ALEXANDRA SHIMO February 26 2007


ALEXANDRA SHIMO February 26 2007



The surprising truth of what climate change will mean for Canada


The U.S. politician who was once derided with the moniker Mego, short for “My Eyes Glaze Over,” will likely be greeted by media hype and throngs of fans when he visits Toronto next week. Al Gore is scheduled to talk at the University of Toronto about the hot-button issue of climate change, and the lecture was sold out long before most of us had given much thought to his arrival.

For more than a decade, Gore has been urging action on global warming, and with the publication of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it would seem he got it right. Perhaps a little too right. The sad truth is that even if we were to stop all carbon emissions right now, global warming would likely continue for at least the next 100 years, says Ian Burton, an environmental consultant for Natural Resources Canada. “There are millions of tons of extra C02 in the atmosphere already,” Burton explains. “To get back to equilibrium, we need to absorb all of that extra carbon dioxide.” And that may take a long time. There are 1.6 billion people in the world who live

without electricity, and would like a decent standard of living. China and India are developing their economies and industrializing quickly, mostly through coal. If current trends continue, the world will use 71 per cent more energy by 2030 than it did four years ago. The majority will still be provided by coal, oil and gas.

Faced with this reality, the British government, for one, has switched tactics. Rather than focusing only on prevention, it has started to talk to industries and government agencies about how to adapt. Businesses are given the best data on global warming so they can make the most of the changing climate. Low-lying towns are told how likely they are to flood so they can change building codes if necessary. Farmers are advised on how to profit from a longer growing season, or whether they should irrigate in drier weather. It’s a controversial strategy that the Harper government has so far avoided.

Instead, Ottawa is investigating how Canada will change with global warming. Natural Resources Canada has gathered data from hundreds of scientists from around the world. It is scheduled to present a major report later this year. Maclean’s took an early look at this research. Some of the data highlighted trends that are already occurring: more droughts, storms, air pollution. Others revealed more

insidious problems that need urgent action. There were also some pleasant surprises. Not everyone will lose from global warming; some individuals and businesses stand to make great gains from our strange, new climate.


Wines: A little heat will make much of Canada better suited to winemaking, says Tony Aspler, author of The Wine Atlas of Canada. Gregoryjones, a climate-change specialist at Southern Oregon University, agrees. His research focusing on the Niagara Peninsula predicted a shift from the lighter German grapes that thrive in cooler climes to lusher, more full-bodied varieties. Over the next 50 years, Jones predicts a shift from Pinot Gris and Rieslings to Syrahs, Carignanes, and Merlots in the region.

Some of this is already taking place. In Ontario, grapes are being grown farther north, with a vineyard to open at Collingwood later this year. In British Columbia, a decade of warmer temperatures has seen wineries open as far north as Tappen and Salmon Arm. “We are the most northerly vineyard on the continent,” says Brody Smith at Recline Ridge Vineyards & Winery. “We had a stellar harvest this year, with lots of sun, good heat and just the right amount of rain.”

Likewise, in Quebec, a rise of just a few degrees would facilitate varieties with more elegance and finesse, such as Seyval Blanc and Müller-Thurgau, which cannot survive the wine region’s current -35 ° C winters. The varieties that are presently grown—Frontenac, Sabrevois and Vandal-Cliche—are better at surviving the cold than producing lush, fullbodied wines, Aspler observes. Rising temperatures would also benefit Nova Scotia’s grape production, with more of the province capable of cultivation, Aspler predicts. How-

ever, one potential loser could be ice wines. This year, it wasn’t cold enough to pick the grapes until mid-January, says Charles Pillitteri, owner of Pillitteri Estate Winery in the Niagara region, and ideally they should be harvested before Christmas.

Forestry: Global warming will help grow our greenery, according to research by Robert Mendelsohn, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. With increased carbon dioxide and warmer, wetter weather, he thinks our boreal forest will shift north into areas occupied by the tundra. Other scientists concur. “Our predictions show the boreal forest moving northwards and becoming more productive,” says Brent Sohngen, an environmental economics professor at Ohio State University. Hardwood forests will also move into areas once occupied by the boreal, with more oak, maple, birch, beach and aspen. The size of the boreal forests will likely shrink by five to 10 per cent, but the area of hardwoods will double, according to Sohngen’s research.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy. Forest fires could increase in intensity and severity, as they have in California. Mountain pine beetles, which have decimated the lodgepole pines in B.C., will likely continue their spread eastward. Many scientists predict they can also thrive in the Jack pine species. If so, the beetles could spread wherever these trees flourish: from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast. But the thinning of the pines could help other types of trees to thrive, says David Price, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service, with Natural Resources Canada. “We would see a change in the forest structure, but it wouldn’t disappear. When one species loses, all others have a better

chance of survival. As the climate warms, we could see more aspen or white spruce.”

Agriculture: This winter suited Mario Beauchamp to a tee. The balmy temperatures meant he could start tapping the sap of his sugar bush in November instead of February, as is traditional in Quebec. For the past three months, plastic pipes have hung from the bark of20,000 of his maples. The sugar content isn’t as high as it would be in spring, but his company, Produits de l’érable l’époque, uses reverse osmosis to concentrate the sap before boiling.

Maple producers are not the only growers who could gain, says Jeff Andresen, a professor of geography at Michigan State University. Andresen looked at what has happened to crop yields around the Great Lakes over the past 20 years. Since 1980, the average temperature in southern Ontario and Quebec has gone up by about a degree. That has lengthened the growing season and produced higher yields in corn, soybeans and wheat. Cherries, apples and peaches could also benefit. Another degree or two would likely expand crop production northwards, he predicts.

Mendelsohn analyzed crop production with the higher temperatures predicted over the next 100 years. He predicts Canadian wheat yields will rise by 3 0 to 40 per cent by the end of the century. The big uncertainty, especially in the Prairies, will be whether water will run out. But water problems could be circumvented with better management, says Burton. The longer growing season, he says, “could be an opportunity to grow more productive crops, or two crops, where we currently only grow one.”

Tourism: Canada’s tourist economy will do very well from a warming climate, accord-

ing to Jacqueline Hamilton, an environmental economist at the University of Hamburg. The world must vacation somewhere, and over the next 50 years, southern climes such as Greece, Italy and Spain are all expected to become too hot, she says. And places like Panama, the Bahamas and Bermuda may also bear the brunt, as their long, hot summers turn into months of searing heat.

But here, longer, hotter summers will mean more tourists, better golf seasons and more visitors to national parks, says Daniel Scott, Canada Research Chair in global change and tourism. Warmer winters will leave skiers scrambling, but unlike in Europe, many Canadian resorts have already prepared by buying snow-making machines. These machines should make up the predicted snow shortfall for most of Quebec and Ontario and B.C.’s interior for at least the next few decades, he asserts. B.C.’s coast is more vulnerable to global warming, and that province’s ski season might have more difficulties, but as yet, there isn’t the research to predict exactly what will happen. “Most of the tourism industry will be fine at least until 2050 even with the warmest predictions,” says Scott.


Permafrost: The abandoned Giant Mine is about a 10-minute drive from Yellowknife’s city centre. Its buildings are derelict; the windows are broken and the mine’s trademark yellow is peeling. But what lies beneath it is more important: an indication of what is likely to come with global warming. Buried beneath the snow is 237,000 tonnes of a lethal grey powder: arsenic trioxide dust. It is waste left over from the mining of millions of ounces of gold at Giant. The arsenic was contained in storage caverns, which were to remain frozen solid by the permafrost. That was the theory, anyway. In practice, the arsenic began to leak out as the ground ice melted with rising temperatures, and this highly toxic waste seeped into the surrounding groundwater.

Consultants hired by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 2000 to look into the problem came up with 12 options, and whittled them down to two possibilities: dig up the grey powder and encase it, or refreeze it. The federal government chose the latter, and this plan is currently under review.

There are thousands of such mining and oil-and-gas waste containers in the Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories, says Ellen Francis, Arctic program manager at the Pembina Institute. Actually, the term “container” is an overstatement. Much of this waste was heaped directly onto the snow, or into a pit, or a frozen lake, says Sharon Smith, a permafrost researcher at the Geological Survey of Canada, a part of Natural Resources

Canada. Now, half of the oil-and-gas waste piles, called sumps, are collapsing, according to research from the Pembina Institute. These contain pollutants such as potassium chloride, bentonite, lignosulphonates, and salt. “Some mining sumps contain pollutants like cadmium, which can lead to kidney failure, and zinc, which can cause birth defects in the young,” says Les White, president of Permafrost Environmental Consulting, which advises governments and NGOs on this issue. “When they were designing these things, no one even thought about a warming climate until just a few years ago.”

Flooding: Like Venice, most of the Atlantic coast is sinking, says Liette Vasseur, associate vice-president of research at Laurentian University. That’s due to vibrations in the earth’s crust, and it means the East Coast is particularly susceptible to the increased hurricanes, flooding, and storm surges predicted with global warming. The Atlantic storms of the past decade foreshadow what is to come, says Vasseur. In 2000, hurricane Michael struck the coast of Newfoundland with peak winds of 171 km/h, flooding several hundred houses and dozens of roads.

Then, a couple of years later, hurricane Gustav struck, downing power lines and causing flooding. A year later, hurricane Juan hit Nova Scotia and P.E.I. With eight deaths, and more than $200 million in damage, it is considered the most destructive hurricane to hit the coast in over a century. “These are extreme storms that are supposed to take place once every 50 years,” Vasseur observes. “They are coming one after another.”

On the West Coast, rising sea levels will mean more risk of flooding in the cities of Richmond and Delta, both of which are below sea level. The Sierra Club of Canada, which used data from NASA to look at what the earth actually looked like when it was two degrees warmer (as opposed to climatic modelling), suggests that such a rise, which many climatologists deem likely by the middle of the next century, would submerge most of Richmond, Delta and downtown Victoria.

Oil Sands: In the next decade, the conflict between oil and water in Alberta’s oil sands will likely come to a head, says James Bruce, an environmental consultant who specializes in climate change and water. Over the past 40 years, the water flow in the Athabasca River has been steadily falling—winter flow is about half what it was in the ’70s, his research shows. Part of that is due to the resources needed for oil extraction—steam is used to separate the bitumen from the sand. But rising temperatures play a role, too. Alberta, like the rest of the country, is

experiencing one of its warmest years on record, and there’s less snowmelt and glaciers to feed the river.

By 2015, there won’t be enough water to continue developing the oil sands without destroying the river ecosystem downstream, Bruce states. The immediate effects will be on vegetation and aquatic life. First Nations have already asked for a cap on water withdrawals during the low-flow weeks of winter, which has been refused by the Alberta Environment Ministry and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

David Schindler, Killam memorial chair in ecology at the University of Alberta, believes there may be other dire consequences. The river water already contains several carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are likely from oil that has seeped into the water table. Those substances have been linked to stomach and colon cancers, both of which are more common in the Aboriginal population downstream. The concentration of these carcinogens will likely increase with less water. What this could mean for fish stocks or for cancer rates in


the Aboriginal population has yet to be investigated.

Disease: Malaria, which was eliminated from Ontario in the early 1900s, is one of the diseases the Public Health Agency of Canada is concerned could spread with a warming climate. Others include hantavirus, which is spread through rats and mice urine, Lyme disease, and the West Nile virus. With malaria and West Nile, a shorter, warmer, wetter winter would mean more mosquitoes and could cause a population explosion of mice and rats, says Paul Sockett, director of foodand water-borne and zoonotic infections at the agency. Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in North America, is expected to spread out across Canada, moving north hundreds of kilometres, according to research by microbiologist Nick Ogden at the Université de Montréal.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Canada,” says Sockett. “There are 20,000 cases ofLyme disease every year in the U.S., and hundreds of cases of West Nile virus. But if you change the weather just by a few degrees, the disease dynamic could change completely.”

Burton agrees. When you change the climate, you change every aspect of a country, he says. “We are going to see a new, very different Canada in our lifetimes. What we have to do now is work out what will change, and figure out how to adapt.” M