Yukonomist: Yukon risks 2020

It might not be a terrible idea to take advantage of quiet in January to update your emergency kit

The New Year is a time for hangovers, resolutions and updated geopolitical risk assessments.

The policy elite returns to work with their inboxes full of gloom from the world’s leading banks, think tanks and geopolitical risk gurus.

The best part of these reports is that, unlike economic forecasts, you can’t ever be wrong. Did 2019 escape the asteroid, global pandemic or Chinese banking crisis you fretted about? No problem. The world just got lucky, and you can recycle your list for 2020.

I find the pandemic scenarios particularly scary. If your book club doesn’t spend enough time talking about the end of civilization, I suggest Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. It covers the mini-climate-crisis of late Antiquity, which stressed ancient agricultural societies just before the Plague of Justinian hit. About half the Empire’s population was wiped out.

But I’ll leave the big civilizational risks to others. Let’s talk about risks specific to the Yukon.

So, what should we Yukoners probably worry about more than we generally do? It’s not very hard to come up with a list. All you have to do is look at things that have happened to our circumpolar neighbours in the last few years.

I’m thinking of wildfires in Alberta and elsewhere, multi-day power outages in Alaska, the big cyberattack on Nunavut and nuclear accidents in Siberia.

A big wildfire over-running a Yukon community is an obvious risk, even if the way we keep building new housing on the forest fringes of our towns suggests we aren’t particularly worried about it.

If an asteroid hit the dam, we could plausibly claim we didn’t see it coming. But that excuse won’t work for wildfire after we watched the television reports on the highly destructive Fort McMurray fire of 2016, and the severe fires in BC in 2017 and 2018, and Alberta’s 2019 Chuckegg Creek fire. Plus we saw the catastrophic images from the recent California and Australia wildfires.

If you walk through the greenbelt around most parts of Whitehorse on a dry sunny day, you don’t have to be a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist to know those mature pines and spruces are ready to burn hot.

If you live on the greenbelt in an older home, ask yourself how flammable your ancient cedar roof shingles are. Or if you have more than five minutes of gas in the car. Or if the emergency kit in your basement includes masks for when the air quality hits 10+ out of 10 as it did in Edmonton 2019 (the Edmonton Journal said it was actually 72 out of 10 if the scale went that high).

A multi-day power outage during a cold snap is another risk. Both our electrical companies work hard to minimize this risk. But “black swan” events can happen. Various Alaskan communities have suffered through multi-day outages in recent years, and ice storms can leave some parts of Ontario and Quebec without power for days.

Even if you don’t rely on electric heat, your furnace likely needs power to work. Is your current risk mitigation strategy the same as everyone else’s? That is, be the first to get to Canadian Tire before they sell out of generators?

A house down the street has a switch so it can disconnect from the grid and use a generator to power the furnace. My house does not.

Cyber risk is new to the north, but troubling all the same. The Nunavut government made global headlines this year when it had to resort to pen, paper and fax machines after a ransomware attack shut down core systems and even some government telephones. The premier used Twitter to communicate with Nunavummiut, telling them that “all government services requiring access to electronic information … are impacted.”

These days, that means pretty much everything. For example, patients were told to bring their health cards and medications, since health staff wouldn’t have access to their records.

You can’t control the territorial government’s cyber readiness, or that of your bank or internet company. But you can take some precautions at home and with your own business. Do you have some cash on hand in case your electronic payments go south for a few days? Have you stored paper or electronic backups of critical documents? Do you download the latest software updates, use a password manager and two-factor authentication?

We also have to worry about nuclear risks, even if it seems outlandish. Just last August, according to Bloomberg, the Russians were testing a new missile engine that uses “isotope power sources” on an offshore platform off their northern coast. The resulting explosion killed five people and caused radiation levels to spike. There was a run on iodine in nearby towns, which viewers of the HBO series Chernobyl will recall can help stop the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.

We don’t know for sure, but there are probably fifty or more nuclear reactors operating in the Arctic Ocean or in its ports at any given time. There are Russian, American and Chinese nuclear submarines, Russian icebreakers, and Russia’s new floating nuclear power station. The latter started operating just before Christmas in its new home in Pevek, Chukotka, the region just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

Old Crow is closer to Pevek than to Vancouver. Any sort of major nuclear accident in the Arctic could have serious ramifications for the Yukon. A quick look at the wind patterns from Pevek to the Yukon on windy.com as I write this article is not reassuring. This risk is very difficult to get ready for. Iodine tablets and staying inside to avoid radioactive dust only go so far.

Let’s hope none of this happens. But it might not be a terrible idea to take advantage of quiet times in January to update your emergency kit.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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