The Costs of Climate Change

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

The Paris Climate Change Conference last year was indeed a milestone along the long road of nations becoming aware of their responsibilities to protect our environment and future. Many countries stepped up, but the big question remains: will it be enough? Only time will tell.

What we do know is that the changes to our climate coming in the next 30+ years are already cast in stone. Our carbon-emission reductions today will have little impact on the climate until about 2045. In the mean time we need to know what’s going to happen locally in the next 30 or 40 years, so we can adapt and hopefully mitigate the consequences. More specifically for the readers of this magazine, how is climate change going to affect our fish and wildlife, and the future of fishing, hunting and trapping?

2013-09 Meredith-LakeLandPark-2

Our changing climate will affect our recreational opportunities; we just aren’t hearing how much.

Although the Alberta government has published an extensive plan to reduce carbon emissions, there is little published on what our environment and economic outlook will be over the next 30+ years as a result of the coming changes to the climate. That is strange because there is a lot discussion in the carbon-reduction plan about the costs of implementing the reductions but nothing specific about the costs to the province if no reductions are made. Possibly studies are underway or being contemplated, but until they are published, we can turn to the work of one of our neighbors and perhaps extrapolate what they have found to Alberta’s situation.

In December of 2015 the Montana Wildlife Federation published “The Impact of Climate Change on Montana’s Outdoor Economy.” Power Consulting Inc. of Missoula conducted the study using detailed versions of the global climate models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict what will happen in Montana and its regions in the next 40 years. The following is a brief summary of some of the findings.

Temperature: The report predicts the average temperature in Montana will rise 2 to 3 degrees C (4-5º F) by 2055. The change will be greater in winter, rising 3.5 degrees C (6.5º F) in the northeast portion of the state. As well, the study predicts there will be 20 to 40 (depending on the region) fewer days when temperatures will be below freezing. On the other hand, the number of days when the temperature will be above 35 degrees C (95º F) in summer will increase by 5 to 15 days.

Precipitation: Montana is predicted to receive 3 to 6 percent more precipitation overall, with the northeast portion of the state receiving an additional 6 to 9 percent. More precipitation will fall in winter and less will fall in summer, with precipitation in western Montana being 10 to 15 percent higher in winter and 5 to 10 percent lower in summer.

As a result of Montana being warmer in winter, less of the precipitation will fall as snow, thus reducing the snowpack in the mountains. This will reduce water flow in streams in summer, with the runoff occurring much earlier in the spring. Snowmobilers, skiers and other winter recreationists will have to recreate in much shorter and warmer winters with far less snow.

Forests: Increased temperatures and changes in moisture regimes will put stress on many native trees. Diseases will increase, as will pests, such as bark beetles. Species compositions will change as tree and shrub species better able to handle the warmer and drier conditions replace those that can no longer compete, such as white bark pine.

Grasslands: The report states: “The grasslands of Montana will convert to sage brush and other scrub brush dominant species.” This will further push wildlife into the mountains and change movement patterns for species like elk and pronghorn antelope.

Wildfires: The area burned by wildfires in Montana will double between 2015 and 2055 as a result of the stress placed on vegetation from higher summer temperatures and limited moisture. Indeed, the fires might well be the agents of change on the landscape as invading species out-compete the former native species to occupy the burned-over lands.

Fish: As a result of earlier snow melt and less runoff in late spring and summer, stream water temperatures will rise, putting stress on fish, especially cold-water fish, such as trout. This will open the streams to invasive species that can better handle the warm temperatures. Anglers will have to change their expectations with regard to what is caught and what can be harvested.

Wildlife: Migrating wildlife, such as elk and mountain sheep, will stay in the high country for longer periods of time as they seek cooler temperatures than what they are experiencing at lower elevations. They will be less likely to be pushed down by early winter snowfalls. Migration patterns for both big game and waterfowl will change as species adapt to the changing conditions. Hotter and drier summers will mean less forage. Hunters will have to change their habits and expect lower success rates. Although trapping was not mentioned in the report, one can assume that furbearers will likewise have to adapt to the changing conditions and generally move higher in elevation to follow their habitats.

Economic Costs: The majority of the report focused on the economic costs of these impacts on Montana’s outdoor economy, including outdoor recreation (tourism, wildlife watching, national park visits, fishing, hunting, winter sports), forest-based activities (wildfire control, forest loss) and the impact of wildfire on residences within the “urban-wildland” interface.

In Montana, the recreation-tourism sectors are responsible for over $2.3 billion in labour earnings per year and about 42,000 jobs. The report estimated a total of about 11,000 jobs would be lost in the next 40 years, with a loss of $281 million in earnings per year. Wildlife watching, hunting and fishing will lose some 6100 jobs, with a loss of $149 million in earnings. More specifically, the report estimated that 1800 jobs and $48 million in labour earnings would be lost as a result of reduced sport fishing activity and 1600 jobs and $39 million in labour earnings lost in big game hunting.

2010-04 Meredith-Jasper-AthabascaRiver

How will shorter, warmer winters affect the mountain snowpack and water flows in our rivers?

Now, comparing Montana to Alberta is a bit of a stretch. Montana is a little over half the size of Alberta with a population of about 1 million people compared to Alberta’s 4.2 million. Our economies are similar except agriculture leads the economy in Montana, where oil and gas dominates Alberta’s economy. With the boreal forest, Alberta has a lot more forested land. We are north of and tend to be cooler than our southern neighbor, although climate models predict our temperature increases will be larger. As well, our public lands are managed much differently. So, we cannot make direct comparisons from the Montana report to what might happen here. But we can use the report to indicate, in a general sense, what we could be seeing in the near and distant future: changes on the landscape, loss of fishing and hunting opportunities, and loss of jobs and income in certain sectors of the economy.

We are already seeing changes on our landscapes: increases in the number and severity of wildfires and extreme weather events, warming of lakes and streams. Shouldn’t we know more specific information about what’s coming so we can plan our futures and mitigate the consequences of the changes where possible?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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