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Conclusions - British Columbia


Climate change impacts and the costs of extreme events are increasingly evident but responses and adaptation measures remain reactive.

Although well-known ocean-atmospheric cycles, such as ENSO and PDO, are the drivers of short- and long-term climate cycles and weather extremes in British Columbia, there is strong evidence linking global climate change to increasing climate variability and extreme events (Sections 2.1 and 2.3). During the past century, the province warmed significantly across all seasons, and projections of future climate change suggest continued warming for all seasons, wetter conditions for much of BC in winter and spring, but drier conditions during summer in the south and on the coast (Section 2.2). Changes in the amount and type of precipitation, mainly more rain and less snow, are already evident in BC. Persistent droughts are common during summer months. Prehistoric climate records show that severe droughts occurred more frequently in previous centuries than during the past few decades (Section 2.1), suggesting that BC can expect more severe droughts in the future, irrespective of climate change.

Most of BC's alpine glaciers are retreating rapidly and many may disappear in the next 100 years (see Box 1). Coupled with reduced snowpack and warmer spring temperatures, this will result in earlier spring freshets, warmer river temperatures, declining summer river flows and increasing peak flows for many of BC's watersheds (Section 2.4). Impacts on current and future water supplies, hydroelectric power generation, fisheries and river ecosystem integrity are significant concerns for BC. These changes will pose numerous challenges for water managers and other users, and increase the likelihood of inter-sectoral and transborder water conflicts (Section 3.1).

Geological effects will offset or exacerbate global trends in sea-level rise on the BC coast. Superimposed on sea-level rise is increasing extreme water levels driven by climatic variability events. Accelerated coastal erosion and flooding are expected to pose ongoing and increasing hazards for BC's coastal communities and infrastructure (Sections 2.5 and 4.1).

The frequency of, and costs associated with, most types of extreme weather events and related natural hazards (e.g. coastal storms and surges, forest fires, droughts, landslides) are increasing (Section 2.3). Most climate-related adaptations in BC are reactive responses to such ‘surprises’ as the unprecedented mountain pine beetle outbreak or the extreme forest fires of 2003. Examples of adaptation planned specifically for climate change are scarce. In some respects, this relates to a limited perception of climate change as a risk to the livelihoods, activities and economies that support British Columbia; in other cases, it is a matter of other priorities competing for limited capacity. As climate change is only one of many stressors that affect the province's industries, communities and ecosystems, a ‘cumulative impact’ perspective may be most appropriate for adaptation planning. There are several examples of recent studies and risk assessments involving researchers, community groups and decision-makers in BC (see Section 4) that represent an important first step towards a more comprehensive approach to planned adaptation. Awareness of the current and potential impacts of climate change and understanding of the need to address adaptation as well as mitigation is growing in communities around the province.

Management of increasingly frequent and severe water shortages will entail complex trade-offs and require improved consideration of climate change.

Retreating glaciers, declining snowpack, increasing drought, and shifts in timing and amount of precipitation will increasingly limit water supply during peak demand periods for hydroelectric power generation, agriculture and drinking water, although this may be partially offset in some regions by increased precipitation. Approximately 78% of British Columbia's population depends on surface-water supplies for drinking, while 89% of the province's electricity comes from water (Sections 3.1 and 3.7). Declining water supplies raise numerous management challenges, particularly in such areas of rapid growth as the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), the Capital Region District (CRD; i.e. Victoria and surrounding municipalities), the Okanagan region and even certain small communities such as Tofino. Increasing conflict between supply and demand will necessitate trade-offs between alternative uses and values (e.g. maintaining stream levels for fisheries habitat versus irrigation needs for agriculture).

Since the 1980s, BC’s major urban centres have experienced several extreme summer droughts and water resource limitations. Drinking water supplies may become stressed in the CRD and the GVRD. Increasing future supplies will require significant infrastructure upgrades and demand management strategies (Section 4.4.1). This is also a concern for smaller rapidly developing areas (e.g. Tofino-Ucluelet). The CRD recently completed a substantial upgrade to increase storage capacity of its main water source, the Sooke Reservoir. To avoid the need for major new infrastructure investment, the CRD aims to implement aggressive demand management measures to meet demand over the next 50 years. The GVRD is also aware of potential challenges presented by increasing demand and climate change impacts, and is planning for increased storage capacity and enhanced demand management.

British Columbia's hydroelectric power generation capacity is currently vulnerable to declining water supply and changing river flow patterns, most notably in the Columbia River basin, where more than half of the province's hydroelectricity originates. By 2025, electricity demand in BC is expected to be 30 to 60% higher than in 2005. Targets set by the recently released BC Energy Plan include aims to meet 50% of incremental growth through conservation and efficiency measures, and to generate at least half of all new power from renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal, biomass and hydro. The connection between climate change and water will be an increasingly important consideration in planning to meet many of the key energy production and mitigation strategies outlined in the plan.

Current institutional and planning structures, for the most part, do not consider existing climate variability or future projections of climate change in the management of water resources. Climate change considerations could be effectively integrated with land-use, community planning or resource management processes.

British Columbia's critical infrastructure faces immediate challenges and long-term threats from climate variability and change.

Extreme weather and associated natural hazards currently present challenges to British Columbia's critical infrastructure, and these impacts are projected to increase as a result of continued climate change. In many places, critical infrastructure, including pipelines, power and telecommunication transmission lines, and transportation networks, are geographically confined to narrow valleys and coastal stretches, and therefore vulnerable to disruption from natural hazards, such as landslides, coastal storms and surges, flooding and forest fires. Research on the impacts of climate change on BC's critical infrastructure systems remains limited, while insurance and costs for emergency response and recovery are rising (Section 3.8).

Central and northern communities, such as Prince George, report increases in road maintenance and flood management costs directly or indirectly related to changing climate conditions. Climate change impacts are now being considered in the GVRD's Integrated Stormwater Management Plans (Section 4.4.2).

Life-cycle cost analysis, return period statistics for extreme events and engineering standards all influence management decisions on how or when to maintain or replace infrastructure. Updating these analyses, statistics and design standards so that they consider climate change impacts and trends will enable managers to better plan for future changes. Institutional constraints remain, however, as many standards and policies that guide infrastructure decisions rely only on past climate statistics.

British Columbia's forests, forest industry and forestry-dependent communities are vulnerable to increasing climate-related risks.

Forestry remains a cornerstone of the BC economy. British Columbia’s forest resources are vulnerable to a host of impacts related to changing climate conditions, including fires, pests, disease and ecosystem shifts. Conditions conducive to forest fires are expected to increase (Sections 2.3 and 3.3) and will lead to an increase in associated health risks (Section 3.9) and post-wildfire flood and landslide hazards (Section 3.3).

The current mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreak affects almost 10% of BC's land base. At 9.2 million ha in 2006, this outbreak is unprecedented in its extent and longevity (Section 4.2). Past forest fire suppression and management, drought conditions in the 1990s and warmer winter temperatures have provided favourable conditions for the current outbreak. The infestation is advancing into northeastern BC, and projections of future climatic suitability for MPB suggest that continued eastward expansion into the boreal forest is highly likely.

Communities are responding quickly to the MPB infestation. Vanderhoof, in north-central BC, is exploring adaptation options to manage future opportunities as they transition from a pre- to a post-beetle economy (Section 4.2.1). Prince George is surrounded by MPB-devastated forests and, like other communities in the interior, is experiencing increased economic activity from expanded salvage logging operations. This short-term economic gain from beetle-killed trees will have long-term ecological, hydrological and economic implications. City planners in Prince George are concerned about the increased flooding potential of the Nechako and Fraser rivers as trees are removed from surrounding watersheds. Many forest-based communities will face substantial economic challenges once the current round of logging has cleared beetle-killed trees, as it will take almost a generation for resource stocks to replenish.

The long growth period before trees are ready for harvest means that much of the resource that will support the forest industry and communities for the next few decades is already in the ground. Forest management options are limited if site productivity is affected and existing species turn out to be poorly suited to changing conditions. Similarly, the industry has invested in large equipment and processing facilities that are difficult and expensive to adapt. These long investment periods increase the risk and uncertainty for both the industry and dependent communities to the impacts of climate change and to challenges such as international market competition.

The BC Ministry of Forests and Range has developed a ‘Future Forests Ecosystem Initiative’ that incorporates climate change adaptation into forest management (Section 4.2.2). This initiative is an early step toward long-term forest planning that includes climate change in conjunction with other pressures, including international competition, forest health, increases in forest fire regimes, and changing social and economic conditions.

Existing stresses on British Columbia's fisheries will be exacerbated by climate change.

The social, cultural and ecological importance of fisheries in British Columbia far exceeds their relatively small economic contribution to the provincial GDP. Fisheries are especially important to coastal communities and First Nations, they attract thousands for sport-fishing tourism, and they are key indicators of water quality and ecosystem health. Most capture fisheries are either stable or declining, whereas aquaculture continues to grow steadily (Section 3.2).

Salmon far outweigh other species in terms of social, economic and cultural importance in BC. Coastal salmon fisheries are already under stress from a combination of factors, including habitat loss in spawning watersheds and overfishing. Climate change will cause further stress as water temperatures rise and through indirect effects on other sectors, such as the influence of MPB-related tree mortality on hydrology. Northward migrations of exotic fish species from warmer southern waters already threaten young salmon during warm El Ni ño events. Continued ocean warming as a result of climate change will pose a longer term and more severe threat to salmon and other coastal fisheries.

Inland fish populations, including migratory salmon, are sensitive to increasing water temperatures and to changes in river and lake levels. Climate change impacts on water resources are a major concern for inland fisheries (Section 4.3.3). Constitutional guarantees of access to fisheries for First Nations ’ use give fisheries some priority. Management conflicts between in-stream water needs for fish, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and domestic consumption are likely to increase with continuing climate change and future treaty negotiations.

Adaptation to climate change in the fisheries sector involves primarily management responses that protect or enhance stocks. Potential adaptation measures include reducing harvest rates, reinforcing habitat protection and restoration, increasing hatchery production of salmon, licensing and regulating river systems, promoting accelerated development of aquaculture and/or diversifying fisheries to take advantage of short- and long-lived species and exotics as traditional single-species fisheries decline.

British Columbia's agricultural sector will see increasing threats and some opportunities from climate change.

Similar to fisheries, agriculture makes only a modest contribution to British Columbia's economy, but indirect benefits and employment are substantial. Agriculture, particularly the wine industry and orchards, is a lucrative component of tourism in areas such as the Okanagan valley. Farming and ranching are also important in many rural regions. Suitable lands for farming in BC are limited to approximately 4.5% of the land base (approx. 4.7 million ha), and much of this is protected by BC's agricultural land reserve (ALR; Section 3.4). The greatest threat to agriculture from climate change in BC is the impact on water resources. This results not only from increasing water scarcity and extended drought, but also from heightened competition with other uses. Increases in extreme weather, associated natural hazards, and outbreaks of pests and disease are also of concern.

Climate change also presents potential opportunities for agriculture in BC as a result of longer growing seasons and milder winters, which could increase the range and/or number of economically viable crops that can be grown (Section 3.4). Constraints on this potential opportunity include limited soil suitability, water supply, irrigation infrastructure and transportation distance to markets. Isolated valleys of quality agricultural land (e.g. Bella Coola valley) may be the greatest beneficiaries. Introduction of new and potentially more lucrative crops into existing agricultural regions has also been considered, although these perceived opportunities will face development and water availability challenges similar to those that currently face existing crops, with added risks as a result of climate change.

Farmers' experience in dealing with climate variability and extreme weather events, disease and crop failures, and market fluctuations results in considerable capacity to adapt to climate change. Strategies include both long- and short-term approaches, such as diversification of crops where possible and alternate processing techniques. Support programs designed to help farmers manage market-related risks and occasional crop failures are a good hedge against crop losses caused by climate variability and extreme events, but may also serve as disincentives for adaptation to longer term climate change.

Integrating climate change adaptation into decision-making is an opportunity to reduce long-term costs and impacts on British Columbia's communities and economy.

Enhancing adaptive capacity and implementing adaptation measures to climate change does not require managing or planning resources and infrastructure in a whole new way. Rather, opportunities to improve the effectiveness and reduce the costs of adapting to climate change impacts exist through integration of climate change information into existing planning, management and decision-making processes. Existing datasets, simulation models and scenarios, and seasonal climate forecasts that incorporate climate change and related impacts can inform ongoing management and planning decisions (Sections 2.1 and 2.2).

Currently, climate change is being considered indirectly in a variety of settings to inform or guide decision-making. Experience in the Okanagan illustrates the importance of translating climate change scenarios and impacts into terms and language relevant for local planning and management (Section 4.3.1). In Vanderhoof, a community pilot project is underway to develop and test methods for assessing the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity to forest changes using simulation models, surveys and interviews within the community (Section 4.2.1). Similarly, researchers are working with councillors, planners and engineers in the Corporation of Delta to understand impacts and vulnerabilities to storm surges and sea-level rise (Section 4.1.2). This type of community-based research is seen as an important first step to integrating climate change into local and regional planning.

British Columbia's most populated regional districts are pursuing sustainable development and climate change mitigation initiatives, some of which include adaptive benefits. Among these are water and energy conservation measures that include design features, materials, equipment and/or processes that use or recycle energy and water within the building plant. Such practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions from building operations (mitigation) and place less demand on city infrastructure and resources (adaptation).

Vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity vary widely across regions, scales and economic sectors in British Columbia.

There are significant differences between rural and urban British Columbia with respect to climate change vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity. These are largely a function of economic dependence. Reliance on natural resources is most pronounced in remote rural and coastal communities, whereas urban areas have more diversified economies.

Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Victoria have increasingly diversified economies based on information, technology, tourism and related service sector activity, in conjunction with transportation, finance, port and government functions. Their dependence on BC's resource economy is indirect and, while still significant, is largely surpassed by post-industrial economic drivers. In contrast, rural BC remains intimately dependent on natural resources, particularly forestry and fisheries. The sustainability of rural communities will depend, to a large degree, on how they are able to cope with changes to their resource base(s). This involves planning to manage both risks and opportunities. There is some evidence of communities adapting to the new global economy in ways that bypass dependence on metropolitan centres, suggesting increasing capacity to deal with change in general, and increased ability to manage resource dependence in particular (Section 1.4).

In remote coastal communities, resilience and adaptive capacity emerge from a variety of sources, including 1) the strength of local and regional institutions; 2) patterns of local social and economic development; 3) the nature and condition of critical infrastructure; and 4) level of experience with extreme weather and exposure to other forms of environmental and/or socioeconomic change. In addition, income diversification, self-reliance, volunteerism and strong social networks and cohesion are all important factors that contribute to a remote community's capacity to adapt to broader issues such as climate change (Section 4.1.1).

Social, cultural and economic factors may limit capacity to undertake climate change adaptation at the community level. Many coastal and rural BC communities are currently experiencing significant social and economic hardship due to multiple stressors. Resilience based on social capital and strong social cohesion enable some communities to cope with these stresses, even where other attributes of adaptive capacity are limited (e.g. access to physical and financial capital, technology, expertise and other resources). The key challenge for enhancing adaptive capacity in such locations is to build on initiatives that currently address economic and environmental changes, by including consideration of the impacts of climate change.


Steps to enhance adaptive capacity must be locally relevant, oftentimes building on existing strengths, programs and community attributes. Building adaptive capacity requires effective communication between communities, other orders of government and researchers. This involves both the two-way transfer of knowledge and the development of tools and other resources to assist regional and local decision-making. The concept and goals of building adaptive capacity need to be conveyed, as does the appropriate information to support improved resource, community and ecosystem planning. In some cases, more information is needed; in others, it is the access to, and communication of, the information that needs to be improved. For example, more research on impacts and adaptation in economic sectors, especially with respect to extreme events, would be useful, as would improved monitoring of key climate elements and environmental variables (e.g. glaciers, groundwater, stream gauging, coastal water levels and erosion/sedimentation, oceanography, floodplain hazard mapping, wildfires and pest spread).

The development of methods and tools by which this information can be disseminated and used is as important as expanding the existing knowledge base. The crucial link is to make the information accessible, by delivering it in a context and language that resonate with the issues and concerns of planners and engineers, resource managers and industry, and leaders of local governments and First Nations. In other words, those most directly responsible for implementing the adaptation.

Finally, it is important to further explore and understand the social and cultural underpinnings of local governance, in particular the makeup and function of local institutions, such as municipal governments, regional districts and First Nations councils, planning and health authorities, engineering departments and resource management bodies. Local and regional interests, and the institutions and organizations that support them, provide the context into which adaptation policies and plans will be introduced and implemented. Understanding how local institutions are set up and how they ‘work’ within the local and regional environment is a crucial element that will influence the uptake of new information and knowledge, and ultimately determine the success or failure of proactive adaptation.

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