Cross-Country Check-Up on Climate Change

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As part of Environmental History Week, we asked members of NiCHE from across the country and continent to reflect on evidence of climate change in their part of the world. What did they see? How do they experience this as environmental historians? How do they witness and document history?


How is climate change manifesting itself where you are? 

Joshua MacFadyen: There are many basic aspects of my life and my environment that I’ve recently learned I can’t take for granted because of climate change – like riding my bike. In fact, a series of climate-related events this winter kept me from riding my bike for months, until this very week.

The warming climate had some of us thinking that the Canadian environment would become more accessible, and indeed I was able to keep riding the Confederation Trail to work at some points in the middle of one of the mildest Januaries on record. But along with warming comes what Dr. Katharine Hayhoe calls weirding.

On 24 September, post-tropical storm Fiona ripped through the centre of Atlantic Canada and left 98% of Prince Edward Island without electricity or telecommunication infrastructure for the better part of a month. It caused wind and storm surges that lifted entire houses, in some cases blowing them across roads or floating them across adjacent estuaries. Mercifully no one on PEI was killed; other places suffered worse. The destruction of forests ranged from treefall on urban roads and houses to entire stands blown down in many rural areas. This isn’t unprecedented, but it’s definitely weird. It’s consistent with the predictions that a warming ocean will bring Fionas and Ians to our shores more frequently.

September 28, 2022. Photograph by J. MacFadyen.

I spent the better part of a month (17 days) without electricity or internet. I was completely preoccupied with clearing roads, repairing roofs, and helping neighbours deal with treefall. From roads to campuses, our infrastructure reopened relatively quickly. However, the recovery efforts continued well after the lights came on; the psychological recovery is ongoing.

But how did Fiona’s wind and storm surges keep me from riding my bike? The answer is really a fluke accident, but consistent with climate weirding. The rail-trails were cleared relatively quickly, although most forest trails had to be abandoned and are being replaced with new ones. In February, we finally had enough snow and cold weather to break out the fat bike (there’s a theme here, I know), and on my first ride I stepped/fell into the deep snow. I wear proper snow boots so normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the increased amount of treefall and other detritus had been recently frozen so solid (thanks to another weird polar vortex) that a branch punctured my boot and my foot in a rather agonizing injury that kept me off my feet for a month and off the bike entirely for the next nine weeks.

Phil Wight: From permafrost thaw, to spruce beetle infestations, to milder winters and mosquitos in January (as I witnessed earlier this year on a cabin trip), climate change is omnipresent in Interior Alaska.

This May 2022 photo from a recent bike trip shows a rock slide that has severed the 92-mile in Denali National Park last May. The Park has experienced the greatest temperature increase of any national park (7.7 F or 4.3 C). The National Park Service explains that the rock slide has been fueled by climate change, as permafrost thaw and heavy rainfall events exacerbate the landslide. In order to reopen the road, the Park Service is constructing a new $100-million dollar bridge across the rock slide zone.

Photograph by Phil Wight.

Liza Piper and Zac Robinson: As elsewhere in Canada, climate change is apparent in so many ways in Alberta: with prolonged and stifling summer heat, destructive flood events, major fires and smoke palls, and more. We repurpose early-COVID-era cloth masks to filter wildfire smoke when biking in Edmonton in the summertime. But we most wanted to share what is happening in our mountain sentinels, where we work and play, and from where our major rivers flow.

The pace of climate change is clear in the Rocky Mountains. The mountain snowpack and glaciers contribute only a small amount of water to what we drink at home in the city. But ice and snow in the mountains act as our reservoir, a water tower, and the glue holding things together. Receding glaciers – repeat images of the toe of the Athabasca Glacier showing indisputable retreat – have served for years to share a simple lesson about a warming world. Their retreat has hastened, further alarming backcountry users: it’s a grim trend seen around the world.

The now-unstable northern slope (right) cutting away underneath the Abbot Pass hut in 2021, with wildfire smoke in the air. Photograph by Parks Canada.

Global heating is destroying the capacity of mountain glaciers and snow to hold water in reserve, buffering the occasional extreme season. Instead, this frozen water is being released and taking rocks, trails, huts, and slopes with it. The infamous “heat dome” of 2021 triggered catastrophic change – wiping out the world-renowned Berg Lake Trail at Mount Robson Provincial Park in B.C. and leading Parks Canada to dismantle Abbot Pass hut, a national historic site and mountain refuge along the Continental Divide near Lake Louise. The Robson River burst its banks submerging much of the Berg Lake Trail, destroying bridges and other trail infrastructure. The Abbot Pass hut was built in the 1920s not on rock but on a mix of compacted scree and fallen rocks held together by permafrost that is now melting.

Not unrelatedly, the mountains are under siege by other entirely preventable destructive forces. There is never-ending pressure to intensify industrial activity, most notably surface coal mine operations in the mountains. Resource operators hopeful for opportunities in Alberta look enviously across the Continental Divide to the massive pits of Teck’s Elk Valley operations, the largest coal mines in Canada, and major sources of air and water pollution. And, of course, these industrial operations and the coal they mine only swell the atmosphere with yet more carbon dioxide.

View of the Fording River mine operations in British Columbia, July 2022. The Fording River mine is the northernmost of Teck’s Elk Valley mines, the largest surface coal mines in Canada. Photograph by L. Piper.

Jason Colby: We’ve definitely experienced a high degree of “global weirding” expressed locally.  The most obvious examples have come during the summer—stunning heat waves alternating with extended wildfires—but there are other more hidden impacts, such as higher temperatures in salmon streams preventing productive spawning and smolt production.

Wildfire smoke over Campbell River, B.C. (2019), photograph by J. Colby.

John Sandlos: When we first moved to St. John’s, in 2006, a long, consistently snowy winter prompted my spouse Yolanda to declare that she was happy we (as Nordic skiers) had moved to a place where they have “real winter.” Little did we know that, as time went on, we were in for a roller coaster of winter weather that did include periods of cold and major snowstorms, but also increasingly frequent warm winds and rain events. In December 2013, for instance, we had snowbanks as high as the roof of the house, but by New Year’s Eve it had all been washed away, with no snow on the ground until the third week of January. Even during the remarkable “snowmageddon” winter of 2020, the power line-high snowbanks of January had been cut back to a quarter of their initial size by rain events in February. While variable winter weather has been the norm here, temperature records since 1910 show that Newfoundland and Labrador has indeed become warmer and wetter in the winter months, with possible further increases of 6 degrees Celsius on the Avalon Peninsula, and upwards of 12 degrees Celsius in northern Labrador. Last winter (2021-22) we barely saw any snow, just a succession of rainstorms moving up the eastern seaboard that, had the temperature been a couple of degrees lower, would have meant plenty of storm chip consumption (a popular activity on snow closure days) and week after week of skiing rather than our ongoing, sullen lament for the winter that wasn’t.

Normally you can wade in the Rennie’s River, but when Hurricane Earl dumped more than 175mm of rain on St. John’s, the normally placid stream resembled a powerful raging chute in a mountain canyon (September 2022). Photograph by J. Sandlos.

Such temperature changes have affected a lot more than ski conditions. In northern Labrador climate change has severely disrupted Inuit subsistence activities and travel routes that depend on stable sea ice. Everywhere rising ocean temperatures have led to more intense storms, including Hurricane Fiona in September 2022, which devastated the coastal community of Port aux Basques (one year after Hurricane Larry brought heavy winds, and just two weeks after Hurricane Earl brought huge amounts of rain to parts of the island). During each of these storms, it was disconcerting when our house began to shake (and it was a near-catastrophe when Larry knocked out the power during the night and we had forgotten to grind coffee, an emergency only averted when we extorted ground beans from a neighbor in exchange for the use of our camp stove). In summer 2022, unusually dry conditions resulted in unprecedented, severe fires in the central part of the province (so extensive, I woke one morning coughing in my cabin on Random Island in a room full of smoke from fires that were approximately 200 km away). 

More changes are coming. In the waters off Newfoundland, warmer sea temperatures may change the species composition of the cold ocean environment, with largely unknown consequences for commercial and subsistence fishing activity. Ocean levels are projected to rise too, between 70 and 100 cm by the end of the century, with devastating consequences in the form of coastal erosion, the erasure of shoreline habitats, and destruction (by storm surge or slow submersion) of community infrastructure. Even tourism will be affected, as the inevitable end of the iceberg season will eliminate one of the marquee attractions for spring and summer visitors to Newfoundland. The wild variations in Newfoundland weather will continue: we had a long cold snap in February and March this winter, along with pack ice in St. John’s harbor for the first time in six years. But as an island located way out in the North Atlantic, with many people still inhabiting coastal communities and dependent on marine ecosystems, climate change promises to carry severe consequences. 

What is your response as an historian?

Jason: As a dad and resident of a place I treasure, I experience quite a bit of ecological angst.  As an environmental historian, however, I try to remind students and public audiences that humans have faced environmental crises before and made progressive changes to respond to them.  It is essential for young people to feel hope about our environmental future.  My mantra is: if we give nature space and time, it can heal.

Liza and Zac: As historians, we both seek to better understand and communicate about changing relations between people and the rest of nature through time and in high places. But our responses also diverge.

Liza is focused on industrial change and the politics of resource extraction in mountain environments. This includes studying and sharing research on times in the past when people and governments in Alberta, British Columbia, and Canada chose to protect mountains, foothills, and watersheds – when the stakes were not so high – as a source of inspiration and hope for what we can accomplish and a reminder of why it matters.

Zac’s work on the histories and literature of sporting practices in mountains, and their connection to a colonial past, has created opportunities to think about how to reconcile, rebuild, and sustain new relationships with mountains in our present moment of heightened change and instability – and how any new relationships must honour our commitments to the original peoples of the land and their descendants.

With no electricity in the wake of Hurricane Larry (September 2021), neighbours in St. John’s, Newfoundland pool resources and work together to get caffeinated. Photography by J. Sandlos.

John: While my research is not directly on Newfoundland, climate change or the oil industry, as a mining historian I am often asked whether electric cars represent a good solution to climate change, given the mineral inputs needed to produce the cars. My answer is that, as Barry Commoner has said, there is no free lunch. Electric cars will exact an environmental toll in the form of mining and fossil fuel use (in fact, you have to drive the cars for about two years before the climate cost of production starts to result in emissions reduction, assuming you are hooked up to a relatively green power source). Investments in infrastructure to encourage walking, cycling and public transit are likely a better place to invest climate dollars, as opposed to subsidizing electric vehicles. That being said, EVs are part of the “mix” of climate solutions (full disclosure: I own and EV and really like it). As the current mineral rush for lithium and other rare earths proceeds, history suggests that we be mindful of the environmental disasters (Giant Mine, Faro, etc.) that have resulted from mining activity that was only lightly regulated. Communities adjacent to mining projects (especially Indigenous communities) need to have some environmental oversight, tangible economic benefits, and iron-clad guarantees that comprehensive remediation activities will take place. And in most cases, ocean-floor mining should be off-limits because of the potential severe impacts on marine biodiversity. The conundrum is that, while we need to get off fossil fuels quickly, history teaches us that mineral rushes associated with new technologies (i.e., the copper rush of the late nineteenth century) often leave environmental devastation in their wake. 

Josh: Climate change hasn’t kept me out of the woods and off the bike. Not yet. But it is keeping me (and other Islanders, I hope) from building as close to the water as we used to. It is reminding us that the simple privileges we enjoy in our everyday life are very much at risk, and often not in the ways we think at first. I certainly never expected to be quite so “one with the forest,” and living with the consequences of such an injury. But as I climb back on the bike, and ride a little more carefully than before, I’ll be thinking of how this climate is changing my life and environment in weird ways.

Two paths diverged in the wood – different climate futures? … but both already littered with the detritus of climate change. Photograph by J. MacFadyen.
Feature Image: CBC/Radio-Canada Logo, 1940-58 (Wikimedia Commons).
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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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