Canada’s Climate Forecast

The “uh oh” file is growing, as the next IPCC report comes out this Friday. In it are more graphic descriptions about what warming could mean for the planet and by region. Scary stuff that will hopefully take our governments to the next level beyond recognition and half-measures to something more meaningful. Below are some previews from the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun.

In an otherwise decent article, the lead-in from the Vancouver Sun, known for its anti-tax stance, is rather humorous for its relative ordering of impacts: “The looming “destabilization” of Earth’s atmosphere means British Columbia faces higher municipal taxes and a reordering of basic government priorities to cope with an accelerating regime of droughts, floods and other weather-related civil emergencies.” Somehow I doubt the actual IPCC report comments on municipal taxation.

First the Star:

Climate forecast grim for Canada: heStar.com – News – Climate forecast grim for CanadaReport from world scientific body says country is ill-prepared to handle impacts of change, leaving citizens vulnerable

By the end of this century, fires will consume twice as much forest annually in Canada, a fifth of the currently snowy Arctic will be greened by tundra and Great Lakes water levels will have plunged still lower, international scientists are going to warn this week in an authoritative climate change report.

Economic damage from severe weather, such as hurricanes, is almost certain to continue rising in North America and city-dwellers face heightened health risks, the scientists conclude. Yet Canada and the U.S. are ill-prepared to adapt to such almost-certain impacts from climate change, leaving their citizens vulnerable. This grim regional picture is contained in the second report this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to be published Friday.

The report summarizes the probable effects on people and the environment arising from the increase of 2 to 3 degrees C in average temperatures by 2050 forecast in the panel’s first climate science study released in February. The scientists conclude that the temperature-spurred shift of plants and animals northward and to higher altitudes “is likely to rearrange the map of North American ecosystems.” They also caution that climate change will hit hardest at specific groups in Canada and the U.S., like the urban poor and elderly, aboriginals and resource-dependent communities, such as lumber towns.

A collation of the top peer-reviewed scientific research over the past five years, the IPCC reports are produced by a United Nations network of 2,000 scientists as authors and reviewers. The Star obtained a near-final draft of the IPCC Technical Summary, an 80-page document more detailed than the short political summary being edited in Brussels this week by representatives from 120 governments. Both documents are to be made public Friday.

Nearly six pages of the technical summary are devoted to climate change impact and vulnerability in North America and the polar regions. For most of the projected effects, the scientists rate the confidence level as “high” or “very high,” meaning an 80 or 90 per cent chance of being correct.

Water in North America is going to come under particularly severe pressure because of climate change, the IPCC summary concludes. For the Great Lakes and major river systems, “lower water levels are likely to exacerbate issues of water quality, navigation, hydro-power generation, water diversions and bi-national co-operation.” In addition, warmer temperatures affecting snowfall and rain over the Rockies by mid-century will probably reduce the summer flow in rivers and increase the risk of winter flooding.

Also a recurring theme is higher health and safety risk in North American cities because of climate change. “Severe heat waves, characterized by stagnant, warm air masses and consecutive nights with high minimum temperatures, are likely to intensify in magnitude and duration over portions of the U.S. and Canada, where they already occur,” the scientists say. By 2050, deaths linked to smog could increase by almost 5 per cent because of higher ozone levels in cities already blighted by smog.

… Forests may initially benefit from warming through faster tree growth but hotter summers in the second half of this century could lead to fires consuming between 74 and 118 per cent more forest than now.Longer growing seasons should boost net agricultural production for a few decades but this will be accompanied by more insect plagues and more wildfires.

In the North, the scientists forecast that tundra will invade between 15 and 25 per cent of the current “Arctic desert,” the region characterized by permanently frozen ground and minimal precipitation.

Other Arctic predictions include:

  • Permafrost area could shrink by as much as a third by mid-century and the ground will thaw to a depth 50 per cent greater than usual during summer in northernmost locations.
  • The summer spread of polar sea ice, already shrinking, should get still smaller by 22 to 33 per cent by the end of the century, opening navigation through the Arctic Ocean.
  • Climate change at the poles will trigger global impacts, including a possible weakening of the ocean “conveyer belt” which brings warm water north from the tropics. The detailed science underlying the IPCC conclusions won’t be available until later this year when the full study will be published. It is expected to run between 300 and 400 pages.
  • And the Vancouver Sun:

    One of Canada’s most eminent climate researchers said the enormous challenges caused by rapidly changing weather systems confronting B.C. and other jurisdictions will be as significant, difficult and costly as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Details of Canadian scenarios will emerge in a federal report this fall, which currently bears the working title Towards Adaptation. At the global scale, those same issues will be examined next week when the United Nations releases a follow-up to its February report on greenhouse gas emissions.

    Ian Burton, scientist emeritus with the Meteorological Service of Canada, said the UN’s February report provided “demonstrable evidence” that the burning of fossil fuels is speeding up global warming and pushing weather systems to new extremes. But Burton and other prominent Canadian academics are warning that the situation is worse than stated in the greenhouse gas report, which was written by Working Group One of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    Burton said it was based on research collected between 2000 and 2005 and does not take into account more recent studies showing the trend is accelerating, particularly in icy regions like Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. Burton said the general public’s impression is that the planet is facing a general, gradual warming trend.

    “I prefer to think of it as the destabilization of the atmosphere,” Burton said in a telephone interview from his office at the University of Toronto. “It’s a fairly widely expressed view that there are more recent research results, particularly in the ice business, that have not been adequately taken on board by this Working Group One report. There is quite a widespread view that things are actually worse than it says.”

    Burton is recognized by colleagues as a pioneer in thinking about adaptation to climate change, and the vulnerability of human societies to changes imposed by shifting weather and temperature regimes. He is one of the authors of a follow-up report that will be released next Friday in Brussels by Working Group Two of the climate change panel. The report will address impacts of climate change, the need to adapt to increasingly disruptive weather systems, and the vulnerability of human societies and ecosystems in light of those changes. It is expected to create an even greater sensation than the February greenhouse gas report because it focuses on human and environmental disasters that follow from global warming.

    Leaks of details from draft versions of the report paint a gloomy picture as higher temperatures lead to species extinctions, famines, the collapse of have-not nations, continent-scale water shortages and the spread of tropical diseases. Some aspects of climate change are irreversible — the burning of fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Age in 1750 has already pushed up carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere enough to touch off a warming trend that could last a millennium.

    Burton and other scientists and policy analysts interviewed by The Vancouver Sun suggested that all levels of society in Canada, including government, business and individuals, are so enmeshed in the debate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions they may not yet recognize the need to expend an equal effort preparing for global warming effects.

    “Fixing the emission problem won’t preclude the need to deal with the warming trend itself, which will continue to build for centuries — and the favourable impact of any greenhouse gas reductions won’t be felt for decades. My message to Canadians, private sector people, municipalities, governments at all levels, is to get the best information you can about climate change and ask yourselves how that affects your business or your operations, and what you can do about that.”

    The Working Group Two report will have a chapter on climate impacts in North America and it’s expected that British Columbia will get at least a mention.

    “This report is attempting to translate the results of climate science research into impacts, environmental damage, economic damage, the implications for society and implications for our abilities to adapt,” said Environment Canada researcher Stewart Cohen, a past and present contributor to the IPCC reports. “We as a society are changing fundamentally our relationship to climate,” he said in a telephone interview from his office at the University of B.C., where is he an adjunct professor.

    For example, Cohen says our present systems, laws and regulations for managing water, food, fish and forests, and engineering roads, bridges and pipelines are all based on the assumption of “a constant climate.” Change the climate, and we have to scramble to change the system we rely on to allocate water rights, or agricultural quotas. Our cities might need a civil emergency plan to protect tens of thousands of sick and elderly residents in the event of a prolonged summer heat wave.

    In a semi-desert climate such as the Okanagan, we invite chaos if we don’t have a water management plan that sets priorities for obtaining water among residents, local governments, orchard operators, vintners, farmers, tourism operators, firefighters and fish, he says.

    Cohen and colleagues have just finished a new report on water supply management for the Okanagan region that addresses many of those conflicts. He’s optimistic that it can serve as a template for other regions, but at this point there are more questions than answers about managing vital resources under the added pressure of global warming. Cohen says B.C. needs to initiate what he calls “a parallel debate” alongside greenhouse gas reductions and increase our “capacity to adapt.”

    “We are a wealthy region, we’ve got highly educated people running all these systems and running our governments. That would automatically suggest we already have a high capacity to adapt. And yet we are still faced with these important local climate impacts — the destruction of forests by the mountain pine beetle, dealing with fluctuations in the fisheries, potential concerns about sea level rise or reductions in glaciers, changes in fire risk, or what to do if new diseases start to appear from other parts of the world.”

    As evidenced by the advance of the mountain pine beetle across British Columbia’s Interior pine forests, those changes are already happening. For example, Greater Victoria is facing severe summer water shortages as early as 2015 — regardless of recent efforts to increase local reservoir capacity. In addition, rising sea levels present as great a threat to the Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii, as anywhere along Canada’s 243,000-kilometre coastline.

    Meanwhile, it seems that glaciers are moving faster than governments in response to global warming. Ian Walker, a geographer at the University of Victoria, said he is “flabbergasted” by the rapid loss of shoreline along Graham Island’s East Beach on Haida Gwaii, one of Canada’s most vulnerable landscapes, in the face of increasingly violent Pacific storms and a rising sea level. At places along the beach, the adjacent Yellowhead Highway is a single step — just one big wave — away from crumbling into the Pacific tide. Nearby, the perimeter fence along the runway at Masset airport is collapsing into an adjacent beach that is being eroded at the rate of one to three metres a year.

    Walker and Vaughn Barrie of the Geological Survey of Canada have a grant from Natural Resources Canada to study the area, which has been identified as being in the top three per cent of Canada’s shoreline for susceptibility to a rising sea level. Walker and Barrie have determined that East Beach is spot-on the expected global rate of sea level rise — 1.6 millimetres per year, or 16 centimetres by 2100. But that’s a major problem along a gently sloping waterfront where a rise of just two centimetres in sea level will push the sea hundreds of metres inland. The situation poses a significant threat to the Graham Island’s delicate ecosystems and its 6,000 residents, to roads, ferries and air travellers. “Imagine watching, year after year, one to three metres of your property disappearing. People are, in Haida Gwaii.” And that’s only half the threat to that remote and spectacular landscape.

    The increased violence and frequency of storms charging in from the North Pacific effectively doubles the rate of sea level rise to 3.2 millimetres a year. Yet, Walker notes, a land use management plan that has been under negotiation for nine years between the provincial government and the Haida Nation fails to take into account the emerging threats from climate change.

    “In other words, coastal setbacks, emergency plans, are not even on the table,” Walker said in a telephone interview. “That same situation exists across the province. I can’t think of one land resource management plan that considers climate change or extreme events.”

    The lack of preparedness reaches right across Canada, he adds. “In some areas of Canada, especially our coastlines, we don’t have good maps. It seems silly to say that but we don’t have decent maps that allow us, for instance, to consider where sea level will sit. We need baseline information and some monitoring as well, otherwise we don’t know what we’re trying to adapt to, or how to do it.”

    Walker is one of the lead authors for B.C. in the upcoming federal report on global warming impacts and adaptations for Canada. The B.C. section explores problems including elevated impacts from floods, droughts, economic threats, water management conflicts, and the threat to agriculture.

    Demand for water in urban areas is a “major issue”, because both Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria are drought-prone in summer, Walker said. “In Victoria we are going to have difficulty — even though we just expanded our reservoir system — meeting demand by 2015. That’s not very far away, is it? If population and development trends continue as they are, we are going to be in serious trouble.”

    Another issue is the demands an increasing number of “extreme” weather events will have on civic infrastructure — including low-lying communities, coastal highways, airports, ferries, ports, electricity generation and delivery.

    “Look at the storms we had this year,” Walker said. “Events such as wind storms, forest fires, storm surges, erosion and landslides, snowstorms, droughts, floods, everything — you have to adapt your entire infrastructure. You need a bigger civil infrastructure, changes to building codes for all manner of structures. Things like the amount of freeboard on bridges, coastal setbacks. They just haven’t been considered in light of climate change, and that’s a real problem.”

    University of Toronto political scientist and author Thomas Homer-Dixon, an internationally-sought commentator on threats to global security, said he defers to Burton on the question of adaptation. But Homer-Dixon, a Victoria native who has studied climate change since the late 1980s when he was finishing his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees that the IPCC Working Group One report is “about a year out of date.” In fact, he says, the format of the IPCC itself — an international body that issues global climate change reports and recommendations every five or six years — should be reconsidered.

    “I think the consensus now is that they need to change the IPCC as an institution and, in a sense, provide much more realtime updates on things,” Homer-Dixon said. He said one of the greatest threats is that the climate as it changes will make “sudden jumps” rather than an orderly transition, as a vast array of regional and global weather systems attempt to rebalance themselves in a warming climate. “You can have long periods of time with relatively low change, then a sudden shift as, say, energy transfer patterns within the climate system reorganize themselves.”

    He adds that our civic infrastructure, our food production systems, and our economies “really aren’t designed to adapt well to that kind of variation. … There is a real risk of some very nasty things happening in the future and I don’t think people should downplay those risks, especially as some kind of non-linear change appears [and] the climate flips. The costs could be astronomical. We are going to have to build coastal barriers, move infrastructure and perhaps habitation away from coastal areas, pump water long distances to places that become dry, drill deeper for water, desalinize water in some areas — and this is all true at the very time when it’s likely that energy is going to become much more expensive.”

    Homer-Dixon believes Canadians could cut energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, 20 to 30 per cent with minimal impact on our standard of living. He said developing renewable energy sources for electricity could cut emissions by a similar amount. “Between those two we are talking about 60 per cent, right off the top. That’s huge. That’s a big difference.”

    But he’s deeply concerned there may be no simple fix for the biggest problem — the expansion of coal-fired electricity generation plants. North America relies primarily on cheap, accessible coal to generate more than half its electricity, and China is adding a new coal generation plant about once every two weeks. Those plants are emerging as the biggest threat to greenhouse gas reduction targets because there are no substitutes on the grand scale that’s needed. So far, the suggested solution is to capture the emissions and pipe them away to underground storage caverns — including retired oil and natural gas wells.

    “I’ve been writing on carbon sequestration and I’ve been receiving notes from people who are really quite knowledgeable, saying this technology may well not work. The stuff may leak,” Dixon said. “Technologically, we have a relatively small needlehole to thread here. We don’t have a lot of options. We have to make sure sequestration works.”

    We will, he adds, need something other than technology to carry society through the rough patches ahead. “We are going to have to be a bit lucky. We are going to have to hope that nature is, to a certain extent, on our side.”

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