Senior climate scientist urges action

By: Lynn Martel

  |  Posted: Thursday, Mar 14, 2013 06:00 am

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Human actions, says Dr. Jim Bruce, are changing the chemical composition of the global atmosphere.

Now well-established scientifically, these actions are changing the energy balance at the earth’s surface, resulting in general warming and increased storminess around the planet.

And, added the Ottawa-based senior scientist and co-founder of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all indications point to the likelihood of these trends accelerating in coming decades unless populations around the world embrace significant changes in energy use.

Addressing about 120 people at the Canmore Civic Centre, including two dozen researchers from across Canada, the U.S., U.K., Germany and Australia who were participating in a two-day workshop in Kananaskis organized by the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for Hydrology, Bruce stated that while the Earth’s climate has always fluctuated and changed over long periods of time, with temperature changes being driven by volcanic and solar activity such as sun spots, that is no longer the case.

“Since the 1970s, it’s the greenhouse gasses that have driven the changes, almost exclusively,” Bruce said. “These trends are likely to continue, or likely to accelerate, based on the rate of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.”

As a result, the planet will experience more snow in the polar regions and longer dry spells between rainfalls in historically dry areas.

And Canada, he promised, will not escape some of the negative effects of a warming climate. In some regions of southern Canada, water flow has already decreased by 8.5 per cent. In the Great Lakes region, Lake Michigan is at its lowest level ever recorded.

“Implications are profound for water in both solid phases – snow and ice – and as liquid,” Bruce said. “In some already dry areas, such as the southern Prairies, water supplies are expected to continue to decline.”

At the same time, however, flash floods will also worsen. In Saskatchewan, Lake Deifenbaker, whose storage capacity was increased so as to be able to hold sufficient water to serve reliant populations during dry periods, now spills over during times of fast rising water flows. As Canada’s coastal regions, particularly the Atlantic Provinces, experience increasingly intense storms, melting Arctic ice is projected to contribute to sea levels rising as much as two metres.

“The ice continues to melt in the Arctic, causing some serious problems for wildlife and the Inuit in the area,” Bruce said. “Some people think it will open up passage through the waterways – I hope we do it carefully.”

While the financial consequences of floods are already causing insurance companies to see rapid increases in water-damage related claims, water quantity and its associated timetable for delivery are not the only water-related realities Canadians should be concerned about, Bruce said. In the planet’s oceans, acidity levels are rising, causing negative effects for survival of shell creatures.

“Humans now are more concerned about sea level rise, but before too long, I think we’ll be concerned about acidity as well,” Bruce said.

Closer to home, researchers monitoring several sites in Kananaskis’ Marmot Creek, which have been providing data since 1962, have found that streamflow has decreased by 24 per cent over the past 50 years.

“It fluctuates from year to year, but the trend is unmistakable, and it’s caused by the changing climate,” Bruce said.

This trend is especially worrisome in the Rockies’ watershed which not only feeds the South Saskatchewan River system – home to much of Canada’s most essential farmland – but is already over-allocated in the same region of southern Alberta where the population is steadily growing.

“With 40 per cent of the South Saskatchewan’s flow being used by humans, there’s not enough to go around in the dry years,” Bruce said. “We’re going to see a declining supply of water in Canada, in the part where just about everybody lives.”

And while some regions of Canada are situated in zones where some of the highest increases in precipitation are expected, insufficient infrastructure or long-term planning leaves much of the country completely unprepared for the consequences of a climate projected to warm by 2 C by the end of this decade.

As other counties, such as Sweden, have already figured out ways to increase profits through reductions in energy consumption, the impacts of climate change are projected to cost Canadians as much as $43 billion annually as Canada continues to use 50 per cent more energy to produce the same amount of goods and services (per capita).

“Canada is unprepared, giving huge subsidies to oil companies,” Bruce said. “Canada is simply unprepared to compete.

“We all use fossil fuels. It’s going to be a very hard system to turn around.”


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