Getting the Yukon used to climate change

Ryan Hennessey is a climate-change researcher, but chances are he’s not going to tell you to buy a hybrid, or even to curb your air travel.

Ryan Hennessey is a climate-change researcher, but chances are he’s not going to tell you to buy a hybrid, or even to curb your air travel.

Leave all that to the “climate change mitigators.” Ryan Hennessey is a “climate change adaptor.”

Hennessey is a community adaptation project manager at the Northern Climate Exchange, a Yukon College-based centre devoted to providing information and counsel to Northern communities regarding climate change.

In January, Hennessey will lead a full-scale study of Whitehorse to determine necessary community adaptations necessary to adjust to the coming climate changes.

The Northern Climate Exchange is one of the few places where you will hear climate-change researchers use the word “advantages.” Climate change may indeed present Yukoners with some exciting new opportunities, said Hennessey.

“If you’re talking about increased temperatures, that means a longer tourist season,” he said.

“With increased snow during the winter, there will be more recreational opportunities — especially if it’s not as cold in January,” Hennessey added.

Climate change could also increase the crop-growing season, allowing the Yukon to bolster its agriculture economy.

Of course, the Northern Climate Exchange also has its scary doomsday predictions.

“Increasing weather instability; more severe storms happening more often with longer periods of dryness in between,” said Hennessey.

By 2050, Whitehorse is projected to see a mean temperature increase of between three and six degrees.

In the summer, drier and hotter weather will mean more forest fires.

In the off season, the Yukon could be hit with more rainfall — a situation which could lead to increased river silt and landslides. By 2050, Whitehorse is also projected to see a 10 to 40 per cent increase in annual precipitation.

If these landslides occur across streams or tributaries, they could cause flooding and prompting a greater “unpredictability” in the bacterial content of drinking water, said Hennessey.

Landslides could also make Whitehorse more prone to flooding.

Torrential rain could cause the sewage lagoons to overflow and spill into neighbouring bodies of water — also putting drinking water sanitation at risk.

And there could be more bugs.

Warmer temperatures mean that undesirables such as the spruce bark beetle could be moving north — and milder winters mean that the beetles won’t be killed off during the winter.

That’s not to mention melting permafrost, and the subsequent sinkholes and fissures that could result.

The Yukon may well face the aforementioned climate horrors within the next decade, or, “very little could happen — it’s hard to say right now,” said Hennessey.

The Northern Climate Exchange just finished completing an assessment of Dawson, where they found the biggest climate concerns were changing wildlife patterns, such as the shifting migrations of Porcupine caribou.

Whatever happens, it’s Hennessey’s job to figure out how Yukoners are going to deal with it.

With mention of the word ‘flood’, the vision of a sandbagged riverbank naturally springs to mind, but Hennessey insists that it would be a “mal-adaptation.”

“We’re looking for ‘no-risk-solutions,’ which are adaptations that people want to do anyway,” said Hennessey.

For example, in combating permafrost, communities should begin “backfilling” the foundations of new buildings, ensuring better insulation for remaining permafrost. Climate change or no, it’s still a good idea.

In Dawson, improving housing standards turned out to be a high priority for their climate change adaptation plan.

“There is a lot of sub-standard housing in Dawson that’s relied on by transit populations and lower-income people,” said Hennessey.

“With increased precipitation and increased permafrost degradation, you’re talking about that low-quality housing declining even further, increased risk for mould and heavy metal contamination,” he said.

That’s what Hennessey means by no-risk-solution. Housing should probably be improved nonetheless, but if it can be done on some sort of adaptational footing, all the better, he says.

However, not all adaptations will be as rosy, said Hennessey. Adapting to changing caribou herds, for one, might require populations to shift from a subsistence lifestyle to one incorporating more commercially available food.

“To date, that has had all sorts of negative impacts on First Nations people — an increased rate of diabetes and other health impacts,” said Hennessey.

An alternative could be caribou or reindeer herding, but that idea hasn’t been popular either, noted Hennessey.

As Hennessey sets out in the new year to prepare yet another Yukon city for climate change, one can only hope that his academic calm will give hope to all who may very well be taking gondola rides in lower Manhattan within their lifetime.

“Climate-change impacts could be dramatic, but there may be a lot of opportunities associated with climate change, and the impacts may not be as dramatic as they possibly could be,” said Hennessey.

“Progressive action is required. Panic? No,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

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