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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Get Used To It

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday August 6, 05:24 pm
Expect more devastating weather if climate change remains unchecked

How about that weather, eh?

 

Yikes.

 

Looking back over only a handful of years, Saskatchewanians have dealt with the coldest winter we've seen in decades, devastating floods in 2011 and 2014, and this year, both severe drought and massive northern wildfires.

 

Are extreme weather events now our “new normal”?

 

“I would say it's becoming clear that it is [becoming the new normal],” says Peter Prebble, director of environment policy at the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. “What's essentially happening, particularly with respect to flooding and wildfires in Saskatchewan, is we’re starting to see the water changes that have long been predicted by climate scientists.”

 

Of the last 14 years, 13 have exceeded the previous to be the hottest year on record. Prebble says this means the warmer atmosphere is able to hold more water vapour, causing more intense rainfall — a symptom very relevant to Saskatchewan over the past few years.

 

“It's why we've seen the flooding in Saskatchewan in 2011 and 2014. Those were both one-in-100-year rainfall events, and they occurred only three years apart. That certainly has a climate change marker on it,” he says.

 

Climate experts are predicting that our seasons, even winters, will continue to get warmer. But this doesn't mean we're delivered from the tyranny of extreme weather and its disasters.

 

“The most extreme weather in Canada occurs in Saskatchewan,” says David Sauchyn, a professor of geography at the University of Regina. “Both the most extreme rainfalls and the driest conditions in Canada have been on the prairies, mainly because we’re situated in the middle of the hemisphere.

 

“In Saskatchewan, you can't get any further from the ocean anywhere in the world, except Siberia,” he says. “Looking at certain areas of Siberia, they actually have very similar weather to us,” he says. “The effect of the ocean is to prevent these kinds of extremes. Considering our distance from the ocean, when these extreme events occur in a warmer-weather climate, you can expect them to be of a greater intensity.”

 

But droughts and flood aren't all we have to look forward to. Climate change will manifest itself in other ways as well.

 

“It's predicted that things like West Nile virus and Lyme disease will become more widespread in Western Canada,” Prebble says. “We've had West Nile here for years, but Lyme disease is spreading through Ontario and I would think it will become an issue in Saskatchewan within the next decade. It's also expected that we'll get longer, more pronounced droughts.”

 

Which means, sadly, more wildfires. Toddi Steelman, executive director and professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, says the table was set for just such a disaster.

 

“When you couple higher global temperatures, and low precipitation or drought, with wind, all it takes is a dry lightning storm to get something like this started,” she says.

 

“With more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, things become volatile much more easily. But it's not just an isolated Saskatchewan or a Canadian phenomenon. We need to be thinking [about] not what we need to do as province, but how do we behave as a province within a larger global system,” says Steelman.

 

With more than 60 wildfires still burning in the north as of July 30th, wildfire response costs are expected to surpass $100 million this year. The wildfires resulted in Saskatchewan's largest ever evacuation of people from northern communities.

 

“This year's fire management had $50 million allocated to it, and we've exceeded that budget by $50 million,” says Steelman. “It's important that we're able to respond in an efficient and responsible manner. We are going to have fire seasons like this, so we need to think about recovery.”

 

In an statement issued from the Government of Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment, Karen Hill stated:

 

“It will take some time to fully calculate the costs of the wildfire response. The province will apply to the federal government for assistance to offset the costs. As it does in any given year, the Government of Saskatchewan will work hard to manage expenses within its budget to address unexpected costs resulting from natural disasters. For example, in 2014-15 expense was $107.7 million higher than budgeted for Provincial Disaster Assistance Program claims related to the widespread flooding that hit the province.”

 

It all boils down to fighting climate change, says Prebble.

 

“The UN has now attached a dollar figure to damage that's done from a single ton of greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “The number that the UN is using is $37 per ton of damage. And so, if you take that and apply it to Saskatchewan's emissions, which is 74.8 million tons, you get just over 2.7 billion dollars. That's the damage we're doing globally from greenhouse gases each year.”

 

The numbers are staggering, but tell that to Premier Brad Wall, who continues to dodge responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Prebble says that a strategy to fight greenhouse gas emissions here in Saskatchewan is imperative.

 

“It's going to require a determined effort over the next 50 years to phase out fossil fuels completely,” he says. “It's what has to be accomplished if we want to avoid a catastrophic climate change.

 

“We have a few tasks that Saskatchewan has to face. The first thing: We have to very substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have to set targets for reductions every five years, and actually meet them, so that after 50 years we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 5-10 per cent of what they are right now,” says Prebble.

 

“The second task is to adapt to climate change. There are a number of measures we can take in our communities, like reducing our use of water for instance. Some of these measures are being adopted already, but governments need to be willing to budget money needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also have to budget for the likelihood that there will be some kind of emergency climate change during the year,” Prebble says. “This is a need. Extreme weather events are going to continue happening.

 

“States like Iowa and South Dakota have gone to 25 per cent of their electricity from wind, where we’re still at three per cent. Germany is getting seven per cent of its electricity from solar power; we're not even at one per cent. There's a lot of other parts of the world where [alternative energy] is moving much more rapidly,” says Prebble. “Here we are sitting on this huge wind, solar, and biomass resource and we're not really utilizing it.” 

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