Quebec on the verge of catastrophic climate change, expert says

By William Marsden
The Gazette
December 29, 2011

Richelieu River Flooding

Record floods, melting permafrost, shoreline erosion and intense winds caused havoc for thousands of Quebecers as 2011 proved to be yet another year of higher than normal temperatures.

These higher temperatures add to the credibility of climate models that have predicted the march of global warming will accelerate the more greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere, scientists say.

“It is striking that over the last 10 to 15 years we didn’t have a single season colder than normal,” said Alain Bourque, director of climate change impacts and adaptation at Quebec’s climate change research institute Ouranos. “That is a clear indication that Canada’s climate is heating up beyond any reasonable doubt.”

While most Quebecers may cheer the warmer winters, Bourque warns it is already endangering coastlines, the northern communities that are built on permafrost and our forests, which probably will not be able to adapt fast enough to a warmer climate.

He said warmer temperatures for pretty well all seasons indicate Quebec is well on its way to meeting the climate-model predictions that we are fast closing in on the 2C mark many scientists claim is the tipping point that will plunge the globe into catastrophic climate change.

The models indicate mean temperatures in the southern half of Quebec will be 2C to 3C higher than normal by 2020. In northern Quebec, the warming will be even higher. And at the present rate of warming as tracked since 1948, we are on track to be well over 4C by 2050 and as high as 7C to 9C by 2080.

“We are halfway along this timeline and are well on our way to achieving what the model says we will achieve in 2020,” Bourque said. “So for the experts such as me who study the impact of climate change, essentially everything is happening as predicted.”

According to Environment Canada, spring temperatures in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region, which includes Montreal and Quebec City, were 54 per cent higher than normal. This is the highest percentage deviation from the norm recorded since 1948.

Montreal temperatures in October, November and December were well above normal. Temperatures for the first two weeks of December were on average 3.8C above normal. Not a single daily maximum fell below zero despite the fact the normal maximum daily for this time of year in Montreal is below freezing, according to Environment Canada.

Bourque said the data over the last 62 years indicates climate change is beginning to speed up.

What worries him is the effect on ecosystems that cannot adjust fast enough to the new climate.

“For fauna it is not too big of a challenge,” he said. Most animals can move quickly into a more optimal climate. He noted, for example, that southern Quebec is seeing a wider variety of birds previously common only to more southerly regions.

“In the ’50s and ’60s cardinals were occasionally seen in the Montreal area,” he said in an interview. “Now there are tons of cardinals and they are moving more toward the Trois Rivières area. In Quebec City, you never really saw cardinals and now they are there.”

He said the ability to adjust to a warmer climate is much more difficult for plants.

The optimal climate envelope in which maple trees can thrive has been steadily moving north and by 2050 will be 500 kilometres north of the townships, he said.

“So if you do the calculation this makes 100 km for 10 years which means 10 km per year,” he said.

To keep up with its climate envelope, maple trees would have to move about 27 meters a day. In other words, Bourque said, they’d have to start walking.

Climate change is happening too quickly for trees and other flora to go through the natural regeneration process fast enough to keep up with their moving climate envelope, he said.

“Let’s say the maple is absolutely unable to move northward. Then in 2050 the current maples are going to be in an area where it is not optimal with the climate. It depends on the resistance of the different trees, but it is pretty clear that it is not going to be optimal. So the future for trees looks worrisome.

“It is likely that it is going to be negative, very negative (for flora),” he added. “Globally on the planet experts agree that it is going to be negative especially because of the rate of climate change. It is just happening too quickly.

Heavy winter storms have been eroding the coastline east of Quebec City, he said.

“When you got to Sept Îles, Rimouski, Percé, there is almost on a weekly basis major media articles and all kind of problems of people losing their houses, people having to be moved in crisis situations because of storms,” he said.

Rising sea levels play a part, but the main cause is the loss of sea ice, he said.

“The ice cover used to protect the coastal areas. Now you have waves of a few meters reaching the shores during the big winter storms.”

Mayor Serge Lévesque of Sept Îles said his city has seen several homes destroyed. In addition, he said, “there are about 10 residents who have had to be relocated to avoid having their homes destroyed.”

He added a lot of land has been lost in a sector about 15 kilometres east of the city and also in a residential area about 25 kilometres west of the city.

“It’s been going on since the 1980s,” he said. “The main cause is the almost complete lack of ice in the winter and the fact that our coastline is mainly sand.”

A Sept Îles native, he predicts the way things are going he will have to move his home within the next eight years.

The damage is already costing taxpayers. The province has a new program to pay homeowners forced to move away from the coast compensation of up to $150,000.

“It may sound like a lot but you can’t build a new home in Sept Îles for that money,” Levesque said.

In northern communities such as Salluit, permafrost has become an issue of survival. Salluit is a community of 1,500 people and its population is expanding. It is located in a river valley of ice and mud on the Hudson Strait.

“There was some question at some point of moving the entire village because the spot is too risky,” Bourque said. “But they came to the conclusion that it was manageable if they inspected the land regularly and built new infrastructure in safe places where there is more rock and less mud.”

Scientists say they cannot relate single events such as this year’s record flooding in the Richelieu Valley to climate change. But the heavy rains and fast snowmelt in Vermont that caused the early spring flooding is becoming more frequent.

“This is where the costs become very significant,” Bourque said. “Historically we have rejected these events as freak events and we won’t see them for the next 100 years. But now that is not the way it is happening and it’s happening everywhere. People are flooded for weeks and then it takes a year to return to normal life. They last so long they become permanent.”

The Richelieu flood cost governments at least $22.3 million in emergency costs and home repairs. That does not includes the costs many homeowners were forced to bear themselves.

A study released in November by the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy, called Paying the Price: The Economic Costs of Climate Change for Canada, warns that annual costs could rise to $43 billion by the 2050s.

“Where costs are estimated at $43 billion in the high climate change – rapid growth scenario, there is a five per cent chance that the costs could be at least $91 billion per year,” the study states.

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