Dried fields and trees beside the foreewst

FOCI’s Climate Change and Drought Report

When the rain finally started about 5 PM on Sunday, October 23, Cortes Island had received almost no precipitation for 97 days. The “Rain’ chart at Cortes Island School shows that 3.5 mm of rain fell overnight and I can hear the drizzle continuing to fall on my roof early Monday morning. Hopefully light rains will continue to soften up the soil before we receive a downpour.

“The 2022 drought is worse than people think, it’s worse than scientists predicted, and its impacts up and down the coast are a lot worse than I had even feared when I started researching it,” said Forrest Berman-Hatch, author of FOCI Report: Climate Change and Drought.

Forrest Berman-Hatch – submitted photo

Berman-Hatch prepared this study for the Friends of Cortes Island, but is also a member of the Simon Fraser University group RESET (Research for Equitable Ecosocial Transformation), which studies global health in relation to climate change.

The opening paragraph of his report states, “Cortes Island has been in a level 5 drought which weather forecasters predict will end soon. According to BC’s Drought and Water Scarcity Response Plan, level 5 droughts bring ‘adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values’ which are ‘almost certain’ (Ministry of LWRS, 2022, p.16). Impacts can include the drying of shallow wells and wetlands, increased risk of wildfires and drying of streams during salmon spawning season. The plan recommends local water restrictions be put in place at stage 5 and warns regulatory action and even emergency response to be possible.” 

Berman-Hatch said scientists are fairly certain that climate change causes droughts. The  IPCC report states that there will be more droughts as a result of climate change, and they will be more severe.

“We had a student at SFU do climate modelling for Cortes, and what really concerned me was that the 2022 drought is longer, hotter and drier than was predicted for the year 2025 under a climate model that uses the precautionary approach,” said Berman-Hatch. 

“Scientists such as Simon Donner at the University of British Columbia talk about how climate modelling is really good for averages, were fairly accurate, but they fail to capture the extreme weather events. For instance, the heat dome last year was also quite a bit worse than scientists had predicted the effects of climate change would be within this decade. So when we talk about climate adaptation planning, we need to remember that the models are good guidelines, but the extreme weather events may actually be worse.”

Q/Is this the worst drought on record?

“It’s certainly the longest, worst is hard to say. This is a level 5 drought, which is the highest level in BC’s scale. It’s only the second time since we have been recording drought data that we hit level 5 and the first time was last year. That is a pretty concerning trend. Last year during the heat dome, we experienced higher temperatures than we experienced in this drought. So it may have done more damage than this drought. Certainly,  the human impacts were pretty high — over 600 people died,” he replied.

Dry wetland on Cortes Island – Photo Credit Lisa Ferentinos

“This drought is longer and drier, but less hot.  It’s the longest since we have begun recording weather data. In some places we have over a hundred years of weather data on the West Coast  and this is the longest drought in that time period. It’s certainly the longest since we’ve had weather data for Cortes and Quadra Island.”

Q/In 2016, the University of Victoria did a study from tree rings, which showed 16 droughts since 1654 that were worse than anything in the instrumental record. 

“I looked at the study. I read your piece on it. I thought it was really interesting, and what I think that shows is that droughts are a naturally occurring phenomenon in BC.  We know they can perhaps be worse than in recorded history,” said Berman-Hatch. 

“The really concerning trend is issues of land use, like deforestation. That dries the soil, compounded with the effects of rising global temperatures and  less rain in the summer that’s caused by climate change. This means that these natural occurring droughts will be just far worse for both ecosystems and for people than we have seen in the past. That’s exactly what Dr. Coulthard, the author of that study, said. Her greatest concern when looking at the tree ring data, is what these mega-droughts would look like when affected by climate change.”

The waters of Hague Lake are low – Photo Credit Lisa Ferentinos

“This is what a drought looks like at 1.1 degrees of warming. We’re predicted to pass 1.5 degrees of warming earlier than 2040, at which point large swaths of the Earth will be uninhabitable and drought will be significantly worse.”

“So we need to reduce our emissions. We need to speak to governments and ask them to take meaningful climate actions. I think what the drought shows is that climate change is also already here and we have to have an adaptation and resiliency plan for our community. That is what FOCI is undertaking right now.”

“I’m a big believer in something that Edward Abby said, which is that sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul. When you’re thinking about climate change, thinking about these issues and not doing anything, you can start to feel really powerless. By acting on them, by planning, we can reclaim our agency in this crisis.”

Berman-Hatch spoke about some of the initiatives already underway on Cortes Island and people like Miranda Cross (of the Dillon Creek Wetland Restoration) and (Cortes stream keeper) Christine Robinson.

“I’d point to the Dillon Creek Wetland Restoration Project at Linnaea. That’s something we can do. Wetlands retain water in our watershed, which is exactly what we need in a drought. They also mitigate the effects of wildfires and droughts and they sequester carbon.  We can also reinforce the banks of salmon bearing streams and to guard against erosion.”

Q/Did you want to say anything more about FOCI’s climate change adaption resilience and mitigation planning process?

“We’re doing preliminary research  and identifying areas of concern. We conducted a risk assessment for the island and a student at SFU did some really great climate modelling and prediction stuff that we can work with when we’re analyzing areas of concern. We’re looking for people to get involved and we’re going to be reaching out to the community to do interviews with knowledge holders.” 

Q/What will happen on Cortes when the rain comes?

“What we want is gentle rain. The thing about drought is it hardens the soils and it makes it so that water runs off the top as if the soil was concrete rather than soak down into our aquifers, which is what we need.”

“Some of the most damage in a drought can be after the rain comes. You see flooding occurring and crashing into streams and rivers. Large scale erosion  is a serious concern. Another issue that can occur is if it rains and then stops raining again. That’s what happened up in Heiltsuk territory. The Neekas River rained enough for salmon to enter the stream and then dried again.  65,000 salmon died in the Neekas River.  There are really, really horrifying scenes in the video footage.“

“That’s what occurred with the landslides a year ago, on the highway in the interior of British Columbia. The soil gets really dry, and then when the rain does come, it runs off the top as if it was concrete and can cause massive landslides, erosion, or flash floods. Flash floods are usually an urban phenomenon. You usually see them literally running over concrete, where the water can’t soak into the soil at all, but after a drought the soil acts like that.”

The rain returned on Sunday, October 23 – courtesy the Cortes Island School

“With gentle rain, we will see aquifers recharge,  wells will fill up again and hopefully we’ll see some of that and some of the greenery return.” 

“In summation, the 2022 drought is what the world looks like in climate change at 1.1 degrees of warming. The situation is going to get worse. We need to mitigate its effects and adapt.”

“If anyone listening would like more information or get involved, they can email me. It’s forrest.j.bh@gmail.com or reach out FOCI directly.” (climate.foci@gmail.com).

Top image credit: Dried up mouth of Basil Creek on Oct 9, 2022 – Photo by Roy L Hales

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