What we do now will determine where we end up

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MINDEMOYA – There has been a recent surge of interest in climate change from the global down to the local level. Al Douglas, president of the Climate Risk Institute, spoke about climate change to Manitoulin Nature Club (MNC) members and guests last Friday, January 31 at the Mindemoya Community Centre. 

Mr. Douglas is a familiar face to many Islanders, having spoken on the topic to various groups over the past several years and as a partner with Manitoulin Streams Improvement Association on the Island-Wide Climate Change Risk Assessment project. He has been working in the field of climate change impacts and adaptation since 2002 and noted there was nowhere near the interest then that there is today. He was last here around election time, he said, and was pleased to see the attention climate change was receiving globally, especially coming from the youth. “The magnitude of the problem requires enormous effort on our part in countries around the world to deal with the challenges.”

Mr. Douglas led attendees through climate change science and trends before discussing impacts and mitigations or adaptations that can help us live with the effects of climate change. He began by mentioning the recent World Economic Forum that occurs annually in Switzerland, where delegates from countries around the world talk about the perceptions of risks that they face in terms of likelihood and impact or consequences of experiencing these challenges. Over the years, environmental challenges have risen to the top to the extent that in 2020, economic challenges did not make the top five list. 

Even the language has changed, noted Mr. Douglas. Previously, the forum’s Global Risk Report used the words ‘climate change’ but in 2020 this was changed to ‘climate action failure’ in response to the general global failure at both responding to climate change and in seeking necessary solutions.

The top five on both lists all have connections to climate change. Extreme weather, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and water shortages are all affected by changing climate. Another item of significance, he continued, is “these countries see this as an economic challenge and the economic losses we stand to face are significant.”

Scientific evidence shows that it is greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the atmosphere that relate to the temperature changes we see over time, he said. It is possible to look at gas bubbles that have been trapped in ice for hundreds of thousands of years and analyze the gas and determine its composition. The concentrations of GHG in the atmosphere have risen over the years. This correlation and the data from various studies has been used by countries around the world to develop climate models that give us a sense of how things are going to change. “That’s the questions everybody asks,” he said. “They want to know what it’s going to look like into the future.”

Al Douglas, left, of Climate Risk Institute, stands with Marcel Beneteau, chair of Manitoulin Nature Club, following Mr. Douglas’ presentation on Climate Change. photo by Lori Thompson

One of the challenges of GHG is that what we emit today will continue to be in the atmosphere for a long time. “We’re already committed because of the emissions today,” warned Mr. Douglas. “We’re committed to another 20 or 30 years of warming along a certain trajectory. This is challenging. Imagine how challenging that is for politicians who run in four-year cycles.”

Canada is warming at a rate that’s twice the global average. There have been notable shifts to more rain and less snow with an overall decrease in snow accumulation and extreme weather events. There is evidence to show more of that is happening. Annual and seasonal mean temperatures have increased across Canada with the greatest warming occurring in winter. Between 1948 and 2015 the mean annual temperature increased by 1.7°⁰C for Canada as a whole and 2.3°⁰C for northern Canada. There are also seasonal variations with winter temperatures warming more than summer ones, and the warming is not uniform across the country. “In the northern parts of our country, especially in the winter months, all of the buildings were built to depend on permafrost and they’re deteriorating quickly,” he said. “We’re slowly adapting.” 

What can we expect from these trends? “An increase in hot extremes, more frequent and intense extreme weather events, decreased snow and ice cover, earlier ice break up and later freeze up dates, increased potential for drought conditions and forest fires and increases in flooding,” said Mr. Douglas. In the Lake Huron/Lake Michigan basin, August temperatures are up by 2.3°⁰F from 1951 to 2017. The frost-free season has increased by 16 days. Total precipitation is up 14 percent and heavy precipitation is up a considerable 35 percent.

Data from the Gore Bay weather station was compiled by Risk Sciences International (RSI) to predict Manitoulin Island’s climate forward into the 2100s. The graph showed rising temperatures and rainfall amounts, shrinking snowfall, increased annual precipitation in general but more and more severe droughts during summer months which is consistent with trends in the US and global climate models. 

Mr. Douglas explained various modeling techniques and the ability to focus in on large lakes and big landforms in smaller regional climate models but also discussed current limitations. “The challenge and question often asked by the people who are doing the engineering for our infrastructure in our communities is they want to know more how extreme weather is expected to continue. They want to know how the intensity of something like rainfall is expected to change in the future. It’s very hard to do that, very hard to give those projections because we don’t have a good historical statistical data set to be able to calibrate against (events like a one in 50 or one in 100-year storm).” 

He then used a bell curve to demonstrate how the likelihood of an increase in the magnitude of extreme weather events is expected to increase. The return periods will be shorter so the odds of a one in 100-year storm will increase significantly over any given year, he explained. “It’s pretty simple. This is the part you focus on when you think of what we need to do to reduce emissions and what we need to do to adapt to climate change: the search for solutions. We’ve got to focus on solutions to drive things forward.”

“Municipal impacts are going to require local solutions,” he continued. Impacts include damaged or destroyed infrastructure, public health concerns, increased and more severe forest fires and increases in flooding.”

“As you can imagine, freeze-thaw cycles damaging concrete and making potholes means a need for more maintenance and you can imagine more extreme precipitation eroding around culverts and bridges compromising the stability of the soil and the slope,” Mr. Douglas continued. “Shoreline infrastructure is incredible, waterlines are up and you have increased wave action; there’s lots of erosion that’s happening that’s pretty significant, damage to docks and piers and things like that.”

In the natural environment there will be changes to the composition and the health of forests leading to forest fires, pests and disease while in the Great Lakes, water temperatures have been increasing and there is evidence that shows changes in water quality and quantity. Overall, the diversity of species is changing. Climate change is altering temperature regions and migrating species are pushing out existing residents. Certain fish species are migrating further with warm water species favoured over cold water species. Frogs and toads now emerge earlier and have their calling done earlier. There is also an uncoupling of timing of the predator-prey relationships, explained Mr. Douglas.

“The best form of adapting to climate change is to actually implement measures to reduce GHG emissions,” he said. “We need significant amounts of that to slow things down. Especially for future generations as they deal with this towards the middle or the end of the century. But adaptation deals with the consequences, seizing opportunities that manage the risks associated with a changing climate.”

Because climate change will impact different areas in different ways, adaptation needs to begin with local solutions and risk assessments are the foundation to good adaptations. “Doing these sorts of risk assessments in your community and your watershed takes the knowledge of the people who have already experienced these sorts of things, these challenges,” noted Mr. Douglas. “We have a lot of knowledge we can pull out on the fly and process like this and ultimately it’s the climate data and the science that tells us about the likelihood, like how high water levels are right now, how likely is it that you get to this point in the future or beyond. Climate analytics tells you that part, that modeling will tell you how likely it is if this will continue in the future or if this will eliminate these sticky situations in the future.”

Examples of potential adaptations are green roofs in cities to cool ambient air temperature, or water collectors on roofs to reduce demands on city resources during periods of drought. “We try to implement natural infrastructure or low impact development to try to reduce the amount of water that’s getting into the storm water system; we try to funnel it and channel it. We need natural engineered solutions to be able to capture that water and as you can see, there’s a number of other benefits to come along with this sort of thing as you can see. It provides habitat for pollinators; it’s cooling and reduces the amount of water that gets onto the surfaces; there are multiple benefits to these sort of things that we call adaptations.”

Examples in the natural environment may include assisted migration, creation of migratory paths for species to migrate to more suitable regions, maintaining and restoring natural disturbance regimes and conservation measures that manage range limits and coastal migration. Maintaining wetlands is significant for helping to attenuate flooding situations and they provide habitat for migratory birds. 

Updating building codes and standards to reflect future climate is also crucial, said Mr. Douglas. He also noted the importance of the banking, investment and financial sectors in future adaptation by requiring stakeholders to better analyze and manage risk with respect to climate change.

Closer to home, the Island-Wide Climate Risk Assessment project was begun several years ago with a vision to undertake an Island-wide risk assessment and provide a picture of how climate change would affect the Island. The project has come a long way, said Mr. Douglas, but “there’s still a couple of sectors we’d like to dig into a little bit to paint a clearer picture. Manitoulin Streams is driving this and we’re trying to find the resources with them to keep it going. The vision is that you would have a report and the assessment would tell us how things are changing on the Island and what we can expect for the future so we can be prepared to manage that.”

“We need political will and political commitment in order to drive the size of the change that we need with respect to emissions reduction. You can see local efforts going on in cities and towns and communities around the province, around the country and around the world which is really catalyzing action and mobilizing people,” he said.

Mr. Douglas offered a final message for consideration. “Climate change is certainly a complex and multifaceted challenge. Climate and weather affect pretty much everything to do with our lives. It’s not easy but there’s evidence to show how things are changing. There is a role for everyone, for all levels of government, for individuals, institutions, associations, non-government and academia. Advance the planning and take action.”