Strange Weather in the Forecast
By Josh Pennell
The first time I saw black-and-white photos of a frozen St. John's harbour, I remember marvelling at the image of young boys strolling across wide pans of ice in the same place where I'm used to seeing cold, black water. In a way that any politician's rhetoric or environmentalist's warning could never do, those pictures made me think about the impact of climate change. Seeing them brought to life those grandfatherly stories about how winters today are nothing compared to those of past generations.
Climate change in Atlantic Canada may sound like a positive thing for a region that traditionally suffers from brutal winters. But if you imagine the east coast suddenly becoming a tropical paradise, don't throw out Nan's home-knit mitts just yet.
According to Norm Catto, a professor of geography at Memorial University in St. John's, the global warming trend is not that pronounced in this region.
"I always tell people to expect more of the same type of (weather) events. We're not going to get exotic events. This is not going to turn into Miami," says Catto.
The study of weather changes in Newfoundland over the past few decades has shown some disturbing patterns. On the west coast of the island, precipitation has increased by 10 per cent since the 1940s. The result has been more rain for Corner Brook and more snow for Marble Mountain, which according to Catto can mean more thawing events.
Such changes in weather may increase the chance of flooding, with devastating results. In February 2003, for example, three rivers in the central Newfoundland town of Badger simultaneously thawed and jammed up with ice, flooding the community. Temperatures then plunged, encasing the flooded town in ice. More than 1,000 people were evacuated and millions of dollars in property damage resulted.
Natural Resources Canada has identified many regions along the Atlantic coast as "highly sensitive" to sea level rise. Rising ocean levels mean that any place with low-lying coast or sand and gravel are more susceptible to erosion caused by storm surges. These include the north shore of Prince Edward Island, the Gulf coast of New Brunswick, much of the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, and parts of Charlottetown and Saint John. In Newfoundland, susceptible areas include Middle Cove, parts of Conception Bay South and areas in Eastport.
Key issues for these areas include increases in storm surge flooding, permanent submerging of parts of the coast, accelerated erosion of beaches and coastal dunes, degradation of coastal wetlands such as salt marshes, and saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers. A case study conducted in Prince Edward Island suggests that more intense storm surges resulting from sea level rise and climate change would have significant economic impacts on urban infrastructure and properties in Charlottetown.
According to an article on Wikipedia, scientists have shown that the sea level has risen about 130 metres (400 ft) since the peak of the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. From 3,000 years ago to the start of the 19th century sea level was almost constant, rising at 0.1 to 0.2 mm per year. Following the Industrial Revolution, the level has risen at 1 to 2 mm per year; since 1993 the rate of rise has been measured at around 3.1 mm per year.
Global warming may cause sea-level rise through the increased melting of glaciers and ice caps, and the thermal expansion of seawater. (Thermal expansion is the tendency for matter to expand when heated. Think about a tight jar lid. If you run hot tap water over it, the lid comes off more easily because it has expanded.)
Catto says most experts believe there will be an increase in storm activity in the next 20 years, the reverberations of which will be felt throughout several industries. For example, Newfoundland depends on a ferry service for food supplies, and shelves go bare in just a few days when there's an interruption. Delays to the ferry service now are estimated to cost up to $6 million a year and that doesn't take into account the cost of such things as spoiled food and storm damages.
The oil industry could also be affected. Increased storm incidents make life in an already harsh environment that much more dangerous. Things are different from the days of the Ocean Ranger disaster, however (see page 42 for a description of this event). Safety has become a top priority in the industry, and modern rigs are built specifically to cope with North Atlantic wind and waves. Still, increased storm activity can mean delays in getting people, gear and food to and from platforms.
More storm surges will also impact the fishing industry, with potentially greater damage to fishing gear, boats and docks, and a rise in incidents requiring Coast Guard assistance. Safety and equipment aside, some scientists say the fish population simply won't be there if things keep following the current climate trend.
Rudy Sookbirsingh, an environmental scientist with Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, says small degree changes alter ocean ecosystems. Species can often adapt to fluctuations of a degree or so over 10 to 15 years, he says, but if the change is sharper, the consequences for the fishing industry could be devastating. Commercially successful species like capelin, shrimp, mackerel and crab will either adapt, migrate or die, taking many people's livelihood with them, says Sookbirsingh.
Preparing for the changes
Catto believes planning ahead can help alleviate future problems. If areas are susceptible to flooding, then we should not build there. For communities already built in high-risk areas, structures must be designed to reduce the stress of flooding events. We also have to improve emergency response plans, distribute resources more efficiently to affected people, and process insurance claims more quickly after flood damage has been assessed.
In northern Canada, people are already adapting to a changing environment as temperatures rise. Trevor Bell, like Catto a professor of geography at Memorial University, researches the impact of climate change on Arctic coastal communities. The thinning of sea ice in regions such as northern Labrador is affecting the food source of the Inuit people who live there, he says. Accidents caused by inadequate ice conditions are on the rise, and people are planning for riskier crossings. More than ever they're learning to use new technology, viewing online satellite images to check for ice conditions. They're bringing more supplies with them, and in some cases, small boats to cross open water. However, Bell explains that the disappearance of ice is not just an issue of cost and safety for those living in the Arctic. The ability to hunt and gather for food, he says, has strong cultural significance for the Inuit.
Bell adds that climate change is also affecting northern ecosystems that need cool temperatures; these are retreating in face of the warming trend. The alpine tundra, found on mountaintops, will only migrate so far up a mountain before it has nowhere left to go. The already endangered caribou herds found in places like the Mealy Mountains of Labrador, which depend on the alpine tundra for survival, will have yet another threat to face if that ecosystem disappears.
Making matters worse, Bell says, is the uneasy feeling that we will have to lie in the bed we've made. "Any change we make to our lifestyle right now on the emission of greenhouse gases will only take effect roughly after 2050, so in 40 years' time," says Bell. "The next 50 years have already been determined for us."
Seeking the truth
In spite of the doom-and-gloom prognosis on the state of our environment, there is much debate among scientists over what is actually happening to the global climate.
Al Gore, who served as U.S. vice-president under Bill Clinton, won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore was honoured for his efforts to draw the world's attention to the dangers of human-influenced climate change through his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Yet the British High Court recently identified nine factual errors in the film, stating that it considers these errors to be examples of alarmism and exaggeration. The court has ruled that the film cannot be shown in British secondary schools unless accompanied by guidance notes that balance Gore's views, said by the court to be one-sided and politically partisan.
While the British High Court still thinks An Inconvenient Truth to be broadly accurate, there are those who disagree entirely with Gore's point of view. Retired University of Winnipeg professor of climatology, Dr. Tim Ball, is an example. He has come under fire from critics who call him a "climate change denier," a title he finds amusing.
"My whole career has been going around and saying 'climate changes all the time, that's what you've got to understand.' And then the issue becomes what's the cause?" says Ball.
He explains that climate change is a completely natural event caused by the sun and something referred to as the Milankovitch Theory. The hypothesis says that things like the tilt and orbit of the earth are not constant and, as they vary, so does the amount of energy from the sun that reaches Earth.
Ball's response to climate change is easy: do nothing. The warming period is natural and it's actually over, he says. A global cooling period has already begun.
For some of us, his explanation sounds like a great alternative. For others, it's ludicrous. Many of us are simply confused by the differences in opinion. We want science to give us an ultimate truth, something it is not capable of providing. There is no history or precedent: this is the first time in history that the global climate has had to deal with the extra carbon dioxide we're emitting through human activity. Sookbirsingh, the environmental scientist, explains it as such: "We are conducting an experiment and we don't know what's going to happen."
The possibilities of climate change may be frightening. But in Atlantic Canada, where we say you can get four seasons in one day; where northern currents and southern gulfs collide; where winter storms surge coasts and ravage communities with snow, freezing rain and hail; where hurricanes make their final landfall...nobody can say we're afraid of a little strange weather.