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Feature Series | Part IV of IV

Canada in 2030: New normal of extreme weather events


Isabella O'Malley
Digital Writer/Climate Change Reporter

Friday, September 7, 2018, 1:40 PM - In a country where temperatures easily range between -30 and +30 degrees Celsius, climate change is creating a new normal of extreme weather events that Canadians have never faced before.

The forests, coastlines, and lakes are not like they used to be. Canada is one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide amongst all nations, and the heatwaves and melting Arctic ice are early indicators of what's to come if carbon emissions are not slowed. This final instalment of the four-part series - Water, Fire, Earth, Air - ties together how climate change will affect all regions of Canada by 2030, assuming carbon emissions will continue along a business-as-usual scenario.

POLITICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ATMOSPHERES ARE CHANGING

In 2015 Canada confidently committed to the Paris Agreement, which was signed by nearly 200 countries that all agreed to lower their carbon emissions to keep global warming below a 2 degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels so a catastrophic future of extreme natural disasters, droughts, floods, and heatwaves could be avoided. The enthusiasm for meeting carbon reduction targets quickly faded due to disagreement amongst governments about which sectors will make the carbon cuts, provinces and territories protecting their own interests, expansion of the fossil fuels industry, and an overall lack of unified urgency to address climate change.


NASA image of the Athabasca tar sands environmental impact in Alberta, 1984 and 2011. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The dwindling focus on adjusting industries and economies to emit less carbon has caused Canada to fall behind its environmental commitments. An audit of Canada's efforts to fight climate change and meet carbon targets was conducted between November 2016 and March 2018 by legislative audit offices, and Federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand reported that "most governments in Canada were not on track to meet their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and were not ready for the impacts of a changing climate."

The audit also cited that most provinces do not have a clear understanding of how climate change will affect their citizens and natural resources, and the Canadian government has $66 billion in assets that are at risk of being impacted. Each year extreme weather events cost Canadian insurers $1 billion, which has significantly jumped from the annual $400 million in previous decades. 

Only 12 years are left for industry and government to make decisions and take action against dangerously high greenhouse gas emissions. If Canada continues on a 'business as usual' pathway, how will clogging the atmosphere with carbon affect Canada by 2030?

FAST FACTS:

● Heat waves will become more frequent and will cause more challenges to human health 

● Allergy season will be longer and plants are producing more pollen

● Increased smog, smoke from wildfires, and other industrial pollutants will be worsened by rising temperatures

HEAT STRESS AND HUMIDITY

Some researchers say that climate change is the biggest threat to human health in the 21st century and studies show that severe weather and drastic ecosystem changes could have the greatest impact on allergic and respiratory diseases due to changing pollen patterns, increased mold exposure, and air pollution. 

When temperatures exceed 37 degrees Celsius the human body can experience heat stress, which involves fatigue, headache, muscle cramps and could lead to fatal heat stroke. Heat stress can occur when temperatures are within what is considered to be normal ranges, such as 27 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity of 40 per cent, and some healthy individuals could experience symptoms of heat stress with prolonged activity or exposure. 

When checking the weather before venturing outside many people want to know what it will actually feel like and rely on indicators like the wind chill factor or humidex. In addition to warmer temperatures, greenhouse gas emissions increase humid conditions. High levels of humidity can significantly impact human comfort because our perspiration (sweat) does not evaporate as easily, which causes our bodies to have a more difficult time staying cool and can make it more difficult for a person to recover from heat stress. 

The frequent heat waves coupled with humid conditions this summer proved that more and more Canadians will need different ways to beat the heat and probably will have to invest in more fans and air conditioning. A heatwave that affected Ontario and Quebec during the beginning of July resulted in at least 90 heat-related deaths as temperatures with humidex factor reached the into the 40s. Many of these fatalities were seniors with pre-existing conditions, which suggests that extra precautions will be needed for seniors during warmer months when abnormal temperatures and heat waves could occur. 

WORSENING POLLUTION

Air pollution has been linked to shortened life expectancy, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, chronic kidney disease, and even cognitive decline. The existing air pollution and smog will also be worsened by warmer temperatures, which causes ozone particles to form at faster rates and can create stagnant conditions where the air sits over an area and is resistant to movement. High levels of air pollution increases the risk to human health during hot weather conditions because inhaling the toxic particles can cause inflammation to the respiratory system and lower the airway hyperactivity threshold, which has been linked to increased mortality rates.


Traffic congestion downtown Toronto on the Gardiner Express. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The soil will also become drier as the heat draws out its moisture, which brings more dust into the air and the drying vegetation can create fire-prone conditions. British Columbia experienced its worst fire season on record with over 1.2 million hectares burned with it's smoke reaching the Maritimes and caused air quality conditions in Edmonton to rank worse than any of the most polluted cities in India and China. Wildfires are natural and part of a healthy environment, but in the past few years western Canada has seen historic amounts of destruction and area burned by fires intensified by abnormally hot, dry conditions and has prompted discussions about adapting to changing climate conditions.

THE SPREAD OF POLLEN

Some don't mind the early spring that climate change brings while others suffer through longer allergy seasons. Numerous studies show strong correlations between higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, warmer temperatures, and increased pollen production, particularly in urban areas. Before the Industrial Revolution the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was approximately 280 parts per million (ppm), whereas now concentrations have exceeded 410ppm. Studies show that as the concentration of carbon increases, the amount of pollen produced per plant goes up as well as the potency of each pollen grain.


Ragweed, a common culprit for causing allergy symptoms. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a surprising connection between allergies and extreme weather events. Increased frequency and intensity of rainfall events are expected to release more precipitation that will cause more water damage, flooding, damp buildings, and subsequent mold growth, which can trigger the risk and severity of asthma attacks and allergic reactions. Severe storms can also rupture pollen grains, circulate them in the air, and concentrate them at ground level.

CARBON TARGETS - TAX OR CUTS?

Canada and the U.K. are two of the six participants that are preparing the first carbon trades as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement, which is intended to utilize as much as $4 billion for projects that will tax polluting goods and services and reduce greenhouse gases in exchange for emissions credits. The World Bank Group is overseeing this program and hopes that it will encourage private companies and development banks to contribute funds and demonstrate how international collaboration can generate private investment to meet the Paris Agreement targets. 

There are many other strategies that could be used to lower emissions. One method could be cutting carbon emissions in certain industry sectors and utilizing existing carbon sinks such as forests, which capture carbon out of the air as they grow. The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate is a program entailing the strategies for reducing emissions, such as economy-wide measures like carbon pricing and phasing out coal plants. A revision to the original framework was made in May 2017 and stated that Canada will reexamine it's approach to accounting for emissions in the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector, but did not clearly state how much Canada would rely on this sector to sequester carbon.


Protester during a Kinder Morgan Pipeline Rally on September 9th, 2017 in Vancouver, Canada. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Domestically, Canadian governments are in disagreement about a national carbon tax. While some argue that it is an effective way at reducing carbon emissions by leading people to invest in environmentally-friendly alternatives, others argue that it will be too high of a price for many Canadian families. Depending on the outcome of this discourse, Canada could step closer to meeting carbon commitments or continue to veer further away.

SO WHAT WILL HAPPEN BY 2030?

● Spring and fall will become warmer and heatwaves with uncomfortable humidity will become the new normal during the summer months. 

● More care will be needed to attend to the growing senior population during the increasingly common heat waves and extreme weather events. This could fall on the responsibility of friends and family, or on public and private health care providers. 

● Wildfires will burn more intensely and for longer periods of time, which will worsen air quality most severely in immediate areas and cause risks to human health. Health care providers will have to increasingly accommodate staff and supplies in times of worsened air quality, particularly in emergencies. 

● Storms and extreme weather events will spike the amount of pollen circulating and can suddenly trigger allergy symptoms. 

WATCH BELOW: Coconut shoreline in Canada? What's going on here?


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