Revelstoke’s climate story

Large-scale climate change that will dramatically alter the Revelstoke region is coming.

Columbia River
The Columbia River. Photo: Aaron Orlando/RMM.
This article first appeared in print in the March 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

This article first appeared in print in the March 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

I want to tell you a story. It’s a long one. About 4.54 billion years long to be precise. It’s about a giant floating rock in space. A story about a rock? How boring. Except this one is about an exceptional, one of a kind rock, enveloped in gases, not too hot not too cold, where life exploded from sludge in a pool.

It’s your planet. It’s your one and only home.

It has evolved and changed, slowly, over its time, to be an incredibly hospitable rock, full of complex, beautiful and diverse life. Its story has ebbed and flowed with incredible forces enacting on its life forms. It’s been happily supporting our intense species for millennia. No longer. This part of the story concludes with difficulty, despair and ultimately death. It is upon us.

The climate is changing. It is an emergency for life on Earth. The ending to the story hasn’t been written yet — and there is still time to influence the outcome.

I teach your willing kids about this. They listen avidly to how our planet is changing in response to anthropogenic (human) inputs. Some of them have stood in front of city hall and declared their young minds in support of caring and contributing to this cause, and yet there is resistance. How is possible to trust a bunch of youths with placards who stand against governments and industries that refute the irrepressible, undeniable science?

Climate change: two words that have become deeply politicized. A study published in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change analyzed over 37,000 media articles and considered national factors of the publishing country such as economic development, weather and energy consumption.

The most consistent predictor of how the issue was framed was each nation’s gross domestic product per capita. The author spoke of the results. “We showed that the issue is more politicized in richer countries. In poorer countries, it was framed more as an international issue. Which makes sense, as poorer countries don’t have the resources that richer countries do to fight it.”

We do have the resources to fight it but, instead, political parties use the issue as way to divide the population on a particular stance, generating fierce debate that doesn’t engage the issue. With their posturing and, often, bad advice, our politicians obscure the need for action — instead, wasting valuable time with arguments of who is most in the wrong.

In place of collaborating with industry and scientists to move forward environmentally, economically and socially, we are locked in a game of tit-for-tat popularity contests whilst our precious, fast-changing home environment remains under-represented. The true and vital story missed.

Our climate, at least since 1.8 million years ago, is modulated by long term cycles, operating over tens of thousands of years that come from our life source, the sun, and how we move around it. Changes to the shape of our orbit — from circular to egg shaped — plus the intense (but never felt) wobble as we hurl around our axis at 1053.754 km/h (that’s specifically in Revelstoke!) and the changing tilt and movement of our pole, all impact the long-term climate we experience on Earth.

The scale is beyond normal comprehension. With the extreme variability we can see from one summer season to the next or difference in annual snowpack, it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile the seemingly unordered and random way our climate presents itself in our day-to-day weather compared with long-term trends.

For the last 200 years, since our species industrialized, we have generated (and the atmosphere has absorbed) a significant increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. These gases remain in the atmosphere for long periods, retaining heat that warms our planet. The only reason Earth is habitable is because of this band of existing gases surrounding us, but we’re changing the concentrations … and much too quickly.

Carbon dioxide alone has increased 43% since the 1700s, resulting in global mean temperature rises of 0.3 to 0.6 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century. In the Columbia Basin it’s even more pronounced; average annual temperatures have increased by 1.6° Celsius in the last 100 years. It doesn’t seem a lot does it, but it really is.

Scientists predict temperature rises in the next century that have not been experienced on Earth within the last 10,000 years, which was when Earth was at a hugely different point on its long term climate cycles, and population was restricted to sparsely populated, early human communities. To place this into context, our Earth fluctuates between glacial and interglacial periods, and we’re currently in an interglacial epoch called the Holocene.

The long-term climate cycles of the sun interact with glaciers, oceanic and atmospheric currents to distribute heat from the equator to the poles. Here we reach a key issue in communicating climate science. Our climate is determined by interactions between such differing time and physical scales, and to understand the present and our local micro cycles, you need to establish the fact that we feedback into a system that extends well beyond our locality and lifetimes.

For now, let’s skip to the page where in Interior of B.C. 7,000 people reside on the valley floor, in the shadow of mountainous giants, as a giant blue snake, slithers past. The Canadian Columbia Basin is already experiencing hotter, drier summers, warmer and wetter winters, and more extreme weather as a result. Climate scientists are projecting these trends to continue into the foreseeable future.

Studies of ecological systems dating from the 1990s onwards show that ecosystems are more vulnerable to external changes at high altitudes than on low lands. The amplitude or power of climate variability increases with altitude, and the flora that inhabit higher altitudes are sensitive species that need selective conditions under which to thrive — at the very least, Revelstoke’s sensational wildflowers will be affected negatively by more extreme weather, while the most important conifer species in British Columbia is expected to lose a large portion of its suitable habitat.

Housing, building and infrastructure are being affected and, with continuing climate change, the effects will be more pronounced. Wildfires, flooding, extreme storms, and water shortages all represent threats to the safety and wellbeing of our community. The threat from wildfire to our community is increasing.

Canada is home to about 30 per cent of the world’s forests in total, including 10 per cent of dense forest cover. British Columbia declared a state of emergency in both 2017 and 2018, when we had two record-setting years for forest fires. In 2017, 1.22 million hectares burned in B.C., and this increased to 1.35 million hectares in 2018. Not only do increased temperatures allow fires to burn hotter, they also generate ripe conditions for lightning — and lightning strikes are the cause of more than half of the wildfires in Canada.

Professor Mike Flannigan, a University of Alberta wildland fire expert, says that for every degree of warming, the number of lightning strikes goes up by about 12 per cent. Warming temperatures also enable pests, such as pine beetles, to proliferate. The dead trees they have destroyed act as fuel for fires, which might have otherwise been more manageable.

When we look to our buildings, many of our heritage homes are wood structures. The rate at which this wood decays is dependent on temperature and precipitation. In Revelstoke, as both these factors increase, the fungi which decay the wood do so more quickly. Retroactively treating buildings and ensuring that new structures are prepared with this in mind is important to protect our heritage, and to ensure longevity for our infrastructure. The economy, and what climate change in Revelstoke represents for our forestry and recreation industries, is a divisive subject. However, according to scientists that spend their lives researching this topic, changing weather patterns present risks and opportunities for Basin businesses and the economy.

Scientific studies show the resulting alterations in temperature and precipitation patterns in B.C. will have a direct impact on both natural and modified forests. The extensive Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) epidemic has driven change in silvicultural system choices, and this has not only dramatically reduced mid-term timber supply in the interior of B.C. — but, even more fundamental to the global crisis of climate change, the MPB epidemic has contributed to the shift of B.C.’s Interior forests from being net carbon sinks to net sources of carbon.

To ensure longevity for our forestry industry, collaboration between industry and scientists to better understand how climate affects our forests is needed. Forest management needs to adapt and integrate with forest health management to secure this key resource. For agricultural growers, a study in the Okanagan Valley projects that the growing season will increase from 5.5 months to 7 months by 2050. This effect would occur in Revelstoke too. This double-edged sword, of decreased rainfall in summer leading to an increased risk of wildfires and extreme weather events, might also enable farmers to be productive over longer periods of the year.

However, if all businesses operating locally can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, we can begin to look at climate change on the lower — rather than the highest modeled outcomes. Environmentally friendly tourism is a strong pull for many people and, if focused upon, could be a selling point of our wonderful community.

So many of us live in Revelstoke primarily for access to nature. As temperature and precipitation patterns shift and change, ecosystems in the Basin must also be expected to change, too. These changes will affect not only our environment but, by direct association, our lives too. This includes more natural disturbances such as wildfire and pests, changes to the water cycle and water availability.

It’s so difficult to anticipate or imagine issues with water supply, particularly when we are blessed to see the mighty Columbia River dancing past our doorsteps each day. These climate change impacts don’t just affect the water though. In a study of the Illecillewaet drainage, it was found that climate change will not only affect the precipitation and temperature, but also the distribution of glaciers (sadly, we face losing them over time).
Important soil processes, such as drainage capacity and soil quality, will decrease while land surface processes, such as erosion, will increase. Vegetation characteristics, the type and coverage, will be affected and sensitive species will die out. Also, the treeline will move upslope into sensitive alpine biomes. These changes then feedback and affect how much precipitation and cloud cover we get, further impacting the environment’s ability to adapt.

Shall I explain more? I must. Everyone needs to be aware of the realities of climate change. This is where you fit in to the story.

In Volume I of the Canada Country Study: Climate Impacts and Adaptation, they found that in the Interior of B.C., “existing flood protection works may no longer be adequate and spring flood damage could be more severe and frequent along rivers and streams.” Conversely, stream flow in late summer and fall will likely decrease, while stream temperatures will rise. This will reduce fish survivability. Soil moisture will also diminish in our region. Without access to more reservoir capacity, water supply will be reduced in the dry summer season when irrigation and domestic water use is greatest (and there goes that potential and financially- beneficial longer growing season).

In addition, landslides and debris torrents in mountainous areas will become more common as winter precipitation rises and glaciers retreat. Water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, as well as roads and other man-made structures (think CP Rail) will all be at increased risk.

Migratory birds have already been affected by higher winds, meaning they can’t reproduce. As previously noted, many glaciers in southeastern B.C. could substantially melt or disappear completely. The flow of rivers and streams that depend on glacier water in the late summer and fall will then diminish. This will negatively impact tourism, hydroelectric generation, fish habitat, and the lifestyles we so cherish in Revelstoke and our region.

In 2012 a systematic study of mass balance (whether a glacier is getting bigger and advancing, or smaller and retreating) was conducted on the glaciers of Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks. They used weather and climate data from observations over the past 100 years and dendrochronology — tree ring data — to look back at what the climate, and thus the glaciers mass balance, would have been like since 1780. Taking core samples from Engelmann spruce, mountain hemlock and subalpine fir and looking at the tree ring width, maximum density and cell wall thickness, they can use this as a proxy or estimate of past climate as these factors change in response to temperature in precipitation. They then look at models of how glaciers behave under these different conditions and can build a history of what has happened over the past 300 years.

Based on the information I’ve already outlined in this article, it’s not good news. Despite some blips in variable temperature, short and unusually cold periods, for example, the rate of cumulative mass balance decline (the rate at which glaciers are receding) within the last 30 years exceeds that observed at any time over the last 250 years.

The scientific evidence says that they’re going.

If they go entirely, they take with them the balance of ecosystems that rely on their melt plus the positive support they provide in radiating heat from the sun back out of the atmosphere from their highly reflective albedo surface. It’s true that glaciers have disappeared before in the long history of planet Earth, but not at a time when there was such complex life and communities reliant upon them.

During the past 540 million years, there’s been five mass extinctions that took out more than 75 per cent of Earth’s species, and that’s just those that were alive at that time. The true total over the five mass extinctions is 99 per cent of species that have ever existed.

Common features of these “Big Five” extinctions suggest they came about because of unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affected many different species. Scientists have published research in the journal Nature (a very serious publication, not a magazine!) showing that by co-opting resources, fragmenting habitats, introducing non-native species, spreading pathogens, killing species directly, and changing global climate, we’ve entered into the sixth mass extinction already.

It won’t likely be you or me, but our grandchildren and generations beyond them will most definitely be living in a very different, less diverse world … and this moves the topic on to quality of life. As we consider the impact on animals, plants, trees and glaciers. The big question is, what about us?

Why should we care about this climate emergency? The research is not in doubt, just look at the news. Wildfires and flooding are the new norm at the commencement of this new decade. Climate change undeniably presents a real risk to our health and lifestyles in Revelstoke. Our physical and mental health will be increasingly challenged by rising temperatures and, as more frequent wildfires pollute the air we breathe, the incidence of vector-borne diseases (human illnesses caused by parasites, viruses and bacteria that are transmitted by mosquitoes and other insects) grows as temperatures rise.

Extreme weather events damage property and our collective feeling of safety in this world. Vulnerable individuals such as the elderly, young children, those with chronic conditions are at the greatest risk. Cultural, recreation, and lifestyle practices; our skiing, sledding, hiking, biking, climbing and the rest, will have to be adapted to new climate and environmental conditions. In response to this modern change we have to reconnect with our evolutionary capabilities as a species — we have to adapt.

So, what can each of us do — tucked away here in Revelstoke? How can we influence the outcome in this impossibly long story?

Economically, we need to commit to a circular economy as opposed to linear one. To explain this, “linear” means our current “make, use and dispose” economy — whereas the “circular” economy seeks to extract the maximum value from natural resources by designing products for longevity, and for easy recovery of materials at end-of-life. In this way, they can be reused and repurposed with a minimum investment of energy, and the carbon footprint of products and services is minimized across their entire lifecycle.

As supply chains are redesigned to embody a circular economy, benefits can be expected for the economy and environment. We can make simple behaviour changes such as stopping using single use plastics wherever possible. For example, take a dish from home to your favourite takeaway restaurant and avoid buying fresh food products that come pre-packed in plastic.

Manage your home energy carefully and be stringent about turning off lights, unplugging power adapters (when not in use) and wearing an extra sweater instead of turning up the heating. Build more energy-efficient homes or retrofit our homes to meet the recommended standards. Insulate thoroughly, use high efficiency windows and doors, seal and caulk your property. Furthermore, and of huge importance, we must all be in support of switching to renewable energy sources from fossil fuels, and take a greater interest in where the energy we use so readily comes from.

As consumers, let’s demand and support the changes that move us away from the fossil fuel economy we currently rely on. Wind and solar energy are free (in terms of production, if not infrastructure). The supply is endless and with increased sun and winds in our changing climate they offer a chance to capitalize on the changes in climate that have already occurred.

It’s not too late to save our much loved home, to help limit the expected, projected changes. The science is there, and it’s real. So we must all support the efforts of hard-working scientists who toil away to find esoteric solutions for the problems we face, but then get dismissed by those with vested interests when they try to share unpalatable truths. he scientific community don’t usually get much of a voice, so we must be their voice … We must write the end of this story, so we can believe in a better ending for our families, our community and our Revelstoke home.

Web update:

At this particular time our Earth is facing unprecedented stress from a health crisis that globalization has enabled to spread with such rapidity. There are studies showing huge reductions in emissions from less air travel and declining pollution as manufacturing has slowed globally. The subject topic of this article, rather from detracting from the severity of this contemporary issue facing us as a  society, should serve to remind us how important it is to forge ahead with collective work to protect our ever-changing home. As and when we can return to some normality in our day to day lives, this issue should remain at the forefront of our decision making as we appreciate returning to enjoy the natural environment.

To learn more and find many scientific resources on climate change in the region, check out Columbia Basin Climate Source.

About the author

Jade Harvey

Geographer and writer

Jade Harvey. Photo: contributed

Jade graduated from QMUL London with a 1st Class (Hons) in Physical Geography. After working as researcher and contributor to the science department at The Times London she set off to travel the world, looking to spending more time in the nature than just writing about it. Continuing her main passion for science in communicating it to others, she has spent the last ten years across the UK, New Zealand, Australia and now Canada designing and delivering scientific field trips and workshops for schools. After completing studies in Canada as a ski guide she made Revelstoke her permanent home in 2015. Finding the most joy in guiding young people, she is a trip leader for the Alpine Club of Canada, volunteer adaptive ski guide for the Revelstoke Adaptive Sports Program and runs Stoked On Science – an education company that delivers engaging science content both in schools and in after school programs. She is the Director of Communications for the North Columbia Environmental Society and is passionate about sharing and developing our understanding of science and our environment in our community.