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Communities crucial to climate change adaptation

ATLIN, BCIt is no longer news that our climate is changing.What is news is how people are adapting to it, and how people are planning to meet…


It is no longer news that our climate is changing.

What is news is how people are adapting to it, and how people are planning to meet further changes.

Tristan Pearce is one of a new generation of scientists.

He seeks to learn what climate change means to people and to communities. He specializes in helping small communities adapt to climate change.

Pearce is a research associate with the Global Environmental Change Group at the University of Guelph.

Over the last three years he has been working with the residents of Ulukhaktok (Holman, NWT) on Victoria Island helping them identify the changes that are occurring in their environment.

He is studying how these changes are affecting community activities.

Making sense of changes in temperature, wind direction and speed, and changes in animal behaviour is just half of what he is doing.

The other part involves assisting small communities to cope with, and to take advantage of, these very same changes.

And why not take advantage of them?

“For the last 20 years the Inuit have been saying, ‘The weather is changing; things are changing,’” says Pearce, “Yet the government response has been minimal.

“It’s now at that stage where people are going to deal with it in whatever way they have to. Changes are happening at the household and community level.”

People are adjusting to unexpected spin-offs from climate change such as a longer growing season and a longer work season for some professions.

For others it means a shorter hunting season and an altered harvesting season.

Pearce says that by starting at the community level, there is better potential to plan for some of the predicted changes.

All the information that is gathered is organized in such a way that it can be understood and used by a community for planning, yet also be ‘policy-relevant’ for scientists looking for hard data to base their decisions upon.

James Ford, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Geography at McGill University, works with Pearce through their climate-change consulting firm, ArcticNorth.

Ford’s research interest is the integration of social sciences, physical sciences, and local and indigenous knowledge in climate change vulnerability analysis.

In other words, like Pearce, he uses his scientific background to partner with community members to help them be better prepared for the changes that are coming,” said Ford.

“Climate change is inevitable even with reductions to greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we stabilize them we are still committed to some degree of climate change.”

He says that we have to start to think about adaptation.

How can we reduce the impacts?

What adjustments can we make?

Ford has been working with the people of Arctic Red Bay, NWT.

He has been developing hazard maps for areas at risk of flooding, landslides, or gully erosion.

He is working with local town planners to develop bylaws so that housing developments are not built in these high-risk areas.

It seems like an obvious thing for a community to do. However, with scientists and communities working closely together, they can project the hazard maps into the future and with greater accuracy.

“The past climate and today’s climate is no longer a guide to the future when making long-term investments,” says Ford.

Climate change is felt first in northern regions. Ford says that the average temperature in NWT has risen three to 3.5 degrees in the last 30 years.

In 2006, the mining companies woke up to the effects of climate change. The ice-roads that these companies rely upon to get their supplies into their camps broke up that year in early March bringing some mining operations to a standstill.

Today, these same companies have adapted by building dual ice lanes, by stockpiling equipment and supplies and by ensuring that air charter services have enough aircraft available to haul extra loads, notes Ford.

Adaptation does not have to be expensive he adds.

“A lot of the planning processes are already there, it’s just a matter of working within them and including climate change (as a variable),” he says.

For example, forest management, land management and fisheries management all have their existing processes.

“We’re just broadening and making more robust our management structure,” he says.

An excellent example of a broad and robust management structure is the South-West Yukon Project, a collaboration of First Nations, local governments, Yukon government, Yukon College, University of BC and other institutions.

The project has been under way for three years.

Its goal is to develop knowledge and identify actions that forest managers, First Nations, and local communities can consider to help make forests and forest-communities more resilient to climate change impacts.

“Forest-management decisions in the past have been based on the assumption that the environment and the climate remain stable. This is a problem; this is a major problem,” says Michael Westlake.

“This assumption that has worked so well in the past is not going to work now, and it’s not going to work in the future.”

Westlake is the co-ordinator of the Northern Climate ExChange, housed at Yukon College.

The Yukon government in 2000 founded this organization so it could have access to an independent and credible source of climate change information.

Westlake is a strong proponent of the South-West Yukon Project and other initiatives bringing adaptation planning to the communities.

He says we need to take the complex subject of climate change and make it simple.

For instance, the indicators of change must be simple enough so that anyone can watch for them.

Forest managers need to work with the communities, with the local people who are having these observations, he says.

“This is the first step in a much longer process.”

The goals of the project are threefold: 1) Research the kinds of changes that climate change may have on the forests of SW Yukon. 2) Determine what problems and what risks there are on the local community and environment. 3) Identify and adapt to these changes.

He cites the example of an obvious risk facing the Yukon: the spruce bark beetle. 380,000 hectares of southwest Yukon has been hit.

That’s 80 per cent of this area. This is the largest and most intense outbreak of the beetle in Canada.

“The spruce bark beetle has always been in this forest, it’s just never been allowed to grow and it’s never been allowed to stay over successive seasons,” he says.

The overall warming trend in the territory is behind the beetle’s population explosion, he says.

It takes two cold winters in a row with temperatures dipping between minus 30 and minus 40 for two months to kill off these beetles, he adds.

Furthermore, warmer summers have also allowed them to reproduce faster.

Drier summers have meant weaker trees, which are much easier for beetles to attack.

“In order to assess what a community is vulnerable to you have to understand the entire picture,” says Westlake.

Scientists tend to be separated from each other, says Pearce, the researcher from the University Guelph.

“Someone’s working on caribou, someone’s working on permafrost, someone’s working on lake levels…” he laments.

The South-West Yukon Project and Northern Climate ExChange have the advantage of bringing it all together: scientists and community members working side by side.

“When we’re dealing with decision-making the best way to do it is to be inclusive,” says Pearce.

Katharine Sandiford is the Project and Communications Officer at Northern Climate ExChange. She plays an active role in developing community-based climate change projects, impact awareness and risk management.

“If a community is going to adapt, it’s going to take more than just having certain policies, or organizations, or governments (getting) involved,” says Sandiford, “What it takes is a certain pride from the people, a resilience an attitude that it can do it.”

Pearce, Westlake, Ford and Sandiford were in Atlin last month consulting with the community and establishing the foundation for the community’s climate change adaptation plan.

A report on this is forthcoming in the News.

Northern Climate ExChange will be conducting a similar project in Dawson this fall.

Stephen Badhwar is a writer living in Atlin.