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Biggest threat to our water? Canadians agree it's one thing
Thursday, October 27, 2016, 11:53 AM - A recent Water Attitudes survey conducted by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) found that Canadians increasingly see climate change as the single greatest threat to the country's fresh water supply.
However, despite a summer of extreme drought and severe flooding across eastern Canada, prompting several communities to issue states of emergency, the study highlighted 75 per cent of Canadians do not feel that they live in area that is vulnerable to these extreme weather events.
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"I think this is probably because there is confusion about whether or not extreme weather events are contributable to climate," Bob Sandford, EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health told The Weather Network. "I think there has been some confusion about the clarity of the science with respect to the increasing intensity and duration of extreme weather events."
Hottest year ever?
September 21 marked the end of a record-breaking summer for some of Canada’s largest cities, as both Toronto and Montreal experienced their hottest season ever. On a wider scale, 2016 is on course to be the hottest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
"The most important climate effect that we have to understand and respond to is that warming temperatures allow more water to be carried in the atmosphere," Sandford said.
According to Sandford, a 1oC temperature increase, raises the amount of water vapour the atmosphere can carry by about seven per cent. Experts say a 4°C rise in global average temperature is possible by the end of the century and if this were to occur, the world would experience a shift in precipitation patterns and much of the weather as established in the past.
Understanding the hydrological cycle
"The rate in which water moves in the global hydrological cycle is accelerating. It's happening right before our eyes," Sandford told The Weather Network. "It's been very difficult for experts to grasp the full extent of what the loss of relative hydrological stability means."
In addition, the ratio of snow to liquid water is changing, which has potential consequences for us all, Sandford noted. A good example of this is the loss of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies.
According to the Western Canadian Cryospheric Network, as many as 300 glaciers have disappeared in the Canadian Rockies between 1920 and 2005 and this trend is expected to continue.
"The same warming that is causing our glaciers to disappear so quickly is reducing snowpack, duration and extent of snow cover throughout the west," Sandford said. "Where I live in the Rockies, snowpack is declining by a rate of 17 per cent per decade. The disturbing lesson we get from this is that until we stabilize the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, adaptation or resilience will forever remain a moving target."
Warming temperatures have also had a major impact on the Arctic. After a record low sea ice extent in March, NASA says there are still no signs of recovery and this has affected the behaviour of the jet stream. The Arctic is connected to the entire climate system and the region has the potential to change weather patterns across the globe, according to Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"It’s becoming less of a west to east flow and more of a loopy flow, kind of more north to south which leads to more extreme event things like droughts, torrential rains and flooding," Meier said in a August report.
However, most Canadians do not feel personally at risk when it comes to extreme weather events. The RBC study found that 80 per cent of Ontarians have little or no concern about droughts.
"I think as more and more of these events take place, people will be more and more convinced of the science and will understand that this is actually happening to us and we have to do something about it."
Other notable findings from the survey include that nine out of 10 Canadians feel stricter rules and standards for water management is the best way to protect our fresh water, and that nearly a quarter of respondents have experienced boil water advisories.
While almost all surveyed agree that the country should take responsibility to manage its waters more efficiently and effectively, Canadians feel less inclined to help other countries better manage their water resources.
"Before we consider helping our thirsty neighbours, we've got to get our own water house in order and we have not done that yet," Sandford said. "We are not good at managing our own water. We are egregious water wasters in Canada and until we understand how the hydrologic cycle is going to change and how that may affect supply and management, I don't think we should be giving consideration into exporting water resources."
Water control is something Ontario municipalities are losing a grip on, added Sandford.
Bottled water giant Nestlé recently outbid the township of Central Wellington for the purchase of a well in the area, which has prompted the mayor to call for more local control.
The issue is especially crucial to Guelph, which is the largest city in Canada that relies solely on groundwater for its water supply. The water being taken by Nestlé in Aberfoyle is from the same aquifer that feeds Guelph's supply.
"With a projected increase in population of 46 per cent by 2041, the city of Guelph may be on a collision course between growing water demands and dwindling supply," said Sandford.
Municipalities like Guelph that are required to manage water resources take RBC's survey very seriously as it gives them an idea of where the public stands and where to concentrate communication efforts in order to change attitudes and behaviour, noted Sandford.
"It's very important because we have this culture where since confederation, we've had this national myth of unlimited abundance of water that we have to dispel."
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