Last year, raging wildfires ripped through British Columbia, burning homes to the ground, causing nearly $300 million in damage, and in some cases, even death. More than 90 wildfires are currently active throughout the province, and Premier Christy Clark has warned that if scorching temperatures continue, this could be the worst wildfire season in three decades.
In 2013, catastrophic floods launched Alberta into 32 local states of emergency, displacing more than 100,000 people and claiming the title of ‘costliest disaster in Canadian history,’ with $1.7 billion in damage. Earlier this year, Ottawa set new official snowfall records as snarling storms swept Canada’s capital city, causing well over 100 vehicle accidents, and freezing people into their homes.
Sometimes, Mother Nature refuses to be subtle. Other times, she leaves little breadcrumbs indicating that something big could be coming. Should B.C. be worried about earlier snow melts?
Increased risk of drought
On April 18, B.C. broke no fewer than 49 temperature records as the heat soared above 25 degrees in Vancouver, breaking an old record of 22 degrees set in 1962. According to the province’s River Forecast Centre, such “well above normal” temperatures have led to an early onset of the snow melt season, roughly two to three weeks earlier than average.
The timing of the snow melt — and quantity of the snow that melts — is particularly important to the West Coast province, which sources much of its drinking water from mountain reservoirs topped up annually by melted snow. If the snow melts much earlier than usual, B.C. could face drought later on in the year, said Hans Schreier, a land and water systems professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“If you look at the Sunshine Coast, they have a very small reservoir very high up in the mountains that relies exclusively on snow,” he explained. “But if you don’t have much snow or the snow melts early you’re not going to have a lot of water later on in the summer and spring.”
Last year was a classic example, he added. Vancouver faced its hottest summer on record and a handful of regions from the Okanagan to Vancouver Island were launched into the government’s highest drought rating category, Level 4. The snow melt came early last year as well, and government forecasts in B.C. today continue to predict warm weather.
According to Schreier, droughts are much more tricky to predict precisely than floods.
“We can predict how much snow we have at the end of April and right now it looks pretty good, but we can’t predict how quickly it’s going to melt,” he told National Observer in an interview. “We can predict floods quite easily because we have about three or four days of notice, but we can’t predict drought because we never know when it starts and how long it will last.”
As such, the professor recommended taking precautions, including a harmless ban on watering lawns once or twice a week.
“The big challenge of course is the West Coast, which has been in a drought — particularly California — in the last three years, and last year it moved all the way up to Washington, D.C.” he said. “Now if this is a continuous drought, and that is possible, then we should start thinking about adaptation early and have conservation measures in place.”
Are snow melts related to climate change?
While an email statement from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has indicated that the province’s strong snow levels in the Okanagan elevate the risk of floods for that area, it did bring up water shortages or drought for the near future. It also could not confirm that earlier snow melts both this year and last year are correlated with climate change, as the snow melt season started later than average in both 2011 and 2012.
“In both years, strong ocean current patterns (warm Pacific Ocean in 2015; El Niño in 2015-16) likely were key drivers,” said the statement. “La Niña cycles in 2011 and 2012 led to cool, wet springs with unusually delayed snow melt and a drawn-out freshet.
“Although there are generally trends for increased temperatures and lower snow packs, there is also a lot of year-to-year variability that makes it difficult to say if anomalous years are natural variation or climate change.”
‘Freshet’ is the term used to describe a spring thaw resulting from snow and ice melt in rivers, and El Niño and La Niña are complex weather patterns resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. Despite the government’s statement, UBC earth and environmental sciences professor David Scott predicted that earlier snow melts will likely become a more common feature on the West Coast as global warming progresses.
“The risk for us in B.C is that late season flows will be lower,” he said in an email to National Observer. “Flows recede right through the summer and fall until rains come again, and the fire season will be longer and hence worse.”
Both Scott and Schreier indicated that the current snow melt levels in B.C. are not overwhelmingly alarming at the moment, but problems could arise if hot temperatures continue to escalate the melt at higher altitudes where the snowpacks are dense. When it comes to snow melts and climate change, they agreed, only one thing is certain:
“If you look at all the recent data, the variability is increasing, which means we have a lot more uncertainty to deal with,” said Schreier. “The only way we can deal with this uncertainty is to start adapting to these new conditions, which means precautionary principles.”