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St. F.X. research centre's supercomputer uses global data to predict local effects of climate crisis

A barrier can be seen to the right of an ice-filled Brierly Brook, during a wet afternoon in Antigonish this past January. The rainy daytime weather was forecasted to be followed by cold temperatures, so the Town of Antigonish was restricting parking close to the brook.
A barrier can be seen to the right of an ice-filled Brierly Brook, during a wet afternoon in Antigonish this past January. In early February, the brook overwhelmed its banks and swamped the cars parked behind downtown businesses, then the water quickly froze, encasing dozens of vehicles in ice up their windshields.- Richard MacKenzie / File

A heavy rainstorm is unusual in February in Antigonish.

But on February 2, 2018, it was followed by flash freeze.

So when Brierly Brook overwhelmed its banks and swamped the cars parked behind downtown businesses, the water quickly froze, encasing dozens of vehicles in ice up their windshields.

It was an extreme weather event.

With climate change knocking on our door, governments, insurance companies, town planners, homeowners and wide swath of other interest groups are all grappling with planning for extremes.

Because while by definition out of the ordinary, they are also increasingly inevitable.

That’s where Hugo Beltrami, his 1,024 computer processors wired together into one super computer, and his grad students come in.

The Climate Services and Research Centre at St. Francis Xavier University unveiled this week is offering to take those large-scale Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models and refine them for local topography, vegetation and water bodies.

What comes out the other end of the super computer are localized predictions for the effects of the climate crisis.

And it matters.

“California is burning because of it,” said Beltrami, Canada Research Chair in Climate Dynamics and a St. F.X. earth sciences professor heading the research centre.

“The heat is evaporating the water in the ground. If the soil is completely dry then the heat from the sun increases the temperature of the ground and dries vegetation up to the point anything will ignite it.”

We have wildfires here, too.

We will also get more flooding with climate change.

So his centre is already teamed up with the municipal governments of the town and county of Antigonish to predict flood lines – how high flood waters will reach and at what likelihood in particular areas – to allow for better planning.

The research centre has been quietly operating for some time and its previous work includes predicting regional increases of black legged tick populations around the Maritimes as temperatures increase.

“The results weren’t good, by the way,” said Beltrami.

It’s not that the numbers weren’t accurate – that remains to be seen – it’s that the study’s published findings don’t bode well for those who like walking in the woods.

Beltrami's new centre is offering its services up to local municipalities and other groups trying to plan for the future's changing weather.

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