Adapting to Inevitable Climate Change

by Ray Grigg

Those who are still undecided about whether climate change is occurring are now two steps behind current informed opinion. Relevant discussions have progressed to mitigation and adaptation.

Adaptation is not about slowing or stopping climate change. “It’s too late to stop global warming,” wrote scientist Sharon Begley in a December 17, 2007, edition of Newsweek magazine — nearly 8 years ago. “Now we have to figure out how to survive it.”

The title of her column, Learning to Love Climate “Adaptation“, continues to exude irony. The love will be of the tough variety, and her quotation marks suggest that adaptation will be closer to endurance than relief.

Some of the adaptations may be surprising. Airport runways will eventually have to be lengthened for taking off and landing at higher speeds because rising temperatures mean hotter air, less density and therefore less lift for aircraft wings. Cities will need designated cooling centres where people can go for respite during heat waves.

Special dams we will have to be build to halt “glacier lake outburst floods”, dramatic flows of water and debris caused by the rapid melting and bursting of ice blockages. Such dams may also be useful as reservoirs to help regulate and store erratic water flow during extreme precipitation events. Higher moisture content in a warmer atmosphere will translate into more intense rainfall, floods, landslides and avalanches. More colliding cold and warm fronts will mean more ice and snow storms and a proliferation in weather emergencies.

In northern climates, melting permafrost will necessitate the rebuilding, relocation or abandonment of vast stretches of roads. Northern villages will undergo the same choices as they sink. Salmon runs will shift poleward, dramatically altering both northern and southern ecologies and economies.

Portions of coastal highways will have to be moved to avoid rising sea levels. Some bridges, many highways and most urban drainage systems will have to be re-engineered to account for more extreme water flows. Buildings, too, will need to be re-designed to withstand more severe weather. Present flood plains and estuaries may not remain habitable. Salt water from rising sea levels will displace prime agricultural land and contaminate some coastal aquifers, stressing food production and requiring new supplies of fresh water.

Fires in forests and grasslands will become commonplace, demanding more sophisticated strategies, resources and equipment. Added flood and storm risks will make some insurance rates unaffordable. Carbon sequester will become a technological obsession. Adaptation will encourage greater densities of people to live within the protective and efficient confines of villages and cities. Rising sea levels will begin to flood coastal cities.

“Although some adaptations will be modest and low tech…,” wrote Begley in 2007, “others will require such herculean effort and be so costly” that we will wonder why we didn’t act when “credible warnings of climate change” reached “critical mass” in 1988. Had the world community heeded those warnings nearly 30 years ago, our present prospects would be much more promising.

Since procrastination in the company of danger is not a propitious combination, the longer we wait, the more arduously will we struggle up the steepening slope of approaching adversity, and the greater the likelihood that adaptability will become a euphemism for survival.