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Climate Changes Effects on Alberta

Posted by mhudema on July 11, 2008

Forest fires, drought, disease
Climate change study warns province to prepare for spike in natural disasters
Keith Gerein
The Edmonton Journal
A farmer cuts his drought-stunted oat crop near Cochrane in 2002. A report warns Alberta is headed for more of the same.
CREDIT: Reuters, file
A farmer cuts his drought-stunted oat crop near Cochrane in 2002. A report warns Alberta is headed for more of the same.

EDMONTON – More forest fires, unreliable water supplies, volatile farming conditions and the emergence of unfamiliar diseases — these are among the impacts Albertans can expect from a warming climate, a new report to the provincial government says.

The three-year study, one of the first to assess the vulnerability of Alberta’s communities and industries to climate change, suggests the province must act quickly with new infrastructure and planning if it hopes to successfully adapt to the changing conditions.

“The message is that we will still be able to enjoy a high quality of life, but we must move forward with adaptation and mitigation strategies starting today,” said University of Alberta researcher Debra Davidson, one of the lead authors.

Though it has yet to be released to the public, Davidson provided The Journal with highlights of the study commissioned by Alberta Environment.

Due to a tight budget, she said the authors relied mainly on existing data and limited their work to key sectors of the province’s economy, society and bio-physical environment.

In terms of the climate itself, the study supports projections that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and intensity of ice storms, flooding and droughts.

Substantial changes to the province’s water supply are also expected. Warmer winters will mean more rain instead of snow, but increased heat will evaporate much of this precipitation from the soil.

“Basically, our water supply will become less reliable overall and that’s even excluding the possibility of drought,” Davidson said.

“We are going to see greater variation in our water supply and, over time, probably a decline in supplies of water.”

Such trends will have serious implications for Alberta’s economy, and the forestry industry may be under the greatest threat, Davidson said.

Tree stands already stressed due to low water levels will be at risk of collapsing, while the warmer winters will open the door to pests such as the mountain pine beetle. Then, as the woodlands dry out, more forest fires can be expected.

As for agriculture, the warmer weather should provide some farmers with opportunities to plant crops that require a longer and hotter growing season. Others may find their land becomes too arid for farming.

“Things are going to become more uncertain. It’s going to be very hard for farmers to know what to plant, when to plant and so forth,” Davidson said.

When it comes to people, Alberta is well positioned with a population that is generally young, healthy, well-paid and well-educated — all factors that help people cope with change.

Rural communities are under the most threat from the warming trend because they are often dependent on one or two industries and tend not to have a large capacity to store water. Remote towns are particularly vulnerable to extreme events, such as when a flood or forest fire blocks the only access road.

In the area of health, changes could produce a decline in water quality and there will be increased risk of dust storms. The warmer temperatures might also allow diseases such as West Nile virus and hanta virus to move in with greater force.

“There are lots of human pathogens that do well in warm, dry climates, and in flooding situations,” Davidson said.

The study was mainly designed to provide an analysis of the province’s strengths and weaknesses and does not offer any specific policy recommendations. That said, Davidson believes the government must take action on a number of fronts to get ahead of the climate change curve:

– Develop contingency plans for threatened industries, such as forestry.

– Look at the distribution of health care to rural areas.

– Consider changes to building codes, especially in inner cities, which have many structures with poor insulation and no air conditioning.

– Improve infrastructure, including flood and sewage control systems, as well as roads that serve remote towns.

The government must also make more effort to educate the public, Davidson said. Albertans generally accept that climate change is happening, but “a lot of people don’t know what it’s going to mean for them,” she said.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Kim McLeod said the study is part of a larger package of research the department has commissioned for developing a climate change adaptation strategy.

The strategy, which does not yet have a completion date, will accompany the government’s already announced “mitigation” plan for reducing emissions, which includes this week’s promise of $4 billion for underground carbon capture and transit programs.

© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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