Climate stability becomes a relic of the past in B.C. due to loss of hydrologic stationarity

Canadian water-policy expert Robert Sandford says the implications are profound and far-reaching for everyone

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      Here’s a phrase that most British Columbians have never heard before: hydrologic stationarity.

      But to Canadian water-policy expert Robert Sandford, hydrologic stationarity is a vitally important concept that people must consider in evaluating recent extreme-weather events in B.C.

      In a phone interview with the Straight from his home in Canmore, Alberta, Sandford said that if anyone wants to truly comprehend what’s going on with the climate, they really must understand water cycles.

      “Hydrologic stationarity is the relative stability of the hydrologic system that we’ve relied on for the stability upon which we built our civilization,” Sandford, a senior policy adviser for the Adaptation to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University, said. “And we’ve lost hydrologic stationarity.”

      Think about that for a moment.

      The basis upon which civilization has been built—relatively predictable weather cycles and rainfall patterns—can no longer be counted on, according to Sandford, who’s also a fellow of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan.

      That has profound ramifications for the economy, food production, and transportation systems, among other things.

      Without a relatively stable water system, weird things can happen.

      Like hundreds of millimetres of rain falling on the Fraser Valley in a rapid-fire series of atmospheric rivers in November.

      Like a massive mudslide trapping and killing motorists near Lillooet.

      Like 75 B.C. Hydro power poles washing away along with large sections of Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge.

      Like an entire town of 7,000 people, Merritt, being evacuated due to the Coldwater River overflowing its banks.

      Like huge gashes being ripped into the Coquihalla Highway from rushing water that makes mincemeat of previously sacrosanct engineering standards.

      According to Sandford, hundreds of engineering rules of thumb have been rendered irrelevant by the recent extreme weather.

      “As tragic as it is, what’s happened in British Columbia should awaken us to a really sweeping revelation,” Sandford said.

      In a recently completed and unpublished paper, Sandford insisted that the truth of what just occurred in B.C. is “far more staggering than the scale of the flood damage and their impacts on people just like us that we see before our eyes on the nightly news”.

      “That truth is that we have located our agriculture and built our communities and all associated infrastructure in places and to standards appropriate to what we thought was a relatively stable climate; climate conditions upon which we can no longer rely,” he wrote. “What should be deeply alarming to all is that climate we have taken for granted for so long is, right before our very eyes, being replaced by a climate that, unless we act now, we may not survive.”

      He also predicted in the paper that the Coquihalla Highway “could be wiped out again and again before being fully repaired, if, in fact, that will ever be possible again”.

      “The costs of rebuilding to a new standard of risk—a standard that unless we stabilize our climate will forever keep moving beyond our grasp—are incalculable,” Sandford declared.

      While heat waves are more deadly than floods, Sandford said that "it's through the expression of the hydrologic cycle that climate-change impacts are going to affect us the most."

      Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge suffered severe damage because the Nicola River changed directions as a result of severe rainfall.
      Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure

      Atmospheric changes were poorly understood

      The recent biblical-scale flooding is, of course, not the only freaky climate-related event of 2021.

      There were also B.C. wildfires that scorched more than 860,000 hectares—an area more than 75 times the size of Vancouver’s entire expanse—and a heat dome in the last week of June that killed almost 600 British Columbians, according to chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

      Sandford linked the heat dome to changes in the jet streams brought on by a warming Arctic. He said that the north-to-south modulation of these oscillating air currents has grown dramatically at different times of the year, slowing their movement eastward.

      “It literally parks, like your heat dome,” he said. “So, consequently, what you’re seeing is these big events—whether they’re snow events, cold snaps, heat waves, or flooding events—are more intense and last longer.”

      Two years ago, he was in India when about 45 million people were "very close to being completely without water" because of changes to the moonsoon.

      "You're seeing longer, deeper, more persistant droughts, hotter temperatures, and then when you do get get storms of a magnitude that we've never seen before," Sandford said.

      He added that changes to the very dynamics of the entire planetary system were poorly understood when severe floods occurred in Pakistan in 2009 and in Australia in 2010. Now, they're becoming clearer.

      "Science moves very slowly on purpose because it doesn't want to be wrong—moving inexorably toward what is hopefully closer and closer to truth," Sandford said. "It takes a long time for consensus to be achieved on peer-reviewed information."

      Because of this cautious approach, he said that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions have often underestimated the magnitude of changes that later took place.

      In addition, he pointed out that member states, including fossil-fuel producers, can vet statements in the IPCC summaries to policymakers, which is another way that climate impacts can be underestimated.

      Robert Sandford was writing about atmospheric rivers many years before this term became a buzzword on local TV newscasts.

      Water vapour is a greenhouse gas

      Sandford is the Global Water Futures Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He coauthored the UN Water in the World We Want report.

      He has also been writing about these issues for years in several of his books published by Rocky Mountain Books (RMB).

      In 2015, for example, Storm Warning: Water and Climate Security in a Changing World laid out how the planet’s atmosphere is warming at an astonishing rate, in part because of the acceleration of the global hydrologic cycle.

      Years before local TV weather forecasters were talking about atmospheric rivers, Sandford starkly explained in the book how these “corridors of intense winds and moist air” could wreak havoc on communities.

      “It wasn’t until we ended up with really good satellite-based data that we could see the extent of what an atmospheric river was and does,” Sandford told the Straight. “And now we find a strong atmospheric river could be thousands of kilometres long, 500 kilometres across, and carry 10 to 15 times the amount of water that is carried in the Mississippi [River] in a given day.”

      This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has studied the works of two influential 19th-century thermodynamics researchers: German physicist Rudolf Clausius and French engineer Benoît Paul Émile Clapeyron.

      Sandford pointed out that the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, named after these scientists, determined that the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water increases about seven percent for every 1° C increase in temperature.

      Due to rising greenhouse-gas emissions, the Earth’s average temperature has risen just over 1° C since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

      Sandford noted that this means the atmosphere is now capable of holding seven percent more water vapour than back then. If that temperature rises to 2° or 3° C above pre-industrial times, the atmosphere will hold 14 or 21 percent more water vapour.

      To Sandford, this rise in average global temperature is one of the reasons why we’re seeing such intense rainfalls in different parts of the world, including B.C.

      “Rising temperatures have caused the water cycle to accelerate,” Sandford said. “Water is moving more quickly and more energetically through the global water cycle. And that is exactly the manifestation that we’re seeing as a result of climate change.”

      According to him, a 4° C rise from pre-industrial times would amount to “living on a different planet”.

      That’s not all. Water vapour is also a greenhouse gas, so as more of it is added to the atmosphere through evaporation from oceans, it traps more heat.

      Under the "Hothouse Earth" pathway, various heat-reinforcing feedback loops are expected to kick in at different temperature thresholds.

      Runaway climate change

      One of Sandford's biggest concerns is positive feedback loops, which can be set off with more warming of the planet and which reinforce this trend.

      In a 2018 paper, several leading climate scientists outlined what they called a "Hothouse Earth" pathway.

      At various temperature thresholds, they forecast various tipping points, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the loss of Arctic summer and winter ice, changes to the jet streams, the loss of alpine glaciers, melting of permafrost, et cetera. [See image above.]

      "No matter what your goals might be as a nation in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, if this gets away on you, you’re going to have sweeping effects that you can’t begin to conceive of—in the same way that we’re just seeing right now in British Columbia," Sandford said. 

      Another RMB book, The Climate Nexus: Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World—one that Sandford cowrote with former senior B.C. government civil servant Jon O’Riordan—also highlighted changes to hydrologic cycles. In addition, it warned of the links between degraded soils and even more carbon being released into the atmosphere.

      Sandford cited UN reports suggesting that at current rates of soil decline, there might be just 60 years left before the agriculture sector will suffer irreparable harm.

      “The reverse is also true,” he added. “If we restore soil balance, we can draw [carbon] down from the atmosphere.”

      Sandford declared that industrial agriculture, as it’s being practised nowadays, is “self-terminating”. And the breakdown of hydrologic stationarity isn’t helping matters.

      “You saw the impact on farmers in your region, which are just absolutely tragic,” Sandford said. “And that, unfortunately, is what we’re going to see more of. Welcome to the future.”

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