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Hotter and dryer: how long will the trend continue?

Global warming is happening but there are ways to mitigate it

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If you have noticed "that the alpine seems more baron than it has ever been," then according to a senior climatologist from Environment Canada you’ve noticed a hotter, drier trend.

While the rest of Canada has been experiencing colder temperatures this summer the Sea to Sky corridor has had one of its hottest, driest summers on record, but David Phillips from Environment Canada said the real problem is that this kind of weather has become familiar.

"July in Vancouver represented the second warmest July on record and records go back through the last century," said Phillips.

"But what’s interesting is that an area that’s not that far away, in Winnipeg, they were going through the coldest summer on record and their records go back 132 years.

"The problem in your situation (in the Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky corridor) is that you’ve seen too many seasons that are the same, in that they’re warmer than normal and dryer than normal."

It is old news that the world has warmed by about half a degree, but in the Sea to Sky corridor the situation is more critical.

"Where we see dramatic increases of temperature are in the west, so when we talk about the world warming up by 0.6 degree over the past century, parts of British Columbia have warmed up twice as fast in half the time," said Phillips.

"In climate circles this is quite significant, because it means your winters have warmed up by two degrees.

"So when old timers say the weather’s not what it used to be then they’re absolutely right about that."

Phillips said that warmer weather in an area such as the Sea to Sky corridor is a phenomena that affects a much greater area.

"Your mountains are getting warmer so you might have more forest fires, but what it also does affect is the water supply from the mountains, and I’m not just talking about the Coastal Mountains, it affects all three mountain ranges across Canada.

"But particularly in the Rocky Mountain system the glaciers have been an important source of water for irrigation, prairie production, for hydro power production, for urban water systems, and we’re seeing a dramatic change in terms of the melt water.

"You might think that if there’s more glacier’s melting the rivers would be filling but no, the water is so far down the flow into prairies is much less."

When the weather is warmer there is a greater need for rain, but Phillips said B.C. is also getting drier.

"Not only have we seen warmer conditions, more of the years have been drier than normal.

"In the last 57 year where we have national records some of the driest years have been in recent years.

"In those 57 years, of the 12 driest years you find (in order) 2002, 2000, 2001 and 2003.

"So the last four years have been some of the driest years in the last century.

"What is alarming is the accumulative effect because you can have one dry year and then bounce back the next year when it’s wet.

"It’s like taking money from the bank but you guys are on overdraft for too many years running and your bank balance is now negative."

Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s Environmental Resource Manager, backed many of Phillips’s claims and confirmed that Whistler-Blackcomb was doing several things to adapt to the changing climate.

"One community can’t change it (global warming) but we’re investigating ways, such as snow-making on Horstman Glacier, where we might be able to create enough snow to offset the net loss (of snow) on the glacier," said DeJong.

"We’re also doing a lot more summer grooming, flattening the ski trails which will mean… we can open up those areas with minimal snow."

While snowmaking is an important part of Whistler’s environmental plan DeJong said it’s not the only answer to some of the growing environmental concerns.

"We’ve often decided to put lift stations higher, we’re more focused on the higher elevation terrain knowing that we can sustain that.

"But snowmaking in itself is not the answer, but terrain modifications do make a significant difference.

"You can go from requiring two and a half feet or a metre of snow to open certain trails but with extensive summer grooming you can open it up with 30 cm or a foot of snow.

"When we get slopes with a robust re-vegetation regime on the ski trail that also helps us open.

"And we’ve spent $1.5 million since the ’90s on grass restoration.

"The grass works like an insulator; if you think that ground temperature is always around zero, so if snow hits baron ground it melts much faster than it does on a thick layer of grass."

With the world’s climate apparently changing the stakeholders in several ski areas have become leaders in environmental conservation, because for company’s such as Intrawest and Vail Resorts climate change affects their financial picture as well as their clients’ experience.

"As far as mitigating it we can do that," said DeJong. "We’re not going to rectify climate change, but we might be able to leverage or inspire more action from other people by doing things like eliminating fossil fuels as an energy source."

Glacial geologist Karl Ricker has been studying glaciers around the Sea to Sky corridor since 1965 and while he did agree the mountains were now quite bare, he was more ambivalent about the long-term outcome of global warming.

"What we saw (on the mountains) in July is what we normally see at the end of September, early October," said Ricker.

"So April and June are the culprit months as to why things dried up so fast.

"But you’ve got to remember the year 1999 was the record snow fall for the century in Whistler.

"I think it’s too early to point fingers… certainly in the 1930s they had this problem," he said. "And from a geological point of view I keep reminding people that from between 5,500 and 8,500 years ago things were a hell of a lot drier and warmer than they are now.

"So we know that these things happen and they’re going to happen again.

"The problem is that this time around they say that the CO2 or super-atmosphere is much higher than it was back then, so therefore the long term forecast is much bleaker… but the jury’s still out on that one."

Some people are working to create awareness about climate change in alpine regions. The Alpine Club of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and Mountain Equipment Co-op are planning a series of presentations throughout Western Canada this fall and winter.

To be involved, or to receive updates on these events e-mail Chris Joseph at mountains@davidsuzuki.org .

Web sites on climate change and green alternatives:

www.davidsuzuki.org , www.keepwintercool.org (U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council), www.climatechangesolutions.com , www.oee.nrcan.gc.ca , www.onelesstonne.ca (this is a calculator tool that show how to reduce waste and costs)

B.C. is getting warmer so what can we do?

Suggestions from David Phillips, Environment Canada; Whistler-Blackcomb’s Arthur DeJong and the David Suzuki Foundation

• Learn to do more with less.

• Learn to adapt to the weather forecasts of the future, which will mean hotter and dryer seasons (i.e. opening ski areas higher in the alpine).

• Learn to conserve resources, particularly water.

• Fossil fuels create harmful emissions so find alternative energy sources.

• Use your car less.

• Plan to have an energy efficient home.

• Lobby governments to pursue renewable energy production such as wind and solar power.