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Western Canada has crossed into an entirely new hydro-climatic cycle, scientist says

Climate change is accelerating hydrology at an even faster pace than earlier thought, making for rapid-fire change

A Canadian scientist says those trying to protect farmland from future floods, and bolster local resilience against other extremes of hydrologic climate change must do so with a sense of urgency.

“I hope you’ll see beyond urgency to the emergency we face if we do not act in a timely and effective manner to protect our prosperity in face of hydrologic climatic change,” said Robert Sandford, the EPCOR chair on water security with the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in an address to the third annual conference of the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative (ARBI) held in Minot, N.D., Nov. 8 and 9.

Sandford spoke of the pending impacts of climate change in 2014 in Virden during formative meetings of the multi-jurisdictional organization. It was a somewhat skeptical audience he recalls.

“The risk economically I noted then was that the people of the region won’t be able to afford to deal with disasters and also simultaneously address their causes,” he said.

But many at the time “couldn’t see where they lived” what he was talking about when he described this part of Canada crossing into a completely different hydrological cycle.

The flood events of 2014, which turned large parts of the Assiniboine River Basin into a surreal landscape of swamp and submerged farmland, and ultimately cost $1.5 billion in damages, changed many minds.

The need to tackle this issue has only intensified since then, Sandford said in his Minot address earlier this month.

Quick pace

What we’re seeing is the hydrology of the entire Western Canada now accelerating at an even faster pace than recognized, with rapid-pace glacial melt in the Canadian Rockies and the intensification of atmospheric conditions or what scientists call “aerial rivers,” which are vast swaths of hundreds and even thousands of miles wide holding more water as global temperatures bump up.

The loss of hydrologic stationarity — or the previously used approaches based on precipitation patterns of the past expected to remain stable into the future — is going to make the future water planning even more problematic, Sandford said.

Stationarity is no longer a practical or even legally defensible method for designing water management systems, he said.

“The old maps and old methods no longer work,” he said. “This is one of the reasons forecasters were unable to predict what happened in 2014.”

And if this loss of stationarity may seem merely conceptual to some, the scientist warns its effects will hit home harder and be felt far sooner than we expect. More frequent and intense weather events, algal blooms now plaguing Lake Winnipeg and showing up in many hundreds more lakes, and mounting costs from damage getting beyond what we can afford are the impacts, he said.

“The Canadian West will be changed by this as much as by settlement in a decade,” he said.

Urgency

Since the Virden (2014) conference, climate scientists have also determined that existing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now sufficient to cause unacceptable warming, resulting in hydro-climatic change accelerating even faster than the most extreme projections. We now have permanently crossed the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration thresholds.

“And we’re on our way within a decade to probably 4.21 ppm, which many climate scientists hold to be the ceiling beyond which its going to be hard to control this warming,” Sandford said.

“What this means is we no longer have a carbon budget to burn through before we cross the threshold of irreversible change. We’re already there.”

In terms of hydro-climatic change “2050 is the new 2100 and 2030 is the new 2050,” he added.

Sandford said later in an interview what also underlies the urgency to adapt is that we’ve been very slow jursidictionally to start to respond to these changes.

“We still have a lot of jurisdictionality and territoriality,” he said. “It’s hard to standardize practices and actions across so many jurisdictions in some of these states and provinces.”

It’s pointing to a need for another Green Revolution, he said at the conclusion of his Minot address. Only this time it will need to focus not only on increasing productivity, but on soil health as a means of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The scientist said he believes the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative is well positioned to play a key role in this.

“This basin could very well be a leader in that revolution,” he said. “That revolution can start here. The pieces are all here. ”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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