Simply put, says Kootenay scientist Greg Utzig, climate change is about air.
“What we’re talking about in terms of climate change is air,” said Utzig at a talk on climate change in Revelstoke last week. “That is what this issue is all about. You wouldn’t think about throwing pollutants in the river, but every time you drive your car or start your lawnmower you’re polluting. What we’ve been doing to the air effects the other elements in every way.”
Utzig, along with Cindy Pearce of Mountain Labyrinths Consulting, presented the talk on Thursday, Mar. 13, at the community centre. It was hosted by the Columbia Mountain Institute of Applied Ecology as part of a two-day workshop on the issue, and focused on how climate change could impact various areas of the local environment including fish and wildlife habitat, glacial retreat, and local flora.
“I’m going to talk about climate change, but in a way that applies to you in your own life,” he said to an audience of approximately 30 people.
He then let the audience know just how many emissions of C02 the Columbia Basin is contributing — 3.4 million tonnes annually.
“We are contributing a substantial mount. We are part of the problem,” said Utzig. “Carbon emissions have been increasing each year since the 1970s. The earth is essentially breathing, but we’re covering it in emissions.”
What does this mean for the future? For Utzig, it’s first important to distinguish between weather and climate change. He describes weather as ‘what it’s going to do tomorrow’, while climate change is a long term average.
“We’re talking about trying to predicate major changes that occur over decades or centuries. We’re talking about major changes of long term conditions,” he said. “The curve is changing and it is getting warmer, which is closer to what we are seeing today, which is why we are still getting cold weather but not as much as we used to get. We are getting more hot weather and record hot weather.”
Utzig further pointed out that we are getting more unusual weather, and that it’s getting warmer. Some of the climatic extremes being seen are unusual heat waves, droughts, hail storms, high-intensity rain storms and flooding, windstorms/tornadoes, lightning storms, ice storms, hail storms, and early springs.
So, what’s happening more locally? Projected changes for the 2050s include a 2–3 C increase in summer temperatures; a 10-15 per cent increase in winter, spring and fall precipitation, and decreases in summer precipitations.
“That’s a fairly ominous change, especially when you think about fire. We’re already locked into a certain amount of heating by what we’ve done in the past, “ said Utzig, who also pointed out that projections could be different if we get rid of emissions.
Pearce, who has also been working on climate change locally for a number of years, pointed out that one degree difference may not seem like much, it does add up.
“When I first started working on climate change, I thought one degree, who cares? The difference between Vancouver and Revelstoke’s mean average temperature is three degrees. So a small change in temperature, big change in climate,” she said.
Utzig said there is more variation in precipitation than there is in temperatures.
“The last couple decades we’ve had a substantial decrease in winter precipitation,” he said. “What’s projected in the future is actually an increase in precipitation, but not much more than what we’ve had in the past in the 1970s.”
There’s a huge amount of local variations. “If you look at Revelstoke (precipitation) drops, if you look at Mica it went up,” he said.
While it’s not possible to yet know how climate change will impact local ecosystems, Utzig presented projections for the 2080’s based on three different biogeoclimactic zones: hot/wet, wet/dry, and warm/moist. All three models indicate lower elevations are going to get warmer and drier.
“There’s pretty good certainty about what is going to happen at the lower and mid elevations and a lot of uncertainty about what will happen at the upper levels,” said Utzig. “There could be some big changes.”
One of those changes could be in the types of fish being seen in local lakes and streams. Most fish in area require cold water, he noted.
“If you start increasing air temperatures, it increases water temperature and that creates problems,” said Utzig. “Looking at salmon historically, there are some temperatures that are stressful to salmon in the Columbia River, but it’s basically OK. By the 2040s, temperatures projected would probably be killing salmon.”
Changes to the ecosystem could also mean a loss of of stream-side vegetation, as well as competition from invading fish species. These ecosystem changes will be gradual, and some species may be able to adapt, while others won’t.
“Likely ecosystems will reorganize, come up with different ecosystems. We’ll see different predator prey relationships,” said Utzig who says the most likely catalyst for these changes is the increased risk of fires.
“The important thing to think about is we need to do something. It’s going to get worse unless we do something,” he said. “The other thing we need to do is adapt to these changes as well. When you look at these projections it makes a big deal. We need to change the way we are doing things.”
Ideally, said Utzig, we need to look at adaptation and mitigation — using wood from interface fire treatments to displace fossil fuels for heat; protect forests to sequester carbon and assist ecosystem adaptation; increasing building insulation to reduce fuel use and adapting to summer heat waves, and changing lifestyles (e.g. biking, walking, using public transportation).