How does it go? “Spring is sprung...” Regardless, one of the sacred rituals of spring is the first visit to the cottage. Like thousands of other optimists, I recently made my pilgrimage, ready to muse fondly about the upcoming hazy, lazy days of summer.
Imagine my shock as I gazed out over the lake and discovered dry land running out 30 feet beyond the end of my dock! Now, to put the record straight, my cottage is not located on one of the minor Great Lakes - it is on Lake Superior - 175 miles wide and 350 miles long. A water level that is a good four feet below high water on Lake Superior represents a lot of missing water, to say the least.
A short while later, as I sat out on the deck listening to the news on the radio, I heard that during the week just ended, the United States experienced the terror, power and fury of 421 tornadoes - in one week! Since the United States usually averages only 229 tornadoes per year, this was truly an unusual week of extreme weather.
This led to more musing - something I excel at. In my musings, I recalled the torrential rains that flooded and washed out whole networks of roads in northwestern Ontario last year. According to some, this was known as a 300-year flood. And this followed at least two 100-year floods in the preceding five years.
And, as I connected the dots, I remembered that the number of “smog days and the number of 34-degree-plus heat days in Ontario has been steadily on the rise over the past 10 years.
“Aha!” I said to myself (I often talk to myself, if only to have an attentive listener) “This is what must be meant by global warming.”
Those of us who inhabit Northern Ontario often fall into the trap of thinking that climate change, including a rise in the average temperature, means that we can look forward to earlier, warmer spring weather and balmy, prolonged autumns. More important, we dream of fewer minus thirty degree-plus winter freezes. But, we may be missing the point.
If we dig into the issue of climate change and go beyond what we read in the popular media, the climatologists are not painting such a rosy scenario. In fact, they are forecasting a three- to five-degree Celsius increase in average temperature within the next 50 years and a dramatic increase in the frequency of extreme weather events.
If so, it seems probable that we can look forward to a stressed Boréal forest that will be more vulnerable to drought, disease, pests and wildfire. The pace of climate change may well outrun the ability of the Boréal forest and the species (including Homo sapiens) that live off the abundance of the forest to adapt to the change. We may see major changes in the bird and animal populations that we are used to, as their habitats become uninhabitable.
We have protected millions of hectares of public lands as wilderness and recreation parks on the
assumption that we can protect them for future generations much like they are today. Our foresters make 100-year forest management plans based on the assumption that our renewable natural resources will be reproduced tomorrow, unaltered. In a sense, we may have been driving towards our future by navigating through the rear view mirror.
I don’t really know if any of this scary stuff is for sure.
What I do know is that we have no way of truly knowing. Very little research is focused on the forested areas of Northern Ontario and, of that, even less research factors in an assessment of the pace and impact of climate change. Most current research is narrow and specific, a version of tunnel vision.
Virtually none of the research is multi-disciplinary, covering the spectrum of science from soils to atmosphere while integrating socioeconomic concerns as well.
We have not created the structures that will link scientist to sociologist to economist to politician to the citizenry at large. We still are being victimized by the voodoo science that emerges from 60-second clips or 50-word quotes in the media.
Northerners increasingly express the desire to be masters in our own house. We say that we want a key role in determining our future. Great! But not so great if we make choices for our future based on faulty or impoverished information.
It is long past time for you, me and organizations such as the regional chambers of commerce, the municipal associations, our MPPs and our MPs to make demands, on all our behalf, for the establishment of well-funded institutions that will be able to focus on assessing the pace and implications of climate change. We need the capacity to foster a constructive dialogue that focuses on how we can reduce the negatives effects and build on the positive aspects of climate change. Or, we can fall back on our more traditional role - victim.
Bob Michels is an author and consultant living in Atikokan.