Thursday 10 November 2016

Blog Post 3 - Feeling the Impacts of Climate Change in the Yukon

           Climate change often seems to be talked about in an abstract sense – rising sea levels threatening small island nations in the Pacific, droughts in the Middle East forcing whole populations to relocate, and severe heat waves in the equatorial regions posing a major health concern. But even I, in my short 16 years in the Yukon, have seen the impacts of climate change firsthand.

            I think my most vivid memory of climate change impacting my life was the summer of 2004. At the time, my parents still owned a wilderness tourism lodge on Frances Lake – in the southeast corner of the territory near Watson Lake. For as long as I can remember, forest fires had been a staple of the classic Yukon summer. It wasn’t unusual to wake up several times a summer to a hazy grey sky and a burning orange sun, blurred by the smoke in the air.

Frances Lake in the middle of the day during the 2004 fire season (Image: C. Altherr)

2004 was different. In 2004, it seemed the whole territory was on fire. In fact, that summer ended up setting records for both the number of fires and area burning, with almost 300 fires burning 2 million of the 27 million hectares of forest in the Yukon. To put this in perspective, over the previous 54 years, annual area burned exceeded 200 000 hectares only 11 times; the average annual area burned over the last 25 years is 120 000 hectares.

One of those 2004 fires came incredibly close – about 30 meters – to burning down my parents’ livelihood. Luckily, we received exceptional help from Yukon Wildland Fire Management. We kids were brought to safety by helicopter while my parents watched the fire fighters battling the blaze making itself over the top of the hill towards the buildings. Thankfully, they succeeded.

Firefighters spraying the fire advancing towards the lodge, 2004 (Image: C. Altherr)

However, we were far from the only ones affected that summer, and not all were as lucky as we were. While we haven't seen a fire season quite so ferocious since 2004, climate change will continue to bring an increase in lightning storms, flooding and droughts to the Yukon. These conditions can lead to increases in forest fire severity and frequency. It’s expected that the number of forest fires, and the area of land affected by fires, will continue to increase. For example, both Dawson City and Mayo are expected to see an increase of 50% in fire activity by 2030. 

  The aftermath of the fire at Frances Lake, 2004 (Image: C. Altherr)

Another effect of climate change I regularly experience in the Yukon is permafrost thaw. Growing up at Frances Lake had some challenges for building. Trying to dig any sort of hole could be a frustrating experience if you happened to hit a patch of frozen ground – and the problems didn’t stop once the buildings were up! I remember our main cabin shifting on a yearly basis. Some summers your soup would run out of your bowl one way, and the next it would flow the other way! The regular freezing and thawing of the permafrost meant constant shifting.

            This phenomenon is also an issue for highway construction in the north. This past summer, I spent a lot of time driving on our highways to access remote sites for work. The effects of permafrost thaw were very noticeable, especially in the northern Yukon on the Dempster Highway – and anyone who has driven from Whitehorse to Beaver Creek will remember the roller coaster of a ride! Repairs to permafrost-damaged areas of highway average $30,000 per kilometer compared to $4,000 per kilometer for regular highway repair.

      Permafrost roller coaster on the Dempster Highway (Image: Paul Byerlay) 

What sorts of changes have you experienced during your time in the North, or elsewhere? If you have any stories you would like to share, I would love to hear them in the comments or by email!

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