Micro Environmental History – Weather and Missing Mountain Tops

Weather related travel seem to be dominating the news this holiday season. Before snow paralyzed air travel in Europe and Britain, it trapped people in their cars in southern Ontario while rains and storm surges were flooding rural New Brunswick. The situation has hardly improved for the Maritimes as snow and rain continue to pound the region, causing more flooding and canceling flights throughout the northeastern United States. It is the big weather systems effecting a large number of people or causing extreme environmental disruption that make national and international headlines. Increasingly these systems are held up in the media as evidence of climate change and the negative side effects of human activities on the planet. Big weather events, like the snowstorm that hit Europe and the flooding in the Maritimes, are excellent posts to pin environmentalist messages to – even when the evidence connecting a particular meteorological phenomenon to human activities is spars. These big meteorological events and freak occurrences are often the subject of historical analysis. When general weather patterns are analyzed from a longue durée perspective and often connected to contemporary debates surrounding climate change. This approach could be supplemented by a micro-history of weather and meteorological change – looking at the small environmental changes in an area that are the result of, or result in, a change in weather patterns and the affects of it on the environment.
A micro understanding of meteorological change struck me today while driving into Calgary from the Rocky Mountains and listening to CBC Radio One issue weather warnings and travel advisories for the highway I was on every thirty minutes. The advisory was for heavy snowfall across southern Alberta – 10 to 30 cm – coupled with the RCMP were urging people to avoid unessential travel on the Trans-Canada highway between Calgary and the British Columbia border or find alternate routes. An entertaining suggestion since there is only one route west out of Calgary, unless you have an extra 4 hours to spare in taking the Jasper-Yellowhead route to BC, there is no alternative route from Calgary.
One of the worst sections has always been Lac Des Arc through the Rock Cut until the turn off for Highway 40. For residents of Canmore who work in Calgary, this is the most challenging part of the commute and can determine if they make it to work when the weather is bad. After the long banked curve around Lac Des Arc, there are two hills leading up to the Rock Cut. A few years ago people traveling to Calgary on a regular basis noticed the conditions on this portion of the highway is notorious for black ice, wind and accidents. The change in road conditions has nothing to do with climate change or global warming or worsening winter weather and everything to do with the Lafarge limestone quarry by Exshaw. The past two years has seen the top of the mountain outcrop mined for the limestone to make cement has disappeared. The wind is no longer blocked by the hill and hits the Trans-Canada with full force, creating black ice where none used to form.
It took over a century for the mining limestone to change the landscape to the degree that it altered the path of the wind causing a new winter travel hazard on the Trans-Canada. But it presents an interesting question: If the absence of part of a mountain can change wind paths to create black ice on a perviously unaffected part of the Trans-Canada, what other seemingly small environmental changes are the result of resource extraction? What has the practice of mountain top removal mining in the Adirondacks and in the Crowsnest Pass and interior British Columbia done to local weather patterns? And how have these local changes shaped existing systems? Weather dictates our lives on such a basic level and so persistently that we often overlook it. Asking questions about the regular meteorological events of a region can potentially tell us more about environmental change than only looking at the big, abnormal systems that close airports and induce unseasonal flooding.

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
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