It’s no surprise, after California’s five-year drought that is now creeping northwards, experts have water on the mind.
The drought-plagued forests that burned across the continent this summer offered a glimpse of our future world, according to retired scientists David Schindler, who told an audience last week that the ash-laden air and sepia skies of summer 2015 are to become the new normal in a hotter and drier world.
Schindler, a Rhodes Scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta’s Department of Biological Sciences, spoke at The Walrus Talks in Victoria, an event that brought together authors and experts all with stories to tell about our most overlooked resource: water.
“When I agreed to give a Walrus Talk last spring on the topic of climate warming and fresh water I couldn’t have known that the summer of 2015 was going to be a poster child that would display most of these symptoms that I’ve been studying for 25 years or more,” he said.
“In this part of B.C. you enjoyed the summer of water rationing and red suns set in a grey sky with air quality that you normally wouldn’t see outside of Beijing. You’re getting a good idea of quality of life that we’re facing ahead if we continue to operate as business as usual.”
Schindler said Canadians have been “lulled into thinking that Canada has so much freshwater, we can always squander it and be sure there will always be some more waiting for us.”
“We’re assured by politicians and media that we have lots of water.”
The website for Natural Resources Canada demonstrates this point exactly: “Overall, Canada may be considered a freshwater-rich country: on an average annual basis, Canadian rivers discharge close to nine per cent of the world’s renewable water supply, while Canada has less than one per cent of the world’s population.”
But this way of thinking about Canada’s freshwater is misleading, Schindler said, because what sustains that water supply is runoff. With climate change already affecting Canada’s glaciers and increasing incidents of drought, our freshwater supply is in danger.
“You can’t talk about water without talking about climate change,” Schindler said. “We know that the snow packs in these mountain ranges are dwindling as last winter gave us a good example of. The glaciers supply a tiny amount of the total annual flow of a river but it comes at a critical time of the hot, dry summer.”
Schindler said the Bow River Glacier can supply up to 50 per cent of the river’s water during dry spells. But he said, over the last century, the Bow River Glacier has dramatically retreated threatening water supply for cities like Calgary as well as the cold water necessary to sustain the river’s famous cold water fish species during the hotter months of July to September.
Wildfires, Both Cause and Outcome of Climate Change, Consume Freshwater
The millions of hectares of forest that burned across Canada this year were the victim of the “deadly combination” of pine-beetle infestations, drought and high temperatures, Schindler said.
He added that wildfires further exacerbating the problem of climate change by releasing huge amounts of emissions.
Although models for determining how much forest fires contribute to overall emissions are still being developed, Environment Canada estimates an average acre of burnt forests releases 4.81 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
But this figure can be higher for peatland, common in the boreal forest, which is estimated to hold 30 per cent of the world’s terrestrial carbon. According to new research it turns out boreal forests are burning at greater rates than at any time in the past 10,000 years.
According to Environment Canada, it’s estimated that in an average year, fires across Canada release 27 megatonnes of carbon. For reference, in 2012 Canada released 699 megatonnes and is on track to release 727 megatonnes of carbon emissions annually by 2020.
But in a bad year, those emissions can skyrocket. According to Schindler wildfire emissions in one of these hot and dry spells can approach the emissions output of Canada’s industrial sector, the country’s number one emitter of greenhouse gasses.
And because saltwater can corrode fire fighting equipment, a freshwater is required to fight all these fires and is at times mixed with chemical fire retardants or foam concentrates. A spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recently told NPR that firefighters facing severe drought conditions this past summer were forced to draw water from nearby swimming pools.
No government websites list the total amount of water used to fight Canada’s forest fires, although a single fire near Banff, Alberta this summer consumed an estimated ten thousand litres of water per day from nearby rivers and creeks.
Federal Politicans Must Consider Costs
It's easy to see the high costs of climate change and the high value of water, Schindler said. The amount of money put into fighting forests fires plus the value of lost forestry quickly escalated into the billions this summer. B.C. alone spent nearly $300 million fighting forest fires in 2015 although the province only budgeted $63 million for the task.
Schindler said it's time to be more honest about these costs.
“How is it that we can have three leaders debating economics in the run up to the election — talking about figures of the same magnitude — without talking about this side of the ledger?"
“They talk about jobs, they talk about big industry — how about the costs? Don’t you guys know that there are two sides to the ledger?”
Schindler ended by saying the value of water and the cost of a warming climate can’t be kept separate from any grand promises about the economy.
“Before we can have an economic action plan we need to have a climate action plan,” he said.
Image: University of Alberta