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031 Changing western climates, and the importance of science in the post-truth Trumpocene

This week, I’m looking at the impact of a 2.5 degree increase (since the industrial era) in the average annual temperature across western Canada over the next 30 years. I’m also going to share a presentation by Bob Sandford that looks at the challenge of science in a world dominated by scientific skeptics and a president who denies the basic science behind changing climates.

Story 1 – What will 2050 be like in western Canada

Recently the CBC website posted an article by Tara Carman about the potential changes that will take place in British Columbia in the next 30 years with just a 2.5C increase in temperature. The story paints a troubling picture for Canada’s westernmost province.

It’s no secret that our weather has been changing. Here in the Rockies, we are getting more overall moisture during the summer months, but it is coming in fewer, more extreme weather events. Many of these events are separated by droughts that set the scene for huge fires. The 2016 fire, known as the ‘Beast’ which devastated Fort McMurray, Alberta is a classic example. Even in British Columbia’s rainforests, there have been significant fires over the past few years.

If Canada were to halve our greenhouse emissions by 2050, that would still result in a 2.5C increase in the annual average temperature for British Columbia. Most scientists agree that an increase of just 2C over pre-industrial levels is the point at which the impacts of climate change become far more difficult for humans to deal with.

Globally, it will cause longer droughts, intense heatwaves and disruptions to global food supplies. It will also result in sea level increases of more than half a metre resulting in the flooding of many coastal communities like Vancouver and Victoria.

Currently, we’re already half way to this 2C threshold. We’re already experiencing a warmer planet than we have experienced in the past 10,000 years. Despite this, British Columbia could easily exceed that 2C point and experience 2.5C.

So, what might this mean for the province? Here are a few bullet points:

  • sea level could rise by 30 cm
  • 25% of the provinces glaciers will have disappeared completely
  • Flooding in the lower mainland can exceed $32.7 billion
  • The wettest day of the year will be 10% wetter than it is today
  • Days above 25C will increase from the current 18/year to a whopping 30

If you like sandy beaches, like Jericho Beach, higher sea levels could erode away the sand during storms. The seawall in Stanley Park will take a pummeling. You can also forget flying into Vancouver during severe storms as the airport, along with other low lying areas like the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen may be under water.

The world class salmon runs on the west coast are dependent upon cold water runoff from the mountains. The ideal temperature range for trout and salmon is between 13 and 18C. As ocean temperatures rise with the reduction in cold water melt due to glacier loss, the temperatures can quickly exceed 20C.

The Fraser River is Canada’s most productive salmon river, but according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the average summer temperature rose by 1.1C between 1953 and 1998. As winters become milder, smaller snowpacks also melt quicker – and may disappear long before the summer salmon runs begin. If the cold meltwater is finished before the run, than the water temperature has more opportunity to increase to the point of being harmful to salmon runs.

Now while increases in growing seasons may seem super cool, we forget that there are certain advantages to being a cold climate. Cold temperatures are very efficient at keeping many problematic insect pests and diseases at bay. While many people accuse the mountain pine beetle of being an invasive threat, it is a naturally occurring insect of the western mountains. At its peak, it resulted in a loss of over half of British Columbians pine by 2012, and likely 58% by the end of this year.

Historically, it was climate that kept it under control. All we needed to keep it at bay was proper winters. A few weeks of -40C was very handy but since we’re not getting that any more, the beetles have been able to spread much further north than ever before.

In several cases in the 2000s, beetles that were part of huge epidemics were able to hitch a ride on atmospheric winds and Dorothy their way to a new and wondrous land…no, not Oz, but worse…far into northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta. The significance of this long-distance transport means that they have now migrated far enough north to make their way into the Canadian Shield. They’ve also made the jump from lodgepole pine to jack pine meaning they now have a straight run across northern Canada, all the way to the eastern pine forests of Ontario and south all the way to Texas and Florida

Other pests moving north into the mountain west include the spotted-wing drosophila which attacks cherries before they have a chance to ripen. The females lay their eggs in the unripe fruit which allows them to destroy the fruit before harvest. Little Cherry Disease is another challenge that is hitting British Columbia orchards. It causes cherries to be smaller and more bitter and, as a result, unsalable.

Globally, insect pests are moving north at a rate of almost 3km/year, increasing the already high rate of global crop loss of 10-16% annually. Some fungi, are moving north at a rate in excess of 10km/year.

Around the world, there is no crop more important than wheat, and Canada produces almost 30 million tonnes of wheat every year. We are the worlds 6th largest exporter and climate change could challenge that supremacy. Recent studies show that an global increase in temperature of just 1 degree Celsius could reduce wheat production by between 4.1 and 6.4 percent. Globally, that would be a loss in excess of Canada’s entire annual production and reach as high as 32 million tonnes.

British Columbia’s inland rain forest is also under threat of increased wildfires. While it’s difficult to think of rain forests burning, we need to remember one important fact about the interior rain forest – it doesn’t get enough rain to really be considered a rain forest. What it does get is some 10 metres of winter snowfall, at least it does today.

While this doesn’t make it truly qualify as a rain forest, it does release vast amounts of moisture through snow melt during the summer, and this helps keep the soils saturated. In essence, it simulates a rain forest. Should the summer rains, and winter snows diminish, these ancient forests could find themselves susceptible to increased fire hazard.

Changing climates are changing the rules. Everything we grew up considering normal is now up for renegotiation. Climate is changing. Water regimens are shifting. While we may see more warm weather, the weather brings with it a constantly shifting collection of complications and implications.

One thing that is critical in these changing times, is that we can trust the science that our economies are built upon. Everything we know about climate change is the result of climate models that help us to anticipate how we may be effected as the various elements of change are established.

Story 2 – Climate Science in the Trumpocene

Last week, I was lucky to be able to record a presentation by three of Canada’s top experts on water and climate change, Bob Sandford, Dr. John Pomeroy and Dr. Joe Shea.

Bob is the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security and the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. He is the author of dozens of books including the United Nation’s Water in the World We Want as well as Cold Matters: The State and Fate of Canada’s Snow and Ice. He has long been a friend and mentor. His message on the challenges facing climate scientists today is important for anyone who believes in the scientific process and the role of peer reviewed science.

I hope you enjoy his presentation entitled: The Hard work of Hope. Scientific Fact vs Politicized Fantasy in the Post-Truth Trumpocene.

Often I would add some notes from a presentation. However in this case, I think it’s important to hear the message in Bob’s words. He has a way of tackling a difficult subject in a straight forward and unwavering way. The key message is that science is science… and facts are facts. There are no ‘alternative’ facts. There is true and untrue. It’s fine to be a skeptic. It’s fine to challenge the science…just do it using the scientific method. Thanks Bob for this important message.

Bob’s presentation reminded me of this video by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the importance of science and of the scientific process. During the current assault on science, Neil echoes Bob’s message on science.


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