parts of the Prairies are most often struck.


Tsunamis are terrifying sea waves produced by underwater events like earthquakes, mudslides or volcanic eruptions. They often start out small in the open sea, but may pile up to heights of 30 metres or more in shallow water. The damage can be extensive.


Landslides and snow avalanches have resulted in more than 600 deaths in Canada since 1840, and have caused billions of dollars in damage. These mass movements of soil, rock or snow occur in all parts of the country, in mountains and flatlands, and usually without warning. Hazards include the impact of rapidly moving debris, the collapse of ground beneath a structure and secondary effects such as river damming and landslide-generated waves.


Earthquakes are perhaps the most dangerous of all natural hazards. They have resulted in the loss of more than a million lives worldwide during the 20th century. Though they are not widely recognized as a major hazard in Canada, more than 50 earthquakes strong enough to be felt by ordinary people occur here each year. An additional 1,400 small earthquakes are recorded each year by instruments of the Geological Survey of Canada.


Hail forms in the cores of thunderstorms. Water vapor in warm, rapidly rising air masses (called convection currents) condenses to water at higher, cooler altitudes, producing heavy showers. Or if it is cold enough, the product is ice. Nuclei of ice form around minute particles such as dust whipped up from the ground, and increase in size as more water freezes to their surfaces. When the ice pellets are too heavy for the ascending air currents, they fall as hail. They may pick up more water on the way down, becoming larger, heavier and more threatening.


Floods are the number-one natural disaster in Canada in terms of property damage, they can occur in any region, in the countryside or in cities, at virtually any time of the year. They have affected hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Most flooding occurs when the flow of water in a river or stream exceeds its channel. Floods also occur along the shoreline of lakes and oceans when water rises after high runoff, storm surge or the hammering of waves.


Volcanoes seem almost non-Canadian. Although there are many dormant volcanoes in western Canada, particularly in northwestern British Columbia, there only has been one documented historic volcanic eruption in Canada. The entire western Cordillera (B.C.-Yukon) remains geologically active, and geological time ignores human clocks. So the possibility of an eruption, even a large, explosive one, cannot be rules out. Quiet as they are, our west coast volcanoes are part of the “Pacific ring of fire”.

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