Climate change and communities at the top of the world
Prior to arriving in Cancun, Canada’s lead negotiator called into question the UNFCCC process. Our government continues to push for a deal where all partners are accountable for emissions reductions, without addressing the important element that different countries have different responsibilities. And at home with the death of the Climate Change Accountability Act in the Senate in mid-November, Canada effectively has no national plan for reducing our emissions. But the government’s inaction doesn’t make the effects being felt across Canada any less real. In fact, our northern communities are already feeling the effects of climate change and are trying to respond through adaptation.
The cryosphere is the part of the water cycle that includes glaciers, permafrost, river-ice, and snow. In northern latitudes, cryospheric systems play an important role in regulating the availability and timing of water – in terms of the timing of snow melt, glacial melt and its contribution to river flow, or the limited interaction of groundwater with surface water due to the presence of permafrost. Given the Arctic and sub-Arctic have experienced much higher temperature increases than rest of the planet over the last 50 years, these regions are already feeling many of the impacts of climate change through biophysical systems and human communities in their relationship with the cryosphere.
Inuit are concerned about the earlier melt of sea ice each year and increased danger to hunting parties in periods when the safety of the ice never used to be a question. Riverside and lakeside communities brace themselves for more variable water level conditions, including more intense flooding. And considerable infrastructure costs in communities and for northern roads (such as the Alaska Highway) are required for repairs due to permafrost degradation. In the North, we are not debating whether climate change is occurring – we are focused on what we need to do to adapt.
I live in Yukon, and the work that I am doing has everything to do with adaptation. Given the importance of water in our communities for everything from agriculture to forest fire fighting, my current role in Yukon’s Department of Environment is to conduct a vulnerability assessment of water resources and improve access to water monitoring data (which is inherently more sparse in our northern regions) for community adaptation and development planning. Certainly, a big challenge for adaptation in the North is the availability of long-term data to inform our understanding of regional trends, and to use in the modelling of potential future scenarios.
But this limitation hasn’t stopped some great community adaptation initiatives either. The communities of Dawson City, Whitehorse and Mayo have been developing and implementing community adaptation plans in conjunction with the Northern Climate ExChange (NCE), an organization focused on northern climate research and action. NCE has also partnered with the Yukon Geological Survey to produce landscape hazard maps for several communities in the territory. Work on adaptation in the forestry sector, risk management for government infrastructure with respect to changing permafrost conditions, and in mainstreaming climate change into government decision making, are also ways that adaptation planning is moving forward. And First Nations are also actively addressing climate change adaptation – for example through food security initiatives, such as salmon habitat restoration in the Yukon River Basin and securing safe access to harvesting areas in Old Crow.
The North makes up more than 40% of Canada’s landmass, in addition to being an integral part of our national identity. While very sparsely populated, this region is rich in remote but resilient communities. Despite Canada’s international and national (in)action, these communities are acting on climate change because it’s a matter of survival.