Cuts jeopardizing quality of Environment Canada's weather service

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Mike De Souza – August 23, 2010

OTTAWA - Sustained cuts to Environment Canada weather-service programs have compromised the government's ability to assess climate change and left it with a "profoundly disturbing" quality of information in its data network, says a newly released internal government report.

The stinging assessment, obtained through an access-to-information request, suggests that Canada's climate network infrastructure is getting progressively worse and no longer meets international guidelines.

"Environment Canada is on the road to junior partner status with respect to other agencies, both provincial and international, in the area of climate data gathering, quality control and archiving," said the report, released to the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental research group.

The analysis - Degradation in Environment Canada's Climate Network, Quality Control and Data Storage Practices: A Call to Repair the Damage - noted the lack of data on climate conditions can affect decisions on major infrastructure such as roads, buildings and sewers as well as a number of "real-life" decisions made by Canadians every day.

"The common assumption among users is that the data has been observed accurately, checked for mistakes and stored properly," said the report, printed in June 2008. "It is profoundly disturbing to discover the true state of our climate data network and the data we offer to ourselves and the real world."

The report said the cuts are part of a trend that began 10 to 15 years earlier when the former Liberal government was trying to eliminate the federal deficit, prompting a shift toward automated stations to replace people in the field. In one case, the report quoted an employee who had observed first hand, as an automated weather station was "fooled" into reporting drizzle on a hot sunny July day in Edmonton with temperatures approaching 30 C.

"Aside from the obvious public credibility issues involved with reporting drizzle out of a sunny sky, the greater problem has to do with the fact that this error and others like it are saved into the long-term climate archive, forcing future generations to deal with them," said the unnamed employee in the report.

The assessment also noted the integrity issues were damaging the internal morale and international credibility of Environment Canada.

Jim Bruce, a climate scientist who previously worked at the World Meteorological Organization, and helped found an intergovernmental panel that assesses the science on global warming, said the budget cuts are preventing the government from making policies based on accurate data and science. For example, measurements of the intensity of rainfall would be essential to track changes in the climate, he explained.

"We aren't sinking the money into climatological networks or even water observations to make the kind of decisions that we need to make for managing greenhouse gases and managing the water of the country," said Bruce. "Without that data, you're flying by the seat of your pants."

But a senior Environment Canada meteorologist said the government was trying to focus its resources in order to meet the needs and make a difference in the lives of Canadians.

"If you're asking whether the weather monitoring program is perfect, no it's not perfect," said Dave Wartman, the director of atmospheric monitoring at the Meteorological Service of Canada. "But we're striving to make improvements and we're on the path to do that."

He said that the weather service was in compliance with international standards and guidelines, including those set out by the WMO, and that it was also addressing concerns raised by the auditor general's office about the quality of severe weather warnings. He added that Environment Canada also regularly inspects weather stations to calibrate and maintain equipment as well as monitor changes in its immediate environment, such as the growth of vegetation or new buildings, which could influence the quality of the data.

Environment Canada was not immediately able to provide figures on the meteorological service's budget over the past few years.

Clare Demerse, an associate director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, said the report reflects a pattern of cuts to climate-change science by the Harper government.

"Any government that truly understands the . . . climate change threat would not allow this situation to continue," she said.

Key findings in report:

  • Automatic precipitation sensors are subject to significant and well-known errors, which have significantly compromised the integrity of Canada's precipitation data;
  • National coverage of certain climate elements, such as hours of bright sunshine, have been effectively terminated;
  • Human quality control of climate data ceased as of April 1, 2008. Automated quality control is essentially non-existent. There is no program in place to prevent erroneous data from entering the national climate archive;
  • Climate data, which could be gathered at minimal additional cost, is not being gathered due to lack of funds;
  • Climate data, which could be gathered with minimal additional effort, is not being gathered due to lack of personnel;
  • Some existing data, which needs to be interpreted and processed before being placed into the national archive, is being ignored due to lack of resources;
  • A significant portion of the volunteer climate network will likely be lost due to a decision on the part of the Meteorological Service of Canada to discontinue processing paper forms and to emphasize electronic input;
  • Clients of Environment Canada (both internal and external) cannot obtain the information they need. This has significant implications for programs carried out by all levels of government, the private sector and the international scientific community; and
  • Lack of resources and delayed quality control of climate data have resulted in updates of Intensity/Duration/Frequency curves that proceed in fits and starts. Systematic and regular updates are desired by the engineering community in order to design public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers) that will be able to cope with severe storms and phenomena associated with changing climate.
  • These issues are widely recognized by staff within the department, and are becoming increasingly obvious to outside partners and clients, damaging morale within and credibility outside the department.

Source: Degradation in Environment Canada's Climate Network, Quality Control and Data Storage Practices: A Call to Repair the Damage. June 2008.

Original article on Canada.com website