Life

Planning for the inevitable

DORTHEA HANGAARD, SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

I'm one of those nerds who pay attention to the in-flight safety demonstration and read the safety sheet in the seat-front pocket. I go one step further and visualize my exit plan in case of an emergency. Then I set it all aside and enjoy the flight.

The reason I do it is because I know when faced with extreme stress, all animals, including humans, respond with a fight-freeze-flight response. We usually just call it fight-or-flight, but that's short form for a complex trigger of hormones that are released by the sympathetic nervous system, and when it's a total deluge we freeze -- complete paralysis.

Freezing up can happen when we're unprepared for a high-stress event and haven't thought through how to react. When an airplane makes an emergency landing, for example, it has been observed some people spring into action while others sit paralyzed in their seats, even when flames are leaping toward them or the plane is taking on water. Pilots and stewards are trained to mentally prepare and act out emergency scenarios so they won't hesitate if the time comes.

As of this summer, scientists say extreme climate change is no longer a future scenario, but something that is already upon us, and the recent climate data from NASA agrees: July 2016 had Earth's warmest absolute temperatures since human civilization began -- not since records began, but thousands of years before that. Further, we are already within reach of the 1.5 degrees Celsius upper limit above pre-industrial temperatures the world community agreed to at the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (less than a year ago). The report on the Paris Agreement won't even be published until 2018 and it may be out of date by then.

For me, it's really tough these days to think about the future without getting a knot in my stomach.

I've been following the story of climate change since I read my first article on the greenhouse effect in 1982. I'm an environmentalist, and I'm as paralyzed as the next person. I drive a car, I can't afford a Prius, much of my food is trucked in from the southern U.S., and I'm positive installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and a low-flow toilet isn't enough to solve the problem. So, last March, while reading a report called Planning for Climate Change in Muskoka, I was surprised to realize I felt calm, maybe even hopeful.

The report was written by a team of nine scientists for the Muskoka Watershed Council. If you only read one document on climate change, this is a good one because it has background on what climate change is (the difference between climate and weather, for example -- the answer being 30 years), the various predictive models used by climate scientists, and what our region can expect from climate change in the future. Then they settle right in the middle of Muskoka at Harp Lake, and propose some practical solutions for weathering the coming storm. Here is just a bit of what they have to say:

Precipitation is expected to shift to the winter and spring, leaving us with a drier summer and fall. That means we have to be prepared for more summer droughts, more winter snow, rain, and ice storms and more spring floods. Their proposal? Build our homes and infrastructure to withstand flooding, and find ways to hold the water upstream in our lakes and wetlands so we can gradually release it downstream during drier months.

As the climate warms, plant growth zones are moving northward along with the animals that depend on those plants. Considering the rapid pace of climate change, trees are going to have great difficulty adapting quickly enough because they are long-lived and can't just get up and walk north. The white spruce will have the hardest time: By 2041, it won't be able to survive anywhere south of Sault Ste. Marie. Is it even reasonable to plant this species in our area anymore?

It looks like the sugar maple will be able to hang on in our area into 2071, but the eastern white pines will be a thing of the past, only able to survive north of Lake Couchiching.

The authors of Planning for Climate Change suggest we consider "assisted migration" -- the planting of trees commonly found to the south of us today -- in the hopes they will be able to thrive here in the not-too-distant future. Maybe you still plant that sugar maple or white pine, but consider also planting a Carolinian species such as a sycamore, tulip tree or witch hazel shrub.

At the turn of the century, one of the great environmental analysts of our time, Lester Brown, was asked in The Economist what he thought was the most important thing we could do for the environment in the coming century. He said protect habitat. As much as possible. It will be a much-needed buffer zone against the consequences of human folly. That's why I chose to focus on conservation and now work for a land trust. It's another practical step already underway, but we could use a lot more help.

These are all solutions I can wrap my head around. They aren't about solving the climate crisis, which should be our top priority, but considering that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon, putting an emergency plan in place seems wise. Let's prepare for this disaster so we're not the ones left paralyzed in our seats. Perhaps the will to act on slowing the pace of climate change will finally kick in if we take these first, tangible and necessary steps of preparation for the inevitable.

Dorthea Hangaard is project manager for the Couchiching Conservancy.

Orillia Packet and Times 2016 © 



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