B.C. universities help the province and Metro Vancouver cities adapt to the climate crisis

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      Last winter, Vancouver’s local ski hills received so little snow that it called into question their businesses’ very existence. Cypress Mountain was fully operational for only 47 days, less than half the 100 days it guarantees pass holders. Mount Seymour counted just 12 days when all chairlifts were running.

      The hills tried to adapt, using heavy machinery to move natural snow to where it was needed. They also invested in snowmaking equipment. It takes a lot of time and money to compensate for Mother Nature.

      In a telephone interview, UBC professor Stephen Sheppard said climate models forecast that the drastic decline in snowpack the Lower Mainland experienced in 2014-15 will eventually become the norm.

      “We are seeing conditions now that may become the typical condition in 2050 or, best case, 2080,” he said. “We shouldn’t expect that what we saw last year will happen every year. But it will, I’m sure, become more frequent.”

      Sheppard, who oversees a degree program focused on climate-proofing cities, warned that less snow on the North Shore Mountains is just one of many changes British Columbians should expect, regardless of any progress on climate change.

      A November 2014 “information note” prepared for B.C.’s minister of environment says the same.

      “Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped now,” reads the document, which was released in March 2015 in response to a freedom-of-information request. “In British Columbia, anticipated impacts include sea level rise and ocean acidification, decreasing snow pack, longer and hotter summers, and more intense rainfall.”

      An academic paper UBC professor Stephen Sheppard co-authored in 2011 incorporated sophisticated climate models to predict less snow for the North Shore Mountains.

      Just as North Shore ski hills are adjusting operations to compensate for less snow, the provincial government and Metro Vancouver cities have begun work on adaptation, responding to the effects of climate change that are already here and preparing for worse to come.

      Those efforts rely heavily on the region’s universities, noted Thomas White, manager of climate risk management in the B.C. ministry of environment.

      He told the Straight that implementing adaptation policies can sometimes feel like running toward a moving goal post.

      “There isn’t necessarily a static, fixed solution that solves the problem,” White said. “We’re not moving from one steady state that was the past to a new steady state that’s fixed. Basically, if we are looking forward, we just have to expect to deal with change.”

      That’s where academia comes in. For example, White said, in constructing a bridge or highway, engineers once looked at historical data and used weather patterns described in those records to prepare infrastructure for precedents observed in the past. But that’s no longer sufficient.

      “When people are doing long-term planning, they are now thinking, ‘I need to go to a source of information like the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at UVic and get the best information I can about conditions that might be expected in the future,’ ” White said.

      Low-lying municipalities like Delta must prepare for high sea levels and an increased risk of flooding, according to an academic paper UBC professor Stephen Sheppard co-authored in 2011.

      Low-lying cities

      In a telephone interview, Tamsin Mills, senior sustainability specialist for the City of Vancouver, said citizens might not know it but money is already being spent on adaptation in just about every direction one looks.

      When trees are planted down a length of sidewalk, for example, or a new water fountain is installed on a downtown street corner, the locations are often selected with knowledge of where populations are vulnerable to temperature increases, Mills said. Those efforts can involve complicated engineering considerations, she continued, including surface- and air-temperature mapping that incorporates the latest data from climate-change models.

      Less visible to the casual eye, Mills continued, was an increase to Vancouver’s flood construction level (FCL) passed in 2014. That bylaw amendment increased the FCL from 3.5 metres to 4.6, compensating for a one-metre rise in sea levels expected by 2100.

      Mills emphasized that the city got serious about adaptation years ago, noting it published an official strategy in 2012 and has already implemented many of the policies described in that document.

      “We are just wrapping up the second phase and hope to go to council with the related recommendations in early spring,” she said.

      A summary of how climate change is expected to impact the City of Vancouver explains the region should expect higher sea levels, increasing tempuratures, more rain in the winter, and less rain during summer months.
      City of Vancouver

      Speaking from neighbouring Richmond, where the highest point is just 12 metres above sea level, John Irving, the city’s director of engineering, similarly told the Straight that infrastructure spending has long taken into account data related to the impacts of climate change.

      He said Richmond’s flood protection strategy received a major revision in 2008 and remains on track to keep the city above rising sea levels well into the next century.

      “Flood protection has just been a part of business here for the last 100 years,” Irving said. “We spend about $10 million a year on upgrading, maintaining, and raising dykes, all with an eye on the long-term sea-level rise in the 100-year scenario.”

      From an even lower elevation, the mayor of Delta, Lois Jackson, said she’s worked on adaptation since before many people even accepted that climate change was happening.

      “We started preparing in 2002,” she recalled. “I remember people thought I was crazy.”

      Jackson described constant efforts to maintain and improve Delta’s 62 kilometres of dykes; for example, spending millions over the last two years on flood protection for Boundary Bay.

      The need for a collective effort

      Back at the provincial level, the government is preparing to take a comprehensive look at its own adaptation programs, many of which include partnerships with cities. According to Colleen Rose, a spokesperson for the Auditor General of British Columbia, the office is in the “very early stages” of an audit of the province’s "climate action plan". That program was launched in 2007 and recently received a major update ahead of last December’s U.N. climate summit in Paris.

      In addition, in June 2015, Premier Christy Clark issued cabinet notes instructing several ministries to begin incorporating adaptation measures into infrastructure as well as other policy areas such as forestry and agriculture.

      Sybil Seitzinger is executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), which, together with the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, makes the University of Victoria a hub for B.C. weather and climate data. She argued that although efforts to mitigate climate change and prevent runaway warming have finally caught the public’s attention, people are just beginning to learn about what is required to respond to changes that are already inevitable.

      “Adaptation is a complex issue,” Seitzinger emphasized. “It involves many dimensions—not just the dimension of technology but also what the social implications of that are.”

      She said that is why PICS’s work on climate change increasingly looks beyond greenhouses gases to how humans are reacting to changes associated with an atmosphere polluted by more CO2.

      “It goes to how we adapt,” Seitzinger said. “It is not just an infrastructure issue but it goes to people’s lifestyles.”