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Ottawa Citizen

Forecasters need $100M overhaul

Environment Canada wants to update all its weather systems

Kate Jaimet The Ottawa Citizen

Canada's weather forecasters need more than $100 million in new equipment to keep the country's meteorological service running, Environment Minister David Anderson says.

"We're talking scores of millions of dollars. Well over $100 million," Mr. Anderson said. "If we don't get the equipment we need in the relatively near future, we will have to run the risk of declining services."

The meteorological service has a technological infrastructure worth $375 million, but much of the equipment is so old that it is beyond the manufacturer's recommended lifespan. Environment Canada wants to update everything from computer systems to weather observation stations over the next three to five years.

"We need to have a refinancing and re-equipping," Mr. Anderson said.

High on the environment minister's wish list are 18 $2.5-million Doppler radars to detect tornados and severe storms. Environment Canada now operates 13 Doppler radars across the country, but wants a total of 31 to cover the areas where 95 per cent of Canada's population lives.

Conventional radars can pinpoint the location of storm clouds and rain, but only Doppler radars can identify movement within the storm clouds, detecting the swirling air currents that mark a tornado.

In 1994, a conventional radar failed to detect a tornado that touched down in Aylmer, Que., injuring 25 people and damaging 330 homes. Environment Canada later estimated that a Doppler radar could have warned of the tornado 15 to 20 minutes before it touched down.

"The tornado forecasting (is) particularly important on a straight safety basis," Mr. Anderson said. "You can't do that without improved equipment."

Environment Canada's meteorologists are also worried about the 440 weather observation stations across the country that measure such basic information as air pressure, wind, precipitation and visibility. These stations are the backbone of the meteorological service, providing data for daily weather forecasts and airport weather information.

But 60 of those stations are more than 20 years old, while another 100 to 200 will be obsolete within the next two years, Environment Canada estimates.

The stations will cost between $50,000 and $300,000 each to replace.

Bringing those stations up-to-date is necessary to provide the weather forecasts that people and businesses rely on, Mr. Anderson said.

"Heating oil companies get predictions on a daily basis so they know whether to have (extra) people on staff tomorrow," he said.

"The same is true for FedEx and all these other courier services.

"They phone in to find out what rerouting has to be done," he said.

In the ocean, meteorologists rely on buoys to collect information on weather and sea conditions.

Worth $200,000 each, these buoys often need replacement as they are ripped from their moorings by ships or during storms.

In the High Arctic, the ministry needs millions of dollars to refurbish the Eureka weather station and its adjacent housing, some of which has not been upgraded since it was built in the 1960s.

That weather station is becoming more and more important as scientists study the first signs of global warming in the Arctic.

Elsewhere in Canada, the Environment Department wants to set up 30 to 50 air quality monitoring sites that will keep track of smog and air pollution.

These stations will range in cost from $50,000 for the most basic type of air quality testing to $400,000 for comprehensive pollution monitoring.

The air testing stations are necessary if the government wants to force industries to cut their emissions and enforce the smog-reduction agreement signed last fall between Canada and the United States, Mr. Anderson said.

Finally, the ministry is asking for a $15-million to $20-million computer upgrade, enabling meteorologists to process an ever-increasing amount of weather data using ever more sophisticated models.

It all adds up to a hefty weather bill. But Mr. Anderson is confident he can convince the federal cabinet to approve the money. "This is a service of government issue," he said. "This is what the Canadian people expect."

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 07, 2001

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