Leadership and responsibility in a changing climate

Across the world, including here in Canada, the climate is changing. In Canada, the average air temperature increased by 1.5°C between 1950 and 2010, which is about twice the global average increase over that period. Across our three northern territories, the rate of change has been even more extreme, with a rise of 1.5°C to 2.5°C between 1950 and 2010. Changes in air temperature are being accompanied by changes in precipitation patterns and amounts, and increasing frequency, magnitude, and duration of extreme events such as droughts and storms. In turn, these changes in climate are having profound spin-off effects.

Continental ice is retreating. Alberta glaciers lost 25% of their surface area between 1985 and 2005, and the Greenland ice sheet lost 708 billion metric tonnes of ice between 2004 and 2007 alone. The arctic sea ice cover is disappearing. The month-of-September ice cover decreased by 50% between 1984 and 2012. Permafrost, which covers half of Canada, is melting rapidly as well. Due to melting continental ice and thermal expansion, the volume of water in the oceans is increasing, and sea levels are now rising at a rate of 30 cm per century, and this rate is increasing. Our sophisticated climate models predict that the changes that have been observed will continue into the future, even if significant success is achieved in curtailing the human contribution to the changing climate.

At Associated Engineering, we believe that we have a responsibility to be aware of historical and future trends in climate when we are designing new infrastructure.

Climate changes are putting existing infrastructure such as buildings, roads, pipelines, and airports at risk. In addition, scientists and engineers now recognize that continuation of the climate trends of the recent past has implications for the design of new infrastructure.

At Associated Engineering, we believe we have a responsibility to consider climate change when designing new infrastructure. We also need to inform our clients about climate related risks. Where clients wish to consider the implications of a changing climate in their projects, we must be prepared to bring up-to-date knowledge of climate science and future climate scenarios to the table, as well as design tools and processes that include consideration of a changing climate.

Associated Engineering staff includes scientists and engineers across the country who have the knowledge and experience needed to understand and accommodate the risks associated with a changing climate. Our project portfolio features projects from coast to coast to coast, including the following:

• Assessment of future impacts of climate change as part of the Water Quality Master Plan for the City of Toronto

• Evaluation of how climate change is affecting the sustainability of winter roads for the City of Thompson, Manitoba

• Assessment of the implications of a changing climate on the design of a future building at the University of Saskatchewan, using the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) protocol

• Assessment of risks to the City of Calgary water supply and distribution system due to a changing climate, using the PIEVC protocol

• Assessment of the implications of a changing climate on stream- flows and water demand in the Okanagan and Similkameen River Basins in B.C. to support water management planning projects in the region, and to help establish a new set of operating rules for Osoyoos Lake, an international water body whose management falls under the jurisdiction of the International Joint Commission

• Evaluation of the vulnerability of the sewerage infrastructure in Metro Vancouver to a changing climate, using the PIEVC protocol

• Development of a risk evaluation process to assess the risk to buildings in the Northwest Territories related to extreme events and a changing climate.

These and other project examples were highlighted at a Capacity Building Seminar that the company hosted in Vancouver on November 6–8, 2014. At this seminar we shared knowledge and recent experiences, discussed current approaches to engineering design that consider the effects of climate change, and encouraged conversations about climate change, with staff and clients.

Notwithstanding the successes we have achieved thus far in addressing climate change, we have more work to do. Our next steps include the following:

• Increased effort to educate staff about climate change, specifically with respect to recent climate trends in each region of the country, and the implications of climate change on our work

• Increased effort to ensure our staff have a common understanding of the responsibility we have to inform and educate our clients about climate change

• Re-examination of our approach to project work to ensure that we consider climate change in a consistent way in all of our work.

Our goal is to continue our tradition of providing sound advice based on proven methods, while remaining leaders in understanding the climate change process and the associated risks to infrastructure and the environment, communicating climate change risks to clients, and incorporating climate change knowledge into our work in consistent and meaningful ways.

About the author:

Brian Guy, Ph.D., P.Geo., P.H., Vice President and General Manager of Associated Engineering’s Environmental Science Division. Brian’s technical expertise includes assessment and management of hydrologic changes related to land development, population growth, and climate change; hydrologic, hydraulic, and sediment transport modelling; and water management planning.