Extreme weather a threat to Canadian biodiversity

TRU prof Thomas Pypker explains how wildfires and floods could threaten our biodiversity

While fires and floods will likely become a recurring sight across most of Canada, according to Pypker, as individuals we can do much to mitigate climate change. Even taking the bus once a week can help. (Leonora/Flickr)

As the climate changes and urban sprawl increases, flora and fauna become ever more threatened with extinction. While the disappearance of species and rising temperatures may seem the most obvious sign of climate change, instances of extreme weather are also increasing.

TRU natural resources science professor Thomas Pypker has been studying how extreme weather, such as wildfires or floods can affect the biophysical processes of ecosystems across Canada and the northwestern United States for some time. When it comes to climate change here in B.C. specifically, Pypker believes that this may mean more wildfires.

“Extreme weather, depending on where you are, such as here in B.C., we get more extended dry periods and that means more wildfires,” Pypker said. “That is projected to be a continuing issue. So what we’ve been seeing in the past few years may become more common.”

However, this doesn’t mean that every year will be a bad fire year, explains Pypker. But British Columbians may experience bad years more frequently. It isn’t just air quality that will be affected either. Industry, especially timber, is at risk of being continually damaged by heavy wildfire years.

“This is a definite air quality problem and a timber supply problem because we are burning forest that we could have potentially harvested,” Pypker said. “[It’s a] wildlife problems, because we are losing area and wildlife gets pushed around by the wildfires.”

Elsewhere in the country, particularly back east, Canadians may see much worse periods of flooding, says Pypker. However, in areas of the country that experience both fires and flooding, the combination of the two can make the situation much worse.

“We have been seeing more flooding issues and the wildfire actually links in with that because as you burn a site, especially severely, you tend to make the soils hydrophobic. Which means that the water will no longer infiltrate and will just cross the surface, which makes for a bigger stream flow, combined with the fact that snow is melting faster,” Pypker said. “Wildfires can result in increased peak flows during the spring melt as well as potentially hirer base flows.”

In addition to this, as temperatures rise globally, Pypker believes Canada will become more prone to droughts. He adds that here in the B.C. Interior, temperatures in the summer may exceed well over 40 °C. While in the winter, climate change may lead to swings in temperature.

“If you’ve heard of these polar vortexes you hear about in the news now, that is a breakdown of the air movement patterns and climate change, and this breakdown may happen more infrequently. So you may have generally warmer winters, but you may have arctic air pushing down south more often for shorter periods of time,” Pypker said.

Though climate change may mean that we as Canadians may have to become more accepting of periods of extreme weather such as fires and floods, Pypker says that there are many ways in which we as individuals can work to reduce our carbon footprint.

“I think the first thing is to acknowledge that climate change is happening not only because of industry but also because of the public’s choices,” Pypker said. “Our driving habits, our eating habits are all driving this issue of increased greenhouse gases. So ask yourself ‘How can I reduce my carbon footprint?’”

Some ways to reduce your footprint, even slightly, include taking transit more often and eating meat one day less a week, says Pypker. Yet changing our daily habits isn’t the only solution either, on the national level Pypker hopes that Canadians will vote for parties who have mandated real action against climate change.

“On a national level it is supporting parties that have mandated real climate action, as opposed to lip service,” he said. “When you dig deeper into who’s saying that they’ll do something about it, there are stark differences in what people will actually do about it. Generally speaking, it is accepted in the academic community that regulations are completely inadequate in addressing climate change, we need to be more aggressive.”