Okanagan wildfires threaten thousands of residents in Kelowna

The evacuation order for several neighbourhoods surrounding the Kelowna area have now been replaced with evacuation alerts. Vicious wildfires have again been threatening thousands of residents in Kelowna. Approximately 11,000 people were forced to flee their homes under evacuation order, by blazes that were sparked on last week. The Terrace Mountain fire is estimated to cover an area of 4,500 hectares, but is now 85% contained.

Approximately 1,013 residents living in the Fintry area, Valley of the Sun and La Casa resort are still on evacuation order.  The estimated 1,200 residents in the Killiney Beach Short Notice evacuation alert and the Caesar’s Landing short notice evacuation alert areas must be prepared to leave their homes at a moment’s notice.  Another approximately 2,508 residents remain on evacuation alert in the Westshore – Beau Park and Wilson’s Landing – Trader’s Cove and Bear Creek Main to Bear Lake Evacuation Alert areas and should be ready to leave their home should that status change.

The Evacuation Alert has been rescinded for the estimated 17,500 residents affected in the Glenrosa and Rose Valley fires within the District of West Kelowna. Both fires are in the clean-up stage are 100% contained.

The close proximity of the fire to residential areas are a stark reminder of the devastating 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire that destroyed 239 homes on the southern edge of Kelowna, and forced 27,000 people to evacuate. Following the 2003 fire, Interior Reforestation Co. Ltd. prepared a report for the City of Kelowna that evaluated restoration opportunities in the wake of the disaster. The “Post Fire Rehabilitation Project” produced a variety of tools to help local government coordinate and focus additional fire re-vegetation and restoration treatments.

Environment Canada has released a special weather statement for coastal British Columbia, citing ‘extreme heat and poor air quality for metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley’, with temperatures into the mid-to upper 30s can be expected. Computer models suggest the heat-wave may last another 4 to 5 days. Many daily temperature records will be broken and possibly monthly temperature records such as hottest July day on record.

ACT will be releasing our second set of policy recommendations – on extreme weather events – in September 2009.


Is China destined to be the next green energy superpower?

China is investing billions of dollars into renewable energy production in an effort to combat their steeply rising greenhouse gas emissions. While the US is only just taking its first steps towards mandating power companies to generate more electricity from renewable sources, China already imposed such a requirement 2 years ago.

At present coal remains China’s biggest energy source, with at least one coal plant opening every week to meet the nation’s growing demand for power. However HSBC predicts that China will invest more money in renewable energy and nuclear power between now and 2020 than in coal-fired and oil-fired electricity.

An immediate example is the series of projects the country is currently constructing in the Gobi Desert. These include wind and solar plants – both of which are experiencing an unforeseen benefit from the world economic crisis – a significant reduction in the cost of materials needed for construction.

The projects, which are being built on the enormous scale we have come to expect from China’s infrastructure innovations in projects like the Three Gorges dam, “totally dwarf anything else, anywhere else in the world,” says Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council, an industry group in Brussels.

Mr. Li Junfeng – deputy director general for energy research at China’s top economic planning agency and Secretary General of the government-run Renewable Energy Industries Association – predicts that China will have 30,000 megawatts of wind energy by the end of 2010 – a target they had hoped to reach by 2020.

Challenges for the Gobi Desert projects include resilience and weak infrastructure issues. For instance, sandstorms that obscure solar panels render them useless, and must be carefully cleaned off by workers with feather dusters to avoid scratching the delicate surfaces – a time-consuming and labour-intensive process that can take up to two days. Wind turbines are being built faster than China can augment its national grid by erecting power lines to carry the newly-generated electricity to cities at a variety of distances.

New legislation on emissions in the US, combined with BC’s already forward-looking carbon tax, will no doubt stimulate the new low-carbon economy and low-emissions technologies here in North America. ACT’s upcoming Energy session, scheduled to begin in September 2009, will consider new standards and solutions for BC’s energy sector in light of climate change impacts and economic stresses, as pressure to reduce emissions and the need to adapt energy generation and distribution methods rises.


‘Megacryometeor’ costs Delta residents $15,000 in property damage

May showers not only bring flowers, but also volleyball-sized chunks of ice falling from clear blue skies. In May, The Province, CTV, and other news outlets reported the story of a Delta resident witnessing large chunks of ice falling from the sky like “artillery shells”.

The largest of the ice balls was reportedly the size of a volleyball, and created a small crater about six inches deep, and a foot in diameter. Estimates of the damages caused to residential property are in the $15,000 range.

Although initial reports suggest the ice could have come from a passing airplane overhead, witnesses specifically claim they did not see any planes, or exhaust from planes overhead at the time of the incident. The Meteorological Service of Canada is now taking steps to liaise with Delta police to re-locate the samples from a freezer to an Environment Canada lab in North Vancouver, where they will undergo scientific analysis.

A scientific research team in Spain, hosted by TIERRA: Thematic Network of Earth Sciences in Spain, describe the phenomena as ‘extreme atmospheric events (Megacryometeors) that could be a new type of fingerprint (geoindicator) of Climate Change’. The team claims that “tropospheric Global Warming (and mainly Stratospheric Cooling) might be making the tropopause colder, moister and more turbulent, creating conditions in which ice crystals could grow, forming, unusually and much more recurrently, large ice conglomerations”.

ACT has been in touch with the scientists who will be studying the megacryometeors to analyze their composition, and looks forward to reporting on the outcome of the analysis when it become available!


Caribbean Coral deaths blamed on climate change

Climate change is being blamed as a major contributor to flattening of the complex, multi-layered architecture of Caribbean coral reefs, which provide a natural defense against tropical storms and a home to hundreds of species of aquatic flora and fauna.

A study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, authored in part by researchers from Simon Fraser University, states that the most complex type of reefs have been almost entirely wiped out across the entire Caribbean. Characterized by Table Corals of over 1 metre across and, and large Staghorn Corals, complex reefs act as a refuge for fish stocks, and hunting ground for larger, commercially fished species.

An analysis of 500 surveys of 200 reefs, conducted between 1969 and 2008, show that many have been replaced with the flattest types of rubble-strewn reef, which now cover approximately three quarters of the Caribbean’s reef area, up from about a fifth in the 1970s. Flatter reefs are less effective in protecting coastal settlements from storm swells and tidal surges, and are also less hospitable to biodiversity than healthy complex reefs, with repercussions for the fishing industry:

“Lack of … refuges for species with commercial importance, such as lobsters and large fishes may compromise the long-term sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities,” the report said.

Complex reefs also act as natural buffers, and their disappearance means that human coastal settlements are at increased risk from extreme weather events, such as more numerous and severe hurricanes, projected to occur due to climate change .

ACT’s biodiversity recommendations looked at the threats to ecosystems associated with climate change, and our upcoming report on Extreme Weather Events is due out in early September.


ACT Executive Director Deborah Harford featured in Globe & Mail

A new Globe & Mail article, ‘Academics launch unique approaches to climate change,’ featuring an interview with ACT Executive Director Deborah Harford, highlights ACT as Canada’s only university organization addressing the policy aspects of climate change.

“We need to reduce our emissions and show other nations how that can be done – but also plan for the inevitable effects of warming, which span everything from health risks such as the spread to tropical diseases, to impacts of extreme weather and increased storms, to problems with our crop and water supplies,” says Harford. “It’s about increasing resilience and learning how to think about everything in new ways.”

The article notes that the challenges of dealing with climate change also present the opportunity to be creative when making smart adaptation choices, in order to benefit both the environment and economy.

“All you need is conviction and the right kind of information and you can make a difference. You can affect the future if you have the courage of your convictions,” Harford adds.

Link to the full article here.


What’s the connection between potholes and penguins?

Recent criticism that Canada’s municipal leaders are wasting time discussing issues that are “a little far afield from matters of city hall”, at an upcoming leader’s conference in Whistler, BC is missing the point.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Jean Lemaire, Quebecois biologist and oceanographer, will make a presentation on the impacts of climate change on the endangered ecosystem of Antarctica, the “last unspoiled continent on the planet.”

Some claim the conference’s agenda should focus on more important issues such as mending pothole-ridden roads. But the fact is climate change is inextricably linked to these municipal matters.

Many municipal problems – including infrastructure damage such as road surfaces buckling in extreme heat or collapsing in heavy rainstorms and producing problems such as potholes, at the very least – are caused or exacerbated by the increase in extreme weather events we can expect to see as a result of climate change.

Not to mention other serious municipal concerns such as sea-level rise affecting ports and waterfront property; health risks such as the migration of tropical disease; and widespread impacts on biodiversity – including the spread of pests like the mountain pine beetle currently partly responsible for the extremely elevated fire risk in areas such as 100 Mile House, BC.

So before we dismiss those pesky penguins in the Antarctic as a niche interest, it may be good to recognize them as an indicator that our municipal potholes are likely going to get worse if we don’t take action to adapt to, and mitigate, the consequences of climate change we’re already experiencing.

ACT’s second report – on Extreme Weather Events, authored by Dr. Gordon McBean of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction – is scheduled for release in early September.


Unusually dry spring increases BC firefighting costs by double

An unusually dry spring in BC has caused firefighting costs to nearly double in comparison to the same period last year, with the BC forest service reporting 368 wildfires between April 1 and May 30 compared to 280 in 2008.

The problem isn’t cheap: fighting the fires has cost the province $5.93 million fighting them so far, compared to $3.29 million for the same period last year.

Former 100 Mile House Mayor Donna Barnett attended ACT’s Biodiversity conference in the spring of 2008, and presented on the hazards that trees killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle pose to communities like 100 Mile House, including vulnerability to wildfire.

The ripple effects of this climate change-forced, devastating infestation are being strongly felt through issues such as disruption of the forestry industry, and the increased risk of wildfire due to changing precipitation patterns and higher temperatures combining to cause tinderbox conditions.

ACT publishes its second set of policy recommendations – on Extreme Weather – in September 2009.


Unforeseen consequences of climate change: land rising as Alaska’s glaciers melt

Global climate disruption is causing unforeseen impacts in Juneau, Alaska: As warming temperatures cause glaciers to melt at an unprecedented rate, land that is being relieved of billions of tons of weight is ascending so quickly that rising sea levels cannot keep pace.

Residents of affected areas along the coastline have observed waterfront property change rapidly, as land has risen as much as 10 feet in little more than 200 years, according to a 2007 report “Climate Change: Predicted Impacts on Juneau,” by Dr. Eran Hood, a hydrologist at the University of Alaska Southeast. Scientists predict that further warming and melting could cause the land to rise more than three feet by 2100.

The resulting changes are leading to a number of complex ecological and environmental challenges. Falling water tables are causing salmon streams and wetlands to dry out. Shifting property boundaries are instigating arguments among residents over who owns the exposed land, and how it should be used. Glacial melt waters carrying sediment have silted up channels that were once navigable by wildlife, recreational boaters, and kayakers.

Mayor Bruce Botelho of Juneau convened a special panel of experts in 2007 to discuss the impacts of rebounding land in the region. Discussion is still ongoing as to how best manage the changing coastal landscape.


Climate change #1 health risk of 21st century

A new report by University College London and The Lancet, dubbed the ‘Stern Report for Health’, warns that we have seriously underestimated health risks associated with global climate disruption.

“The big message of this report is that climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people, not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation,” says Professor Anthony Costello of the UCL Institute for Global Health, and lead author of the report. “The impacts will be felt not just in the UK, but all around the world – and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”

According to the report, tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are likely to migrate as temperatures increase. Extreme weather events, similar to the 2003 heat wave that caused over 70,000 deaths in Europe, will occur more frequently.

Costello states there is an urgent need for health to play a larger role in the climate change debate, and calls for a major overhaul of global health systems to ensure infrastructure is prepared to cope with the coming impacts.

He also notes that ‘rich nations’ are not as prepared to handle extreme weather events as we might think; for instance, many hospital facilities in industrialized countries lack experience in managing outbreaks of tropical diseases like malaria.

The report also highlights health benefits associated with a low-carbon lifestyle, which can “reduce obesity, heart and lung disease, diabetes and stress”, and says this is a concept governments should do more to promote.

“We must develop win–win situations whereby we mitigate and adapt to climate change and at the same time significantly improve human health and wellbeing,” says Costello.

BC’s carbon tax was recently rated the most effective climate policy of its kind in Canada. Though the policy was criticized for lacking national reach, and is only environmentally effective in the medium turn, it still managed to score 22 points higher than the next best policy – hailing from Quebec.

ACT’s mandate features development of understanding around the combination of adaptation and mitigation. Our third session – on energy production and distribution in the low carbon economy – kicks off in the fall of 2009. ACT is also planning a Health session.


Food security study warns of climate change impact on global food supply

A new study of the effects of climate change on global agriculture, published by University of Washington climate researcher David Battisti in the journal Science, voices concerns about a global, “perpetual food crisis.” The study shows that climate disruption may cause massive, simultaneous crop failures in many regions as early as 2040.

Findings based on IPPC climate modeling suggest that the worst heat waves and floods of the past are likely to become more frequent events. According to the study, these weather pattern changes could affect yields by 20 to 40%, with disastrous consequences – particularly in the tropics and subtropics where many people are already malnourished.

“For me, this is the strongest argument that either you have to do something about global warming or you need to actually figure out how you’re going to deal with these kind of permanent reductions in yield,” Dr. Battisti said, warning that climate change’s effect on agriculture is likely to be an even larger threat to humanity than the potential submerging of coastal cities due to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Battisti notes that one way to prevent crop failure would be to breed varieties better able to withstand higher temperatures, but warns this could take decades. It’s clear that we should consider a variety of adaptation methods that will be complementary with the agriculture industry’s current practices.

ACT’s fifth session, Crop and Food Supply, will look at the fact that steady increases in summer temperatures, combined with shifting hydrological regimes, are already causing crops to fail in many countries, threatening well-being and economies on a massive scale. In Canada, planting practices from wheat to wine are already shifting, with some areas becoming less hospitable and others opening up. The session will combine current research with the findings from the Biodiversity, Extreme Events, Energy and Water sessions to explore policies and practices that will assist us to adapt food production methods now and in the long-term.


700 square kilometers of ice calves off Antarctic ice shelf

An iceberg the size of New York City has broken off the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Satellite data shows that approximately 700 square kilometers separated from the shelf and shattered into hundreds of icebergs.

The Wilkins Shelf, stable for most of the last century, began retreating in the 1990s.
The trend has been widely blamed on climate change caused by heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels in cars, factories and power plants, according to David Vaughan, a British Antarctic Survey scientist.

“There is little doubt that these changes are the result of atmospheric warming,” said Vaughn. “The retreat of Wilkins Ice Shelf is the latest and the largest of its kind.” He adds, “Eight separate ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have shown signs of retreat over the last few decades.”

Scientists estimate the Wilkins Shelf will lose some 3,370 square kilometers more — an area larger than Rhode Island, or two-thirds the size of Luxembourg – over the next few weeks. Researchers believe the shelf was held in place by an ice bridge linking Charcot Island to the Antarctic mainland, which disintegrated on April 5th having lost two large chunks last year.

This disintegration of monumental amounts of ancient ice is yet another indication that we must reduce our emissions as fast as we can, emphasizing the need to phase out the energy sources that produce them. However, along with the development and implementation of new, clean energy technologies, we must be mindful that climate change will continue to impact essential infrastructure, and may also compromise the very energy sources we switch to.

Hydro power, for instance, is vulnerable to major shifts in hydrological regimes predicted by climate models, and already being experienced in many places.

ACT’s upcoming Energy session will look at the pressure to reduce emissions and the need to adapt energy generation and distribution methods to climate impacts.


BC’s carbon tax leads the way on Canadian climate policy

Sustainable Prosperity, a think tank based at the University of Ottawa, has rated British Columbia’s carbon tax the most effective climate policy of its kind in Canada.

The group’s findings, which slammed the BC NDP’s alternative to the current carbon tax policy as the weakest solution in Canada, also acknowledge that the BC government must take further steps in order to achieve eight key principals it has identified that are key to making carbon pricing effective in fighting climate change.

According to Sustainable Prosperity, a fully effective carbon pricing plan must be comprehensive, nation-wide, simple and readily implemented, transparent and accountable, complemented by other measures, environmentally effective, ultimately comparable to carbon prices in other countries, and predictable but adaptable.

BC’s plan fell short in two areas by the findings’ standards: the policy lacks national reach, and is only environmentally effective in the medium turn. But it’s a start, and a good one at that! In comparison to other provinces, BC beat out second place Quebec by 22 points, with Alberta trailing in last place.

ACT’s upcoming Energy session, from September 2009-February 2010, will look at the urgent need for new standards and solutions for BC’s energy sector in light of climate change impacts and economic stresses, as the pressure to reduce emissions and the need to adapt energy generation and distribution methods to climate impacts create new opportunities as well as challenges.

The session, made possible by BC Hydro and Plutonic Power, will also emphasize the importance of partnering mitigation with adaptation strategies, and will explore the emergence and influence of a global low carbon economy.


Hurricane Katrina lawsuit highlights need for infrastructure adaptation

A lawsuit in the United States has highlighted the importance of adapting infrastructure to deal with the effects of extreme weather events such as storms. Last week, six plaintiffs in New Orleans filed a civil lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, stating that a channel they had constructed adjacent to the city exacerbated the impact of Hurricane Katrina on dwellings in the vicinity.

‘MR-GO’, otherwise known as ‘Mister Go’, is a 122 km-long channel that provides a shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans’s inner harbour. After much criticism for its negative environmental effects, such as erosion and alleged increased storm surge during Katrina, the channel was recently closed to ship traffic.

A geological expert, testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, claims that Mister Go was responsible for “one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the United States.”

As the four-week court case unfolds, homeowners from areas similarly affected by Katrina look on anxiously; a ruling in the favour of the six plaintiffs could open up a platform for 400,000 other parties who have also filed negligence claims against the government for devastation caused by the hurricane.

ACT’s second set of policy findings – on adaptation measures for extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina – is scheduled for release mid-May 2009.


EPA declares ‘compelling and overwhelming’ scientific evidence GHGs are harmful to humans

In a groundbreaking announcement this week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gasses are pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, stating that the science supporting the findings was “compelling and overwhelming.”

Amongst other threats, the agency identified effects of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and the other gases that include increased drought, more heavy downpours and flooding, more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires, a steeper than anticipated rise in sea levels, more intense storms, and harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems – findings that further highlight the urgent need for adaptation planning to build resilience and adaptive capacity for communities who will be, and are already, feeling the effects of a shifting climate.

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said: “This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama’s call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation.”

ACT’s first set of policy findings – on biodiversity – includes recommendations for building resilience against climate change impacts for ecosystems. ACT’s second set of policy findings, on Extreme Weather Events, is due for release late spring 2009.


Canada’s security and climate change: Harper government missing the mark?

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is failing to grasp the security risks that climate change threatens for Canadians, according to a recent article by Margaret Purdy, research associate in the Centre of International Relations at the University of British Columbia, and Leanne Smythe, PhD candidate in political science at UBC, published in the Toronto Star.

The severity and frequency of climate change-related events such as storms, flooding, droughts, and pest infestations will have “dramatic social, economic and international relations repercussions,” according to Purdy and Smythe, and “could strain – if not overwhelm – our emergency preparedness, disaster response, critical infrastructure protection, public health, law enforcement and military capacities.”

In comparison, our neighbours to the south appear to be developing a better grasp of the effects of climate change on national security. During his first week in office, Obama warned that unchecked climate change “could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe;” and has surrounded himself with advisors who speak candidly about climate change in security terms.

Purdy and Smythe propose that Canada could assume a global leadership role by undertaking serious assessment of how the changing climate will impact our national security, public safety and international security interests over the next 30 years. And that “Ottawa could do what no other government has yet done – use a country-specific risk assessment as the basis for developing a national adaptation and preparedness strategy.”

But they’d better hurry – the UK, a country already far ahead of many others on both mitigation and adaptation planning, has recently mandated a national risk assessment to be repeated every three years that considers climate change as a principal risk factor. Now that’s action!

ACT’s second set of policy findings – on Extreme Weather Events, which includes recommendations for emergency preparedness and public safety policy – is due for release late spring 2009.


2009 the “crunch year” for global forestry planning

The world’s forests are key to reducing the damaging effects of climate change caused by humans, but if leaders attending a key UN summit in December do not find a way to halt deforestation, it could be too late.

Head of climate change research for Earthwatch Dr. Dan Bebbe warns, “This year is the crunch time for forests and climate change. We are hoping for big things from the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of 2009.”

“Unless we tackle the question of forests as a mitigation method for climate change,” he adds, “then we will really have lost the battle to keep greenhouse gas concentrations below levels that many people would consider to be dangerous.”

As ACT’s climate change adaptation and biodiversity report suggests, it’s time we began valuing forests in terms of ecosystem goods and services rather than traditional market returns. A recent report by Swedish businessman Johan Eliasch proposes paying developing nations not to deforest land, thus providing aid while preserving vital carbon sinks and biodiversity.

Such a scheme could reduce deforestation rates by up to 75% by 2030, Mr Eliasch concludes; an important development, given that old growth tropical forest removal – trees being felled or burned to convert fertile land into arable farmland – currently accounts for almost 20% of human-caused CO2 emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol, a controversial international initiative that sets binding targets for reducing GHG emissions, is due to expire in 2012, and member countries must design an effective follow-up. Global forestry practices were not included in Kyoto, and must now find their place within the broader solution, according to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the UN secretary general’s climate change envoy.

ACT’s first set of policy recommendations on climate change adaptation and biodiversity are available on our website.

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