You know those old-timers who say the snowbanks used to be taller and the winters colder? Well it’s true, they were.
In fact, I sound like an old-timer sometimes when I reminisce about sailing down the city street on a toboggan in front of my family home in Kamloops. Last spring, I attempted to bang off a ski tour in British Columbia’s northern Purcells between April heat-waves that sent temperatures in the Columbia Valley into the low 30s. When I spotted a rufous hummingbird flitting among the firs as we skinned up in isothermal snow toward the Kingsbury Hut in International Basin, it struck me how spring seems to arrive with more ferocity each year.
Though there remains some debate around which climate models are most accurate, and when and how much temperatures will change, there is no credible debate around whether the climate is changing. And the science is clear—human-caused carbon emissions are accelerating these changes and heralding impacts in the not-so-distant future that we are only now starting to grasp. I’ll leave denial and skepticism to the wingnuts who stump for big oil and neo-Con think-tanks that substitute ideology for science. Forward-thinking individuals and organizations are preparing for these changes. Some of the impacts are obvious, such as rapid glacier recession. In the Comox Valley, on Vancouver Island, I have a front-row seat to the Comox Glacier’s year-after-year retreat. Intense forest fires, like the one that ravaged Fort McMurray last spring, are burning with increased frequency. And the drought of 2015 made Vancouver, the city in the rainforest, feel like southern California.
There are other less obvious impacts. As much as I understand intuitively that ecosystems are dynamic, I tend to think of them as something permanent and unchanging. For example, when I hike up to Berg Lake, I believe there will always be that gorgeous interior temperate rainforest of cedar and hemlock, just as there will always be those dry ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir grasslands in the hills around Kamloops where I learned to mountain bike. It’s a false delusion; ecosystems are forever in flux. Climate change is accelerating changes to landscapes as we know them, not in 200 or 300 years but well within the lifespans of kids who will graduate from high school next year.
For the past six years, a team of scientists has put BC’s Kootenays under the microscope in an effort to determine what the landscape of south-central and southeastern BC will look like in the next 50 to 80 years. It’s called West Kootenay Resilience, and the findings are both fascinating and alarming. Between 2010 and 2012, the team undertook a vulnerability and resilience assessment project. Since early 2015, the team has been engaged in the conservation planning phase. The latter will inform our knowledge of everything from forest fires (where, when and how often they will happen), the types of tree species foresters will have to plant for the future, how massive rainstorm events could impact where we build houses or the size of road culverts required, a diminishing winter snowpack and the need for greater water-storage capacity and many other facets of climate change.
What this means on a big-picture scale, according to Nelson-based conservation ecologist Greg Utzig, is that society needs to start cutting carbon emissions in a major way. And that involves everything from the small-scale (retrofitting old houses with new insulation) to the large-scale. (The obvious elephant in the room for the Kootenays is the carbon-emitting coal extraction industry in the southeastern corner of the province between Fernie and the BC-Alberta border.)
Doing what we can to slow the rate of global warming is one part of the equation; the other is preparedness, and West Kootenay Resilience is a call to action for communities in the region. For example, land managers need to focus on reducing fuel in interface forests to avoid catastrophic fires and property damage. And the very forests that we take for granted, like the interior cedar/hemlock of Mount Robson, or the ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir grasslands of Kamloops, will be replaced by something else. Utzig and his colleagues at West Kootenay Resilience have demonstrated how climatic conditions in the lower elevations throughout the West Kootenays will shift from those that presently support a range of species, including cedar and hemlock, toward environments that are only suitable for more drought-tolerant species like ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. In already drier zones, like around Castlegar and Trail, the future climate will most likely preclude forest cover altogether and trend toward grassland.
Professional foresters like Erik Leslie, of the Harrop-Proctor Community Forest, are taking the knowledge gleaned from West Kootenay Resilience and applying it on the ground, in anticipation of a not-so-distant future when falls, winters and springs will be anywhere from two to five degrees Celsius warmer and between 10 and 25 per cent wetter, and summers will be between three and seven degrees warmer and 30 per cent drier. For Leslie, this will lead to a cascade of impacts on stream flow and hydrology due to a shrinking winter snowpack, the mix of tree species in a forest and the frequency of forest fires and insect epidemics attacking drought-stressed trees.
Few Canadians have to dig too deeply into the memory bank for anecdotes of unusual weather and signs of what to expect in the future. Last year, while Vancouver was on severe water restrictions, residents in Nelson experienced a hot dry spell in July that pushed temperatures into the low 40s followed by a lightning-caused forest fire on a ridgetop north of town that threatened properties and shrouded Kootenay Lake in smoke. And two years ago, a storm ripped through the area, falling trees and delivering a rainstorm of an intensity that one resident I talked to said was without precedent, at least in recent memory.
So what does this all mean? It would be simple to throw up our hands and lament, “What can be done?” Or side with the pundits who, for example, deny anthropocentric causes for global warming while they gas up their pickups then haul their snowmobiles across the Rockies to burn more fuel in the Columbia Mountains. Kim Stephens, executive director of the non-profit Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC, has been talking climate change and water since long before the words “drought” and “Vancouver” ever appeared in the same sentence. An engineer by profession, he lives on Bowen Island, BC, in a house with a rainwater collection system and grey water separation plumbing that uses wastewater for toilet flushing—technology that he labels as “not rocket science,” but has yet to rocket into mainstream thinking regarding our relationship with drinking water.
“Before last year, 2003 was the big teachable year, when we had drought, devastating wildfires and ravages of the mountain pine beetle. By 2005, I found most people had forgotten about it,” Stephens says. “The new normal, is warmer wetter winters, which means rain instead of snow, and hotter, drier summers and that has big implications for water.”
A decade ago, Stephens says you were on the fringe if you talked about climate change. Not so any more. It’s now part of mainstream discourse and West Kootenay Resilience is just one example of ways we are trying to prepare for inevitable change, while weaning off our addiction to carbon-emitting energy.