Doctors say Canadian Arctic already feeling health impacts of warming climate

Dr. Courtney Howard. Photo by Pat Kane

While the effects of climate change may seem far off to some, doctors are warning that rising global temperatures are already taking a toll on peoples’ health in the Canadian Arctic.

As the permafrost has started to thaw, people have not been able to depend on their traditional knowledge of the land that used to guide them over frozen rivers, creeks and lakes.

This has meant that more travellers have been falling through the ice, doctors say.

“What that creates is increased instances of trauma,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in a Yellowknife hospital that serves patients across the Northwest Territories and up into the high Arctic.

The change in temperature in a place where people depend heavily on travelling over ice has pushed them to take much longer routes. For indigenous people in the Arctic, who get their healthiest food from the land, this has made hunting less fruitful and more dangerous.

“It causes a lot of hardship for people that are navigating the land and moving where there were traditional trails,” said Francois Paulette, a Denesuline elder and a member of the Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation.

Many remote communities in the Northwest Territories do not have all-weather roads and depend on ice roads in the winter. The warming climate has delayed winter roads from opening in the fall, and shuttered them early in the spring. 

Paulette said it took his friend, who lives in a cabin 21 miles away from him, three days to return home on his Ski-Doo last fall — a trip that usually lasts just four hours. 

The warmer temperatures have also led to changing migration patterns and shrinking populations of certain species, said Paulette.

“It changes everything,” he said.

Howard said the Arctic’s changing landscape has also impacted peoples’ mental health. It has created a feeling of home nostalgia for some elders, in which they feel homesick even though they are still at home because of how rapidly the land is changing around them, she said.

She added that it is not just people in the Canadian Arctic who are experiencing health impacts from climate change. Howard pointed to wildfires in western Canada, and an increase in cases of Lyme disease that has come with the spread of a particular species of ticks.

“There seem to be more Canadians who are feeling climate change in their bodies in a way that they didn’t a couple years ago,” she said. “It definitely seems to be leading to increased worries about what this means for them, their families, their kids.”

‘The eyes of everybody are on us’: Canadian farmers look to be good stewards of the land

Sean LaBrie, the co-owner of Difficulty Ranch, is one of hundreds of ranchers and farmers who are participating in the ALUS program. Photo/Robert Scott

As rising temperatures and extreme weather have started to threaten the agricultural industry, Canadian farmers have been exploring what they can do to fight climate change.

For Sean LaBrie, that has meant fencing off 90 acres of his 800-acre ranch in Alberta for special conservation projects.

LaBrie is one of hundreds of farmers and ranchers across the country who are participating in the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program. A national charitable organization runs the program and pays farmers to devote a portion of their land for conservation efforts. These can include restoring wetlands and planting more trees to offset their carbon footprint.

“It’s letting people know who are removed from agriculture that we do care about our land as well as upstream properties from ours. We’re trying to take care of everybody along the way,” said LaBrie.

While the project means farmers are unable to use portions for production, ALUS looks to keep their operations financially viable through the payments.

Rancher Sean LaBrie has fenced off wetlands for the ALUS project. Photo/Sean LaBrie

A recent report conducted by the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry stressed the importance of such programs when it comes to climate change, as extreme weather is already having significant effects on farmers.

Over the last decade, farmers in the prairies have experienced record rainfall, flooding and droughts, the report said. Weather ranging from very dry conditions to tropical storms has caused problems for farmers in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia.

Fruit growers in British Columbia have reported that flooding has increased because of melting mountain snowpacks.

The report recommended that the federal government shield farmers from some of the costs they may face with carbon pricing. While agriculture is responsible for 10 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, one in eight people in Canada are employed in the industry, according to the report.

The committee also suggested that the government should fund and expand tools and programs, such as ALUS, that help farmers keep carbon in the ground.

“We need to feed our population, but we also need the ecosystems services that nature provides. We don’t have that much land to do all of these things,” says Christine Campbell, the ALUS hub manager for western Canada. “So we need to find a way to be working on the landscape and to allow the production of ecosystems services.”

The ALUS program started as a pilot project in Manitoba more than 10 years ago and has since grown to include more than 700 participants across six provinces.

Campbell said participating ranchers use fencing to stop livestock from grazing in sectioned off areas. This leads to less soil disruption and sequesters carbon, she said.

“There have been a number of studies that show different management practices particularly through livestock grazing can really help us to battle climate change,” she said.

Participating farmers say the program has not been onerous, and just takes a little bit of management.

Brian Rodger, an Albertan farmer, said that a lot of the land he has devoted to the project was not productive anyway and probably should have been set aside a long time ago.

Rodger’s farm, which sits about 40 minutes northeast of Calgary, is mostly a livestock operation, but he also farms some grain. He has devoted around 10 to 12 acres to the project.

“The eyes of everybody are on us. So we better be doing a good job of looking after the environment,” he said. “When a city person or an urban person drives by, it catches their eye to see that farmers are trying to work with the environment and look after it. Because ultimately they want their food produced in an environmentally friendly way.”

Salmon showing up in Arctic fishing nets as temperatures rise

Jody Illasiak checks his fishing net on the Hornaday River, N.W.T. Photo/Karen Dunmall, DFO

Jody Illasiak was baffled when a salmon first turned up in his fishing net in 2016.

The fisherman had never caught a salmon before in the Hornaday River, a waterway in the Northwest Territories where arctic char spawn.

Illasiak’s surprise soon turned into concern, as he worried what the presence of this alien fish might mean for the river’s arctic char population. The char have provided an important food source for the nearby community of Paulatuk, N.W.T. for generations.

“It’s a pretty dire situation in our eyes,” Illasiak said.

Illasiak has been far from alone in his unease, as fishermen across the Canadian Arctic have been catching an increasing number of salmon in recent years.

Different species of Pacific salmon have been turning up in waters as far east as Nunavut.

Researchers say the appearance of salmon in these places is one of many examples of how the Arctic is rapidly transforming due to climate change. As sea ice declines and water temperatures rise, salmon are able to get to new places where they have not been found before.

In the hope of getting some information about his salmon, Illasiak brought the fish to the Paulatuk Hunter and Trappers Committee, which then turned to the Arctic Salmon Project.

The project, which is run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was launched because of the increasing prevalence of Pacific salmon showing up in Arctic waters. The program’s researchers are hoping to determine where these salmon are coming from and what impact they may have on Arctic ecosystems.

The program relies heavily on fishermen to voluntarily turn in the salmon they catch and offers gift cards in return.

Researchers use the fish carcasses that are turned in to identify the species of salmon. Sometimes residents have only turned over a head, having ate the rest.

“With the samples that have been traded in, we can start piecing together the rest of the puzzle, as to how they ended up there, and where they’re coming from,” said Karen Dunmall, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who is leading the Arctic Salmon Project.

She said the participation of local fishermen like Illasiak in the project has been vital in gaining knowledge about the salmon. Illasiak has been working with the Arctic Salmon Project to install water loggers in the river to record temperatures in spots that arctic char spawn. 

Dunmall said the first Pacific salmon recorded through the project in the Hornaday River showed up in 2012. Since then, fishermen have caught around 30 salmon there.

Project researchers determined that Illasiak’s catch was a pink salmon, which is typically found in the Pacific Rim. Other species of salmon that have made their way to the Arctic include sockeye salmon and chum salmon.

Jody Illasiak caught this Pacific salmon in the Hornaday River in 2017. Photo/Jody Illasiak.

Illasiak caught his salmon in what he says is a prime spawning area for arctic char. One of his main concerns and those of the community in Paulatuk have been whether these salmon will compete with the arctic char and spawn in the same places.

Illasiak said he worries that the salmon may be an invasive species, but Dunmall steers clear of using that term, as there might be potential benefits to having salmon in the area.

Dunmall said the salmon showing up in the river have not established populations yet and are likely “vagrants” who are exploring and responding to changing environmental conditions. There is no evidence to suggest that salmon have started spawning successfully in the river yet, she said.

She said that it is too early to know what kind of impact the fish will have on the river’s existing fish populations.

“We don’t know right now and it’s because we’re at the beginning of all these changes,” she said.

Jody Illasiak installs a temperature logger in the Hornaday River for the Arctic Salmon Project. Photo/Jody Illasiak

Human-induced climate change played major role in B.C. wildfires: Study

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Researchers have concluded that human-induced climate change is largely to blame for the severity of forest fires that ripped through British Columbia in 2017.

A new study published in Earth’s Future has found that the 1.2-million hectare area that burned that year was seven to 11 times larger than it would have been without human influences on climate.

“As the climate continues to warm, we can expect that costly extreme wildfire seasons—like 2017, in BC—will become more likely in the future,” said Megan Kirchmeier-Young a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “This will have increasing impacts on many sectors, including forest management, public health, and infrastructure.”

The 2017 wildfire season displaced 65,000 people and exposed millions to smoke-filled air. The area burned that year was record-setting, but was later surpassed in 2018, the study said.

Researchers found that extreme temperatures in B.C. during the 2017 summer were made more than 20 times more likely due to human-induced climate change.

Scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria led the study and warned that extreme forest fires resulting from human influences on climate change will intensify in the future without further action.

Extreme weather causing wine headaches in Prince Edward County

There is a joke among grape growers that they are never happy because it is either too wet, too dry, too hot or too cold.

But for Prince Edward County winemakers, fluctuations in temperature and unpredictable weather events in recent years have made their line of work even more frustrating than usual.

Over the last five years, the Ontario winemaking area’s grape growers have encountered drought, flooding and even a late spring frost, which have all wreaked havoc on their crops.

“There are people who joke that they’re just waiting for the plague of locusts, and then we’ll be complete and we can just get back to normal,” said Caroline Granger, the owner of the Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Estate Winery.

Winegrowers say climate change has made weather patterns so unpredictable in recent years that they cannot rely on grape yield. In an industry that relies so heavily on climate, this has made it difficult to budget and forecast production levels.

Granger said she expects variations from year to year, but the weather of the last five years has been well beyond the normal ebbs and flows. She knows the land and its typical climate well, having built her vineyard and winery on a farm her parents bought in 1974.

Of the last four years, Granger said three of them were impossible to predict.

In 2015, a late spring frost was fairly devastating for grape growers when the temperature dropped to below -5 C. Then in 2017, Granger’s vineyard saw flooding that lasted well into the summer.

This year, the county saw levels of heat and humidity that Granger said were unprecedented. Usually when there is a particularly hot summer, grape growers get a bit of a reprieve from high temperatures in September, but that was not the case this year. The first two weeks of September were very hot and humid, which posed problems as grapes ripened very quickly.

For Keith Tyers, a winemaker at Closson Chase Winery, most of the last ten years have been challenging. He said climate-related issues have changed the way grape growers have approached everything.

“If anyone says climate change or global warming doesn’t exist, just talk to a grape grower. We’ll tell you that nothing’s the same. It’s so inconsistent,” said Tyers.

Prince Edward County’s grape growers are now wrestling with how to deal with the unpredictable weather. Monitoring the weather has always been part of the job description for grape growers, but they have had to pay extra close attention to weather reports in recent years.

Granger and her staff have been inspecting their vines three times more often than they used to, looking for telling variations.

As with other types of farming, Ontario grape growers only get one harvest a year, which means they only get one chance a year to learn something that you can apply to the following season. So any change in method can come slowly and even slower when weather is as unpredictable as it has been in recent years, Granger said.

“It’s a mixed bag situation. You win in some areas and you lose in some areas”

One silver lining of the volatile weather for Granger has been that challenging years have produced some great wines, despite not in the quantities she would have liked.

“As we are working our way through anomalies, weather variation or climate change and each year is quite different from the one before, it makes the wines vary and it makes them interesting,” she said.

While winegrowers lament the fluctuating weather, some researchers say climate change may have some benefits for Ontario winemaking in the future.

Anthony Shaw, a geography professor Brock University, said climate change will bring milder winters, warmer growing seasons and longer frost-free periods. This could be beneficial for some red varieties of grape such as cabernet franc, which typically take longer to reach full maturity, he said.

Shaw said Ontario has already started to see milder winters, but that volatility in weather has accompanied that change. He said it is typically better for winegrowers that winters remain cooler before a gradual transition into fall. But that kind of smooth transition period has been happening less, he said.

“It’s a mixed bag situation. You win in some areas and you lose in some areas,” said Shaw, who is also a fellow at the university’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute.

For grape growers, the prospect of a longer growing season is far from comforting as they continue to deal with erratic weather. Tyers said the only thing grape growers in the area can count on is that the unexpected will happen.

“You look back at the end of the season, discuss what you think you did right, and where you think you can improve, but that’s all you can do,” he said.