Calgary·Q & A

Climate change causing Calgary to alter how it plans for the future

Climate change is often treated as this big, looming threat that's going to alter our lives sometime in the future — well, the future is closer than you think.

'What we’ll have to do over the next number of years is start rewriting our standards'

Dick Ebersohn, manager of the climate change and environment file for the City of Calgary, says flooding like what Calgary saw in 2013 could happen more often in the future. (Submitted by Dick Ebersohn)

Climate change is often treated as this big, looming threat that's going to alter our lives sometime in the future.

Well, the future is closer than you think.

Climate change is already having an effect on Calgary.

It's forcing the city to rethink everything from how roads are built to what kind of trees are planted.

That was the focus of the Calgary Climate Symposium, which wraps up Thursday.

Dick Ebersohn is the manager of the climate change and environment file for the City of Calgary and he spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray to discuss the issue.

Below is an abridged version of that conversation.

Q: How is climate change affecting Calgary right now?

A: It's interesting. When we did a risk and vulnerability assessment for the city, we first had to look at the different climate impacts. We've seen that in the future we'll have much more heavy snow and ice storms. We'll have increased heat waves, we'll have droughts.

In short, it will be too hot, too cold, too wet and too dry over the next number of years, and it's really how we start to adapt to those kinds of things that's going to matter to us.

Q: So you're talking about a future of more extremes, is that what you're pointing toward?

A: That is exactly what I'm pointing to. We'll see the same things we're seeing today, with some additional strange weather events, but they'll be much more extreme.

Q: We're already seeing those things today, everybody is telling me about how climate change will affect the future. What's actually going on now?

A: We're already seeing that, if we just think back about the [2013] flood we had in the past. We've seen extended periods of heat during our summers. These will just increase over time, so we need to start managing those in different ways. If I can give you some examples, if we think about snow and ice storms, we didn't really see ice storms in the past in Calgary, and that is coming to us more and more.

If ice starts to accumulate, for instance, on our electric lines, they start to sag, they can break. That will cut off power for us. If we think about our service on the LRT, we won't be able to provide that service and thousands of Calgarians will be stranded. These things happen to us even on the heat side. We see it in U.S. cities where heat is creating stretch on electric lines.

The City of Calgary is taking steps to plan for a changing climate in an effort to mitigate the effects of floods, like what was seen in 2013. (Submitted by Dick Ebersohn)

Q: How is the city planning for this in terms of roads, transportation and power. What are we actually doing?

A: We have a co-ordinated approach at the city to look at our operations and look at the services we are providing to Calgarians. We follow an international process where we first identify the various risks, then look at how we can actually reduce that.

So we've come up with over 1,000 actions at the city, everything from transportation, land use to business continuity.... The next step we want to take is to really start working with Calgarians, and that is what we are doing this week. It's reaching out to them and creating that mutual understanding.

Q: All right, let's break some of it down. Bridges and infrastructure, for example, do you anticipate a future where the lifespan is shorter?

A: We actually anticipate a future where we have to see how we can raise bridges, for instance, if we look at the types of floods we'll see in the future. The engineering standards in Canada are changing, there's a new standard called PIEVC and a lot of the new bridges are already starting to incorporate that standard that is strengthened against flood and various climatic impacts.

What we'll have to do over the next number of years is start rewriting our standards. It's not just an immediate, let's build things differently; it's a true engineering venture in actually making a difference.

Q: We've talked a lot about how Calgary is preparing for another flood, if and when it happens. But we haven't really talked much about securing water supply over the long term. How much is the City of Calgary looking to the west and thinking about securing our water supply?

A: I can tell you that in our water resources group, it is a big task on their desks. They are not just looking at what's happening in Calgary. They are considering the whole watershed in their planning, not just in terms of droughts, because we don't always think about that in Calgary, but also in terms of flood.

So these two things go together, and they [local governments] are working as a region on this file … not just upstream but also downstream.

Q: What about our tree canopy? Are we planting different kinds of trees anticipating a different kind of future?

A: Interestingly enough, yes we are. Every time we have a chance to replace a tree, we investigate what will the changes be for our trees here in Calgary. Are we going to become Montana over the next little while? And yes, we do see those things coming to us, trees that will sustain the attacks from different species, for instance.… And that's why you will see some different trees coming up in Calgary over the next little while.

Q: From what you're telling me, the city has clearly identified this as a concern and they're devoting time and resources toward it. What's the message for homeowners wondering what they can do to make their homes or communities more resilient?

A: That's the next step we want to take, and information is already available. The insurance industry has spoken for many years about putting storm nails in your roof when you replace your shingles because they will sustain storms much better, and it's going to cost you $12 more to do that.

What we want to do is consolidate that information and provide it to Calgarians. We also hear on a daily basis about insulation in our walls. How do we protect ourselves in terms of energy bills and carbon reductions? We want to look at best practices, not only locally but also from other cities in similar conditions as ours, to help Calgarians.

Q: Overall, is this something city council has budgeted for? I don't hear it coming up often in debates. Do we need to allocate more cash for a changing climate?

A: I believe there are going to be some concerns around budget because, yes, this is something that is happening to us. It's almost that balance of, are you going to spend less now or do you want to spend more later when it hits you, and that's a big consideration.

What we are doing as a corporation and as administration is to build these actions into our operations and services so you will see that as proper maintenance and proper risk management.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.