IPCC 5th Report
A CANADIAN NOBEL WINNER TALKS CLIMATE CHANGE, FLOODPLAINS AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO ALL OF US TODAY
An interview with Dr. James P. Bruce
Water Today - Now that the IPCC report is out there amongst the public, my understanding is that you are taking a little bit more of a specific direction in transboundary water. Can you talk to me about that?
Jim Bruce - Well what we're finding is that both for water quantities and water quality the changing climate which IPCC says is going to continue and get worse is having pretty serious effects, particularly as the atmosphere warms. We get more water vapour or what engineers like to call precipitable water in the atmosphere by 7% per every degree Celsius of warming and this means not that were getting more rainfall but that whenever the atmosphere gets organized to rain it rains more heavily so it doesn't just rain, It pours and this means we're getting more surface runoff events in the summer and in the off snow melt season.
Water Today - When you talk about the hard precipitation these are what we all see on the lead on the news. These are these fierce storms that we're speaking of. Is that the case?
Jim Bruce - Yes indeed and it is resulting in things like the big Toronto flood last year and the big flood in Calgary in June of last year.
Water Today - And according to you this is because there is more water vapour in the air that wasn't there before? What was the case before? I don't even know how to put this. What was the case before?
Jim Bruce - Well, as I say, as the atmosphere warms it is able to hold more water vapour. It holds more water vapour to the tune of 7% for every 1 degree Celsius of warming.
Water Today - Wow. So if the atmosphere gets 1 degree warmer globally it could hold 7% more water than it used to. That is what you are saying?
Jim Bruce - Yes.
Water Today - That is amazing Jim. So the practical reality of this to cities around the world, I guess, is they have to deal and cope with more extreme weather. Besides that, is this more or less predictable? Like for instance, I know Milwaukee has been doing tremendous rainwater mitigation, trying to trap it and get it off the wastewater systems. Is this what you're seeing around the world?
Jim Bruce - We're not seeing as much good work as we are seeing in Milwaukee and a few other places but there needs to be a great deal of effort. I should say when we get those runoff events with the heavy rains, the runoff picks up lots of phosphorous and other contaminants from agricultural areas and also from cities and urban areas so when we look at the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is seriously back-sliding back in its eutrophic state and that's because it's getting more polluted runoff in these heavy rain events and there is apparently more phosphorous on the land and on the urban areas that gets into the runoff and into the lakes and is destroying the improvement that was made in Lake Erie back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Water Today - When you talk about the Great Lakes, that is probably an opportune time to bring this up. People are saying that in most cases the lakes are down considerably compared to what they used to be. Is this related to climate change or is this more weather events? Because they are distinctly separate if I understand this right.
Jim Bruce - Yes. I think the long term trend for Superior and Huron has been a downward trend in levels, because they didn't have nearly as much ice on them for a long time. But this past winter of course we had a very cold winter. An anomaly I think in the long term trend, and the water levels have come up rather nicely on Superior in particular but also on Huron and Georgian Bay this spring.
Water Today - You don't expect that to hold though the long term trend according to you and IPCC is that these lakes will go down. Is that correct?
Jim Bruce - Yes.
Water Today - Okay.
Jim Bruce - It doesn't go down steadily year after year after year, you get little blips up and blips down, down more than usual and up more than usual but the long term trend is downward.
Water Today - How does that affect in terms of the Canadian and the United States picture in other words just North America. With these bigger weather events and more flooding that you're speaking of is there an upside to any of that?
Jim Bruce – It's hard to see it. No I think most of the impact is a downside and the cities have a lot to do to prevent the increased number of runoff events from discharging more and more pollutants into the lakes so we have serious water quality problems as well as water level problems.
Water Today - When you speak of the runoff of phosphates, nitrogen and this kind of thing, these are sort of country-wide-size scale runoffs that you're speaking of. This isn't a small thing; this is a North American wide phenomenon. Would you agree with that?
Jim Bruce - Well it's very pronounced in parts of the Great Lakes Basin. And I did a small study of the Grand River Basin and they had an 18% increase in surface runoff events since about 1970 and this of course means much more phosphorous going into the river and on down into Lake Erie and I think that is happening in all the river basins. If you look at the latest report from the IPCC on Lake Erie they have some startling information from US basins which are discharging far more phosphorous into Lake Erie and returning it to its previous very polluted state.
Water Today - Yeah let's talk about the transborder effects around the world. If I'm in India and my atmosphere is going to hold 7% more water… To me it seems fairly straightforward that we are going to have to somehow capture most of this fallen water to keep it as a resource for the people In India that wouldn't normally have access to water. I'm trying to understand how this 7% affects people around the world. Is it true what the pundits are saying if I'm in a place with no water and then suddenly the atmosphere has 7% more water doesn't that mean I'm going to get rained on in an arid place or a desert or something like this?
Jim Bruce - No, it doesn't because you need 2 things to make it rain. You need an atmospheric structure, or fronts, or a low pressure system or whatever to make it rain and the reason some dry places like the Sahara Dessert for example are really dry is because they don't have those rain producing mechanisms. So they aren't going to get more rain but the areas around and the Mediterranean Basin is one of the areas including the northern part of the Sahara Dessert is one of those areas which is likely to get very much less rain in total. In other places, the total rainfall is likely to go up but its going to go up mainly in these heavy spikey events.
Water Today - I always wonder when I talk to top scientists like yourself or Ms. Burkett from USGS, I always get the sense that the messaging somehow is wrong. If you say the sky is falling, the sky is falling, the sky is falling, people will begin to ignore your message. This time with the 5th IPCC report , I see that in fact it got a lot more traction than it ever has before at least since I've been following it since day one and I don't recall an IPCC report getting this type of traction. Are you seeing the same thing?
Jim Bruce - Yes I am and I think it's partly because since the beginning of the IPCC the scientists have been in their usual cautious way making sort of qualified statements about things and as the science has developed and as we've learned more, they are willing to make more positive statements; that in fact we are seeing these severe events due to climate change and secondly that these are caused by human interference in the climate system through increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
Water Today - I talk to all kinds of people in the water industry and what they tell me is, well what can we do? How are any of us supposed to do anything about such a big concept as a global problem like this and I'm sure Jim knowing you as I do that you probably have some suggestions.
Jim Bruce - Well I think what it means is we have to step up our game in the water business. For example in urban areas we have to push harder on things like porous pavements and biofiltration and bioretention basins to hold back the urban flow to let it settle out, both to reduce flood risk and to reduce the amount of phosphorous and contaminants getting into our lakes and rivers.
Water Today - You're a pretty smart guy, you can debate just about any issue on this topic. What do you say to a big farmer and maybe we can call a spade a spade here. The phosphates and the nitrogen most of that is coming from fertilizer runoff. What do you say to the big farmer who looks at you at some of these conferences and says well if I don't use this much fertilizer I don't get the yield to make a living? How do you package this idea to people in that situation?
Jim Bruce - You have to put fertilizer on at the time when it isn't going to runoff. In other words you time your fertilizer applications so they don't occur at the times of heavy runoff. So you have to watch the weather forecast and put the fertilizer on at the appropriate time. Also, most farmers, surprisingly to me because the fertilizer is expensive, apply far more fertilizer than they need to and that's been shown right across North America. So that if they reduce the amount of fertilizer to that actually needed and time the application, they can reduce greatly the amount of fertilizer and the amount of pollution that goes with the runoffs.
Water Today - Okay so that is one thing that you say. What do you say to the fossil fuel guys? We need our trucks. We need our transports. We need our trains. How do you approach them? I'm all ears on this subject because I get emails every day from people saying there is nothing we can do? What do you suggest? So with fossil fuels what do you suggest?
Jim Bruce - I think fossil fuels in the long run, not tomorrow, is going to be a dying industry. We have ways of running automobiles and fueling our economy without using fossil fuels. 43% of the new electricity producing installations in the world last year were solar powered and electric cars I think will really help a great deal to say nothing of hybrids. So we can reduce the consumption drastically of fossil fuels through using newer technologies.
Water Today - When you do the discussions that you do. I know that you give presentations. Are you still doing those presentations to teach the public or are you finding that they already know about the big picture. Where is the public when you talk to them now compared with 5 to 10 years ago?
Jim Bruce - Well it depends. I gave a talk in Perth a few weeks ago and I found the audience extremely receptive to the two things that have to be done about climate change. One is we have to find ways of adapting to the changes that are occurring and will continue to occur for some little while; and we have to adapt to them by things like improving our management of urban runoff and improving our management of runoff from agricultural lands; and of putting in place the health protection measures that are needed in heat waves and a whole bunch of other things.
Water Today - Okay, let's talk about heat waves. So the extreme events not just that we're going to get wetter. We're going to get a lot more heat. I believe there was an extreme weather conference just a few weeks ago.
Jim Bruce - Yes, I was there.
Water Today - So tell me about this more heat thing. Senior citizens are going to need shade? Or how hot are we talking?
Jim Bruce - Well the heat waves in the summer will become more frequent and we need to have in each city a hot weather adaptation plan like the City of Toronto has and Hamilton.
Water Today - Yes some of the big cities have a plan. That's what you mean… Come on into city hall; its cooler here today.
Jim Bruce - Sure or ensure, where there is a concentration of people who aren't mobile enough to get to somewhere, that they have enough air conditioning to see them through.
Water Today - Oh that's interesting. So you're starting now to break this out into the total population and the levels of what needs to be done. We've covered heat waves. We've covered more flooding. We've covered watch the nitrogen. We've covered look we have to start backing off fossil fuels even more. We have to have cities turn it up about what were going to do with all this runoff. I'm sure you've talked with many, many mayors. Do they say yes we're going to work up a plan and its going to take us 10 years to do that? Or are you finding now the sort of city planners and mayors are going we have to do something about this right now? Is there urgency?
Jim Bruce - Yes, I think there is urgency and what we all see is our insurance rates going up something like 25 or 50% in the last 2 years. Not because of ….what used to be the big payout by the insurance company was fire; now, its flood and water in the basement.
Water Today - Oh that's interesting.
Jim Bruce - Yeah. So they are now saying, we have to raise the rates because we are losing so much money in these extreme events.
Water Today - When you roll along and you talk to insurance guy, Jim, do they sort of duck and hide or do they sit down and go we are going to go broke unless we put our rates up. Is that how blunt they are?
Jim Bruce - Yes. Exactly. And there are lots of documents that show that both in Canada and internationally. That is their response; to raise the rates to cover what they have just lost and what they figure they are going to lose in the future.
Water Today - Does this mean... everyone has seen the pictures of Calgary coming into, through and out of the flood…Does this mean that a lot of cities who might be on the edge of a floodplain but it's never really come to that. Are these floodplains now going to turn up in cities that haven't flooded in the past but were borderline floodplains? Is that what we're seeing and going to see?
Jim Bruce - Yes very much so. What happens too is that as in the good old days we had a National Flood Damage Reduction Program in which the federal government and the provinces worked together to map the floodplain lands and to not allow CMHC to give loans for buildings in flood plains and things like that. In some places that wasn't followed. Calgary was one of them; it came very late to the program and never really adopted it. So you had many houses, much development in the floodplain in there which shouldn't have been there and had there been an active program as there has been in the Southern Ontario after Hurricane Hazel, that flood damage would have been much less in the Calgary area.
Water Today - Okay I'm just going to finish with a couple of questions that are kind of a little bit different. In terms of our ports in Canada, if the oceans are going to rise as you and Ms. Burkett claim, isn't that good for shipping?
Jim Bruce - No. Not just shipping. I'd be more worried about the fixed investment in buildings and infrastructure and roads and railways along the coasts because they are going to become inundated more frequently in storm surges even as sea level rises only half a foot or something but if it really goes up by a meter say by the end of the century then many of those coastal cities are in serious trouble. The New York subway system will be flooded most of the time and Miami will be in deep trouble and so will Charlottetown.
Water Today - Oh Charlottetown, PEI too.
Jim Bruce - And probably Vancouver.
Water Today - I didn't know that. I thought Vancouver was okay due to the coastal setup but apparently not.
Jim Bruce - Maybe Richmond. I think of the Vancouver area.
Water Today - The last favourite thing to chew over these days, if you're talking to the Canadian narrative, is the North West Passage; the melting of the ice. Is that not good for Canada because we can now get ships through there and get the fees and open up the North so to speak. What is your take on that Jim?
Jim Bruce - Well that could have some economic advantage because it is a shorter route around there but you have to recognize that a lot of shipping goes from the East side of United States or Europe into the far east into China and Japan and Southeast Asia and that is more likely to find its way across the top of Russia than across our northern coast. There will be some advantage but lets not think of it as a bonanza and there are some disadvantages too
Water Today - Disadvantages? You mean the methane that is being released out of the permafrost?
Jim Bruce - And in the changes to the Arctic Ocean which are occurring rather rapidly and warming up that area so its causing changes in the whole weather pattern of the northern hemisphere so we get a winter like we did last winter with those polar vortex coming down over Central North America and over the Atlantic Ocean.
Water Today - I`ll finish this on the same question I asked your colleague Virginia Burkett. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about all this?
Jim Bruce - I'm cautiously optimistic that with the signs on the horizon that humans even the present government in Canada will eventually come to their senses and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.
GLOBAL WARMING,'ONE OF THE GREATEST KNOWN RISKS WE FACE' - Q&A- USGS, Virginia Burkett, IPCC 5th Report- 5/7/14
Canada a Leader in adaptation - Q&A- Don Lemmen NRCAn Lead Scientific Editor Adaptation Report - 2/5/13
Parts of Canadian Arctic may be spared - Q&A Thomas James, Geological Survey of Canada - 1/16/13
Greenland ice sheets losing mass faster and faster - NASA/ESA - Q&A Glenn Milne, Geophysicist, Ottawa University - 1/4/13