Climate change is getting personal in British Columbia. Shifts in weather patterns in recent years are already changing the way we live in this province, whether you ranch, ski, love eating shellfish, or happen to notice the forest on the edge of town isn’t the same as it was when you wandered through it as a child.
Here are six ways global warming is coming home for British Columbians.
Once upon a time, northern Canada harboured a remarkable kind of freshwater lake, a distinct glacial environment found nowhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. In these special freshwater lakes, known as epishelf lakes, life thrived, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Many of these hidden lakes formed between 4,000 and 800 years ago. But now there’s just one left, and it won’t last long.
“I would be surprised if the lake lasted for more than a decade,” says physical geographer Derek Mueller. “It could go really at any time.”
David Gallaher was eight years old in 1964, watching satellites twinkling high overhead. That year, the first American to orbit the planet left NASA, the Soviets put the first multi-person crew in orbit, and one tiny satellite, Nimbus 2, was taking grainy black-and-white images of the entire surface of the planet.
Seventeen years before the start of what we know as the “modern satellite record” of sea ice, Nimbus series satellites were snapping images that would turn up on two huge pallets in Gallaher’s office in Colorado 50 years later.
“Holy crap,” Gallaher recalls thinking when he saw the daunting stack of canisters. “We took one box and looked at it, and said, ‘Is this even doable?’”
Note: This story was retweeted by CBC Quirks & Quarks, Chris Hadfield and Phil Plait, scored over 2000 points on Reddit, and was picked up by IB Times, The Verge, and others. It also led to my first story in National Geographic.
This post first appeared on Canadian Geographic’s Compass blog.
It’s nearly impossible to get a hold of someone in Calgary right now.
Since the historic flood last week, many Calgarians are staying home to clean up their homes and neighbourhoods. When Canadian Geographic reached David Keith, a professor of public policy and engineering at Harvard University, he was dragging a dumpster up the driveway of his Calgary home to start the cleanup following the flood. His own house was damaged, but “a lot of people have got it worse,” he says.
Keith is probably right: of the approximately 75,000 people displaced from their homes, with billions of dollars in damage, many Calgary residents will have worse jobs this week than tearing out drywall. And as the cleanup begins, some are starting to wonder why it only took eight years for the high-water mark set by 2005’s “flood of a century” to be overrun.
As with any extreme weather event, it is not possible to definitively blame climate change for the flood. What is possible, however, is to compare it to previous records — and all the data thus far say that this flood surpasses any event on record, including the flood of 1932. Even with dams all the way up the Bow River built since 1932 — obstructions that should have slowed the flow of water — the peak flow was still stronger than 80 years ago.
“(Climate change) is pretty solid science, despite what most of my neighbours say,” Keith says.
Keith believes that for many people in oil-rich Calgary, climate change will remain off the table as an explanation.
“I would actually be surprised if it changed people’s opinions,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence that people are profoundly motivated to avoid uncomfortable truths.”
As of Monday morning the Calgary Herald had run just one article and one reader’s letter mentioning climate change out of 84 articles published about the flood.
“The Calgary Herald has always ignored climate change,” says environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, whose article Calgary’s Manhattan Moment about the flood and climate change ran in The Tyee on Monday.
“Because the coverage of climate change has been so poor, people were not expecting it,” Nikiforuk suggests. “I think now people are in the stage of asking, ‘What happened?’”
Monica Zurowski, managing editor at the Calgary Herald, says that the last few days have been too busy to step back and look at the potential causes of the disaster.
“I think it would be premature to comment on that. The last few days have been a city and province in crisis,” she says. “It’s very hard to get a look or handle on why it happened.”
Zurowski admits, however, that over the course of reporting for the newspaper’s three special editions dedicated to the flood, reporters have spoken with experts who have brought up climate change. That reporting will come later as the city returns to normal, Zurowski says.
The cleanup in Calgary, Canmore, High River and many other communities in Alberta is expected to go on for months. As the mud is shoveled out of basements across the province, it remains to be seen what conversations will come next.
This is my new post on the Canadian Geographic blog. To check it out in its own natural habitat, click here
At the start of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian troops drew international ridicule when they showed up in the desert equipped with green camouflage designed for forests. Their gear, intended to make the troops blend in with their surroundings, did just the opposite, and brown camouflage uniforms were hastily procured.
According to a new study published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian army may not be alone. Some mammals’ camouflage is starting to malfunction as the snow disappears faster than it should each spring and takes longer to appear in the fall. Most notably, snowshoe hares — known for their striking white winter coats and brown summer coats — are struggling to adapt to the changing background colour of their environment.
Under the conditions in which the hares’ camouflage evolved, these animals shed their white winter coats as the snow disappears. But as the timing of seasons strays from historical trends, evolution can’t keep up, and the hares are standing out like sore thumbs. For an animal low on the food chain, this means falling prey more easily.
L. Scott Mills, the primary investigator in the recent University of Montana study, says that this study is just the beginning. Soon other animals, including weasels, foxes and even bird species such as the ptarmigan, could be studied for the same effects.
“There’s no reason that what we find in hares wouldn’t apply to other animals,” he says.
But the pressure to adapt may be higher in a “yummy” animal like a snowshoe hare than in a top predator like the Arctic fox.
“Based on an evolutionary principle called the life-dinner principle, you expect the pressure to adapt to be lower when the consequence of failure is that (the animals) miss a meal rather than die,” he explains.
Over the next few months, Mills’s team will sort through the data to find out whether the hares’ inability to camouflage themselves is costing them their pelts or whether they are able to adapt their behaviour to find other ways of hiding.
“Animals might be able to look down at themselves, see that they aren’t camouflaged and adapt their behaviour,” says Mills. “They might move to a snowy patch or prepare to run away or hide in some bushes.”
One way or another, camouflage strategies will likely be under more and more pressure to adapt over the coming century. According to the study, the number of days of snow cover in western Montana — the location of the study — is predicted to decrease by between 40 and 69 days per year.
First published (with some revisions) by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in their quarterly magazine, Wall Papers. Check it out in pretty, glossy format here.
The Arctic Ocean is in the midst of major climatic change, with its once robust sea-ice cover visibly retrenching more and more every year. As that ice melts, chemistry and circulation patterns are shifting, and scientists are just beginning to understand how serious the consequences may be for the rest of the world’s oceans.
“We have a marine arctic that is not simply passive – it will kick back,” warned Eddie Carmack, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It is to our own good to explore effects that might lead to regime changes.”
Dr. Carmack was part of a leading group of Arctic scientists taking part in a 3-day workshop titled, “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the Arctic Ocean,” held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in May 2012. The workshop was envisioned by UBC professors Philippe Tortell and Roger Francois as a way to discuss strategies for monitoring the Arctic Ocean that take into account the importance of both terrestrial and oceanic fields of scientific research, and the unexpected rapid pace of changes occurring in the Arctic.
Dr. Carmack described the rapid pace this way. In 2007, he took to the sea in the “Canada’s Three Oceans” project, traveling by icebreaker along the entire coast of Canada in order to establish a baseline for future effect of climate change. This baseline would be revisited in 2050, or so went the original plan. “It’s changing so fast,” he said, “there are things they can already say.” Climate change impacts, such as increased stratification, shifts in population structure among plankton and bacteria, and ocean acidification are already becoming apparent in the Arctic.
Dr. Carmack laid out an extremely complex set of findings presented in a series of diagrams that showed how circulations between the world’s oceans interact, and argued that more needs to be explored regarding the biogeochemical distributions in the oceans in order to be able to predict what cascade effects and unintended consequences many of these changes might have. “There is a danger in waiting too long to begin new policies,” he warned.
In addition to Dr. Carmack, researchers traveled from all over the world, covering everything from glacier melt in Greenland to trace metals in estuarine systems in Russia to warming experiments in the Canadian tundra. Part of the impetus for the workshop was to underscore the importance and cooperation around the new GEOTraces initiative, a monitoring system set up to better understand the changes. With international participation from over 30 nations, GEOTraces collects information on trace metals in the world’s oceans, which can be limiting factors for biological productivity, sources of contamination, or indicators of past and present climate change. The collection of this data requires ship charters, international permits, and a lot of money: some working groups during the conference were therefore devoted to these difficulties facing researchers.
Many of the researchers pointed out, like Dr. Carmack did, that the Arctic is “not just about bears, pteropods, and seals, it’s about the people.” To that end, the workshop also featured a public panel, appropriately titled, “The Big Melt” at the Vancouver Aquarium. Moderated by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, the panel discussion featured Dr. Carmack alongside UBC Professors Michael Byers from Political Science and Candis Callison from the School of Journalism. All of the panelists, each coming from a different angle, nevertheless had much in the way of common ground: the need for more international cooperation, inclusion of northern communities, and proper communication of these issues to the public were all expressed.
According to Dr. Callison, science can often only be expressed to the public by portraying it in human terms.
“Facts and information become meaningful when they intersect with ethical and moral codes,” she explained. “After listening to an Inuit person talk about changes they’ve witnessed, passing climate change as a somehow normal and natural occurrence is not possible.”
Encouraging interaction between scientists from a diversity of nations, in conferences such as this one, is a valuable part of the process of bringing the world’s northern nations together to address the multitude of changes occurring in the Arctic.
As Dr. Byers noted, “an organization is only as important as the people in the room.” Conferences like this are a vital step in continuing to bring important people into the room to advance the international dialogue regarding arctic climate change, and the international gathering was representative of the way forward in understanding its future impacts.