“When you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you how the snowbanks used to be higher and winters colder. It’s true—they were. I don’t think a lot of people truly understand the magnitude of the changes we are facing.”

These are the words of Mel Reasoner, a Nelson-based climate scientist who has spent his professional life studying climates past and present. Reasoner keeps close tabs on the Basin’s weather, which is starting to change in the ways that climate change experts have predicted.

Preparing for the Basin’s changing climate

One of the main trends is more extremes in weather. Reasoner points to July 2015, when temperatures in the Nelson area approached 40 °C. When lightning sparked a forest fire on a ridgetop north of the city, the unusually hot, dry conditions fueled a blaze that threatened properties and shrouded Kootenay Lake in smoke. In June 2013, a powerful storm hit the Kootenay Lake area, felling trees and delivering record-breaking rainfalls in Kaslo—almost twice the rainfall that normally falls during the entire month of June came down over three days.

Reasoner isn’t alone in understanding that climate change is creating consequences for us all. Communities and residents around the Basin have voiced their desires to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for and adapt to our changing climate. In response, since 2007 Columbia Basin Trust has actively helped communities learn about and take action on climate change.

A community forest takes action

Looking to meet the challenges and opportunities of a changing climate, the Harrop-Procter Community Forest has adopted a climate change lens to review its forest management practices in a project jointly funded by the community forest and the Trust.

For the forest’s manager Erik Leslie, this means considering the projected changes to the forest’s ecosystems in light of the organization’s mandate to protect drinking water and ecosystem values, employ local residents and support community projects from the proceeds of wood harvesting and milling.

“There’s been a lot of work done on climate change at the strategic level, but these are very broad strokes. Much less has been done in bringing these strategies down to the implementation level for land managers,” says Leslie. “One goal of this project is to develop and test adaptive management tools that other land managers can use, using the community forest as a case study.”

Leslie is pleased with what the project has accomplished so far, and the community has expressed strong interest, especially about managing wildfire risks. The community forest has mapped drought hazards, while the local regional district has updated its community wildfire protection plan.

Leslie knows that in the big picture of adapting to climate change, what is learned in this forest over the next couple of years is only the beginning. But it’s projects like this that will help our communities and landscapes stay strong and resilient in an uncertain future.

“We are still in the process of building up the sustainability of our forest,” Leslie says,

“…we know that climate change adaptation and resiliency is critical, not just for future planning, but for planning what we do today.”

Nordic Glacier 1991 / 2016

The future of Basin Glaciers

Higher up in the mountains, another Trust-supported project is focusing on glaciers and snow. Snow and ice play pivotal roles in the Basin’s water resources: water is stored in them during colder periods and released as meltwater during warmer periods, supporting both the environment and human needs.

From 2014 to 2018, the Canadian Columbia Basin Glacier and Snow Research Network (a partnership of universities, industry and government) is monitoring changes to select Basin glaciers and streams. The goal is to better understand how glaciers and snowpacks contribute to our water resources and ecosystems, how they are being affected by warmer winters and hotter summers, and what this means for long-term water resource planning in the Basin.

While glaciers cover less than two per cent of the Basin, their late-summer melt can contribute significantly to downstream creeks and rivers. The largest concentrations of glaciers are in the north of the Basin, and this is where meltwater contributions to August and September stream flow can be as high as 35 per cent. Melting snow also adds significantly to streams, contributing about a third of the annual flow during summer months. Any major changes to snow and glacial melt patterns will have implications for ecosystems, hydro power, community water supplies, and many other water-dependent values.

Making it a priority

The Trust is launching a new Climate Action Program this winter.

Building upon the success of the Trust’s earlier Communities Adapting to Climate Change Initiative and Carbon Neutral Kootenays, the program will continue to build awareness, increase scientific knowledge about climate change in the Basin and develop tools and resources to help Basin communities adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By sharing, collaborating and working alongside leading scientists and climate change experts, Basin communities will be strongly positioned to face the shifts that are already on their way.