During Monday night’s extreme weather event in Toronto, I scanned the Internet for images of flooded subway stations and submerged trains, amazed at how suddenly this inundation of water ground the city to a halt.
Now that the water has mostly drained and city operations are returning to normal, I am reflecting on how Toronto and other jurisdictions handle this type of event. In the past month, we have seen major flooding in some of the country’s largest cities. Both Toronto and Calgary faced record levels of rainfall and extensive property damage. So-called 100-year storms and other extreme weather events are becoming more typical.
In the wake of these events, we need to consider how our communities must adapt to climate change effects such as more frequent and severe storm events, drought and temperature fluctuations. What we need is resilience. Protected and well-managed natural areas and green infrastructure (green roofs, permeable pavement, parks, rain gardens, etc.) boost a city’s resilience in many ways.
Our forests, rivers and wetlands make up a natural system which surrounds and runs through Toronto. This system provides free ecosystem services including flood control, water filtration, climate regulation and overall quality of life improvements. A Ministry of Natural Resources study has modestly estimated the monetary value of ecosystem services in southern Ontario at over $84 billion per year. These services and their value are too often neglected when changes to land cover are considered.
Unfortunately, southern Ontario has experienced a staggering loss of natural cover. Particularly relevant is the loss of wetlands. Ducks Unlimited study estimates that over 72 percent of wetlands have been lost in southern Ontario, with highly-developed areas like Toronto experiencing reductions of 90 percent. Wetlands retain water after major rain events, reducing river flows and minimizing flooding downstream. Their loss places an enormous strain on our built infrastructure (sewers, retaining ponds, levees, etc.) as they try to replicate the services we once received for free.
Recent flood events reinforce the importance of protecting natural areas and investing in green infrastructure in and around urban areas. Ontario Nature’s Greenway Initiative is working towards interconnected cores and corridors of natural habitat in southern Ontario through land securement, stewardship and policy reform. Such a system would contribute greatly to the climate change-resilience of Toronto and nearby towns and cities.