News – 11 March 2012

First Nation’s Community Shuts Doors to Developers

  • “Needless to say we find this insulting and unacceptable that the septic fields of your development are more important that our First Nation’s sacred sites.”  — Chief Eli Mandamin

Iskatewizaagegan First Nation has put all developers in its traditional territory on notice. A day before it plans to close snowmobile trails, the northern Ontario community that intends to charge the City of Winnipeg $124 million per year for drinking its water, has informed a Winnipeg water company, a Brandon-based tourism developer and the Ministry of Natural Resources that it has not consented to development. The community says it will take either legal or direct action to protect its interests. Tab’leau purifies Winnipeg’s tap water drawn from Shoal Lake and sells it to regional hotels and restaurants. Arguing the company is violating the conditions of a 1913 agreement, Chief Eli Mandamin ordered it to “cease and desist in this effort to misuse our water, and failure to do so may result in legal action being taken.”  Mandamin also issued Royal Lake Resources a notice over the tourism company’s intention to build a gated community, expressing concern it could inhibit the First Nation’s harvesting rights. He offered to discuss the situation, but warned they are prepared to resist the development if rights are not guaranteed.

The preferred route for a Transcanada Highway twinning project will impact either Royal Lake or indigenous sacred prayer sites, and the Chief argued the tourist camp’s interests were incompatible with those of his people.  “Needless to say, we find this insulting and unacceptable that the septic fields of your development are more important than our First Nation’s sacred sites,” Mandamin wrote. “It is our intent to resist this planned southern route by any and all means necessary.”  Mandamin has informed the Ministry of Natural Resources that the First Nation has not consented to next decade’s Kenora Forest Plan and intends to resist logging on its land. A gold mining company has discontinued discussions over proposed drilling exploration because it refused to pay a $7,500 licensing fee to the First Nation and allow it to perform routine environmental inspections.  On Friday, Iskatewizaagegan is expecting a visit from provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs deputy assistant minister Deb Richardson. She will arrive on the same day snowmobile trails will be blockaded on the road into the reserve.
(24hours Toronto) (February 3)

Sea Level Rise Underestimated, Say B.C. Scientists
Some scientists at an international symposium in Vancouver warn most estimates for a rise in the sea level are too conservative and several B.C. communities will be vulnerable to flooding unless drastic action is taken. The gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [see below] heard Sunday the sea level could rise by as little as 30 centimetres or as much as one metre in the next century. But SFU geology professor John Clague, who studies the effect of the rising sea on the B.C. coast, says a rise of about one metre is more likely. He said that’s serious enough to threaten the communities of Richmond and Delta, including homes, Vancouver’s international airport, Deltaport and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.

“We’re going to see people either defending property, spending tremendous amounts of money trying to defend coastal properties, or we need to relocate the peripheries of our cities to higher elevations,” said Clague. While the sea level has remained relatively constant during the past 5,000 years, it has been rising over the past 100 to 200 years, and Clague says melting glaciers and a warmer ocean that occupies more space are to blame. “One of the most famous atmospheric scientists, James Hansen, is arguing we could be facing five-metre higher sea levels by the end of the century, and he’s not a flake, he’s a very renowned scientist,” said Clague.

That’s a drastic scenario that most scientists feel is unlikely, but if true, would force the abandonment of Richmond, says Clague. Clague says building defences like protective dikes are costly, but retreat may not be an option in major cities like Vancouver or Seattle. UBC researcher David Flanders says people living in low-lying communities have several options when it comes to protecting their properties from a rising sea, including building barrier islands in inter-tidal zones to reduce the impact of winds and waves during storms. Residents of communities like Delta could also build higher dikes or implement unique architectural solutions, like building homes on stilts or even moving entire communities, says Flanders. Margaret Davidson of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the problem could impact as many as 500 million people worldwide. A 2011 report from the B.C. government warned builders and developers to plan for a one-metre rise in the sea level within the next 90 years.
(CBC) (February 20)

Planning for a Devastating Sea Level Rise
By the end of the century, sea levels are predicted to rise by a meter along the North American west coast – ‘do-nothing’ isn’t an option. The gist:

  • Scientists meeting in Vancouver warned of significant sea level rises this century.
  • By visualizing the impact of rising sea levels on local communities, preparations can begin sooner rather than later.
  • Many protection methods can run into the billions of dollars, forcing people into a state of denial.

Scientists warn that by the end of this century, the sea level along North America’s west coast will rise by about a meter due to global warming and melting arctic glaciers. That presents a scenario that few people in the world’s coastal and island communities want to think about—the end of their water’s edge way of life, their homes flooded, their farming fields drenched and rendered useless. But one coastal port in British Columbia has begun to plan for this grim future with the help of scientists who created computer images that show exactly what their town will look like when it is inundated with water.

“In our work we try to visualize four different worlds,” said David Flanders, a landscape architect and research scientist at the University of British Columbia. Those include building larger sea walls and dykes to hold the water back, crafting barrier islands to absorb some of the tides and reinforce the shores, moving entire towns inland, or building everything higher by raising homes on stilts and elevating roads. Flanders said his team has been working with a municipality called Delta, home to one of metro Vancouver’s largest industrial ports and a thriving population of 100,000 people, where tensions have mounted over the prospect of the coming sea change.

By creating digital images of what the future might look like—some images can be seen on the UBS AAAS website—Flanders said residents have been better able to decide how to move forward. “It has helped community members decide what kind of world they want to live in in the future,” Flanders told the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver [see below]. In his experience working with Delta since 2006, Flanders said he has found that the first impulse of locals and officials is to want to erect higher walls to protect areas with lots of homes. But eventually, they agree that “some kind of mix is going to be ideal,” he said.

The costs of recrafting modern life along the water’s edge are certain to be enormous, with hundreds of millions of people affected by sea-level rise in communities worldwide. “Depending on what we are trying to protect, protection strategy can be really expensive,” said Denise Reed, a professor at the University of New Orleans. She told reporters that after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of Louisiana’s coast in 2005, rebuilding the levees around New Orleans cost more than $14 billion. Faced with that sort of price tag, many people go into a state of denial, questioning if the sea will really ever get so high.

But while the creeping increases may seem tiny—scientists estimate the worldwide rise annually is about 3.3 millimeters per year, subject to regional variations—the evidence is already here, experts said. “It is a small amount… however that rate is higher than at any point in the last 5,000 years. We are in uncharted territory,” said researcher professor John Clague of Simon Fraser University. Clague said he and colleagues use the latest satellite technology combined with global tidal records to assess the changes over decades, and they have determined that the phenomenon is “definitely real.” Sea-level rise is also dangerous because it can make high tide, storm surge, floods and erosion much worse, said Margaret Davidson, director of the Coastal Services Center of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The reality is we are already experiencing these things because of the dramatic change in the greater severity of extreme events,” she said. “This trend is very clear. You don’t actually have to be a scientist to see that.” And even though many parts of the world face the same problems, Davidson said the solutions are entirely local. “Everything about how we do or don’t manage these challenges is actually a local action, a local strategy.” Asked how long people have to prepare for sea-level rise, Flanders replied, “Communities everywhere are wondering the exact same thing.” “There is no free option. ‘Do-nothing’ isn’t an option.”
(Discovery News) (February 20)

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From the AAAS Annual Meeting, 16-20 February 2012, Vancouver, Canada:

Causes and Effects of Relative Sea-Level Changes in the Northeast Pacific
Session Abstract:  How will the Northeast Pacific be affected by relative sea-level changes during the 21st century and beyond? In part, the effects will depend on causes, both global and regional. The familiar global list includes interactions among the solid Earth, atmosphere, oceans, and cryosphere in response to orbital and anthropogenic climate forcing. Regional variations on these themes include earthquake-induced subsidence as large as 1.5 meters, as happened during the great subduction-zone earthquakes that struck Cascadia in 1700 and Alaska in 1964, and localized effects of glacial isostasy, sediment loading, and groundwater overdraft. But the effects will also depend on ecological and human adaptations. This session first reviews the various contributors to relative sea-level changes in the Northeast Pacific and then examines likely adaptations with an emphasis on shores in British Columbia.

Impacts of Rising Seas on the British Columbia Coast in the 21st Century
John J. Clague, Simon Fraser University

  • Abstract:  Changes in the level of the sea relative to the land on the northwest coast of North America occur on timescales differing by ten orders of magnitude, from a few minutes to thousands of years. Daily and seasonal tidal changes override all other factors; the tidal range in this region is 2-7 m. Non-tidal fluctuations, however, are also important and include: 1) subsidence and uplift of the coastline during large earthquakes, 2) ephemeral changes in sea level associated with storm surges, 3) seasonal and decadal variations in sea level related to El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events originating in the equatorial Pacific and to fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, 4) global (eustatic) sea-level changes related to glacier volume changes, 5) changes in ocean water temperature and salinity (steric effects), 6) variations in the storage of water in reservoirs on land, and 7) long-term, slow changes in relative sea level associated with tectonism, sedimentation, and residual isostatic adjustment of Earth’s crust following the retreat of the last continental ice sheet in northwest North America. The most important non-tidal factors, from a societal perspective, are those linked to climate. Sea level on the west coast of North America is expected to rise between about 60 cm and 1.4 m by the end of the century due to warming of upper ocean waters and additions of meltwater from alpine and arctic glaciers, Antarctica, and Greenland. Towards the end of the century, the main sources of meltwater will be melting and calving of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The magnitude of sea-level rise will differ geographically along the coast. However, in the likelihood that eustatic sea level rise increases from its current rate of a 2-3 mm yr-1 to about 1 cm yr-1 by the end of the century, no part of the Pacific coast will be unaffected. Erosion and flooding of low-lying coastal areas can be expected during rare extreme storms, especially when wind-driven ocean surges coincide with high tides or with strong El Niño events. Flooding and erosion may be exacerbated by changes in storminess in the warmer climate that is anticipated later in the century. Unfortunately, sections of the coast of northwest North America that are most vulnerable to flooding and erosion are those that support the largest human populations and infrastructure, specifically the southern and central Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca Strait, and the Pacific coast of Washington. In contrast, sparsely populated, steep rocky shorelines that constitute most of the British Columbia coast will be much less affected.

Surviving Sea-Level Rise: What Can Be Done To Maintain Viable Coastal Wetlands?
Denise J. Reed, University of New Orleans

  • Abstract:  For coastal wetlands to survive they must maintain elevation as water levels rise. The key is sediment supply and net organic matter accumulation; both have been shown to increase with SLR up to a threshold above which wetlands deteriorate. Spatial variations in the rate of SLR coupled with changes in river sediment delivery and modified estuarine mixing mean that wetlands in some areas are more viable in the future than in others. Can management or restoration enhance potential for survival?

Flood Adaptation Near Vancouver: A Regional Adaptation Collaborative
David Flanders, University of British Columbia

  • Abstract:  While the province provides guidelines and tools for flood risk management, it is local governments’ responsibility to delineate their own flood vulnerability, assess their risk, and integrate these with planning policies to implement flood protection actions.  However, barriers such as the lack of regionally specific climate data and public perceptions about adaptation options mean that local governments must address the need for adaptation planning within a context of scientific uncertainty, while building public support for flood-related climate policy and action. The Delta Regional Adaptation Collaborative (RAC) is a partnership between the University of British Columbia’s Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP) and the Corporation of Delta that has worked to identify, model, visualize and evaluate potential flood impacts and adaptation options for the Corporation of Delta.  CALP has produced a set of 2D and 3D visualizations based on local hydrological modeling for sea level rise and storm surge dike breaches, as well visualizations and indicators for future scenarios ranging from “Reinforce and Reclaim” to “Managed Retreat”.  The visual materials are being used with staff and a citizens’ Working Group to measure the performance of, and assess the policy implications and social acceptability of the various adaptation strategies. The goal is to provide the Corporation of Delta with a set of policy recommendations for a range of hard and soft approaches, and a set of visuals to use for community engagement to build support for adaptation planning. This project is funded as part of the national RAC program by Natural Resources Canada.

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Pace of Warming Quicker than Previously Thought, UVic Researchers Say
Waterfront property owners in B.C. probably need to bolster defences against rising ocean levels over the next century and forestry companies should be looking nervously at the absence of bug-killing cold winters. An analysis of 62 years of Environment Canada weather data by the University of Victoria’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium has found that B.C.’s temperature has been warming by about 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade. While that may sound minimal, it is substantially more than the 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade reported by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change for the years 1956 to 2005. “That means in the past decade B.C.’s climate was more than one degree warmer than it was in the 1950s and that’s quite a lot. It’s more than we see in global measurements,” said Francis Zwiers, PCIC director.

Despite the noise and annual temperature fluctuations caused by El Nino and La Nina (warming and cooling in the eastern Pacific Ocean), and the fact that 2011 temperatures in B.C. were about average, eight of the last 15 years in B.C have been among the 15 warmest years since 1950, Zwiers said. “That would be very unusual by random chance,” said Zwiers, an internationally recognized expert on climate variability and change. “It’s clear we are being affected by global warming … It becomes very clear that humans are part of the story. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions are leading to a warmer climate.” The effect can already be seen in the mountain pine bark beetle infestation, Zwiers said. The bugs flourished because there were not sufficient extreme cold stretches to kill them off. Extreme minimum temperatures are warming faster than extreme maximum temperatures all over the world, Zwiers said.

Sea levels are rising because of heat dropped into the ocean by greenhouse gases and also because of melting glaciers and ice sheets. In the coming decades, low-lying areas such as Delta and Vancouver International Airport will be at risk, Zwiers said. Most parts of Vancouver Island are less vulnerable, he said. However, all British Columbians should think about what infrastructure should be developed on the shoreline if it is going to survive the next century, Zwiers said. “We are going to have to retreat from some areas.” Even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control, ocean levels are likely to continue to rise, Zwiers said.
(Times Colonist) (January 31)

Sea Levels to Continue to Rise for 500 Years? Long-Term Climate Calculations Suggest So
Rising sea levels in the coming centuries is perhaps one of the most catastrophic consequences of rising temperatures. Massive economic costs, social consequences and forced migrations could result from global warming. But how frightening of times are we facing? Researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute are part of a team that has calculated the long-term outlook for rising sea levels in relation to the emission of greenhouse gases and pollution of the atmosphere using climate models. The results have been published in the scientific journal Global and Planetary Change. “Based on the current situation we have projected changes in sea level 500 years into the future. We are not looking at what is happening with the climate, but are focusing exclusively on sea levels,” explains Aslak Grinsted, a researcher at the Centre for Ice and Climate, the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

He has developed a model in collaboration with researchers from England and China that is based on what happens with the emission of greenhouse gases and aerosols and the pollution of the atmosphere. Their model has been adjusted backwards to the actual measurements and was then used to predict the outlook for rising sea levels. The research group has made calculations for four scenarios: a pessimistic one, an optimistic one, and two more realistic ones. In the pessimistic scenario, emissions continue to increase. This will mean that sea levels will rise 1.1 meters by the year 2100 and will have risen 5.5 meters by the year 2500.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, which requires extremely dramatic climate change goals, major technological advances and strong international cooperation to stop emitting greenhouse gases and polluting the atmosphere, the sea would continue to rise. By the year 2100 it will have risen by 60 cm and by the year 2500 the rise in sea level will be 1.8 meters. For the two more realistic scenarios, calculated based on the emissions and pollution stabilizing, the results show that there will be a sea level rise of about 75 cm by the year 2100 and that by the year 2500 the sea will have risen by 2 meters.

“In the 20th century sea has risen by an average of 2mm per year, but it is accelerating and over the last decades the rise in sea level has gone approximately 70% faster. Even if we stabilize the concentrations in the atmosphere and stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we can see that the rise in sea level will continue to accelerate for several centuries because of the sea and ice caps long reaction time. So it would be 2-400 years before we returned to the 20th century level of a 2 mm rise per year,” says Aslak Grinsted. He points out that even though long-term calculations are subject to uncertainties, the sea will continue to rise in the coming centuries and it will most likely rise by 75 cm by the year 2100 and by the year 2500 the sea will have risen by 2 meters.
(ScienceDaily) (October 17, 2011)

The graph shows how sea levels will change for four different pathways for human development and greenhouse gas pollution. The green, yellow and orange lines correspond to scenarios where it takes 10, 30, or 70 years before emissions are stabilized. The red line can be considered to represent business as usual where greenhouse gas emissions are increasing over time. (Credit: Aslak Grinsted)

Kiribati Buys Land in Fiji to Save Citizens from Sea-Level Rise
The tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati is in talks to buy land from Fiji where its citizens can move to when climate-change-induced sea level rise inundates their homes. Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, has said that he’s begun talks with the military government of Fiji to buy 20 square kilometres of land on which the population of the the 32 coral atolls that comprise Kiribati can relocate to as their land disappears under the waves. “This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” Tong told Fijian TV. “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.” Fiji has understandably raised concerns over the entire 113,000-strong population of Kiribati landing on its shores in one go, so Tong says he plans to first send over a trickle of skilled workers. “They need to find employment,” he said. “Not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.” To that end, Tong has also launched an “Education for Migration” programme, aimed at increasing the employability of the population of Kiribati.

You might be thinking that moving from Kiribati to Fiji is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but the geographies of the two island chains couldn’t be more different. While Kiribati is a series of utterly flat coral atolls spread across the equator, with the vast majority of the land less than two metres above sea level, Fiji consists of an archipelago of 106 inhabited volcanic islands with peaks rising more than 1,300 metres into the sky. For the time being, the Fijians should be safe from the ravages of climate change. Of course, the i-Kiribati have some time on their side too. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 projected sea level rise before 2100 to be in the region of 18 to 59 centimetres. That estimate doesn’t include some uncertainties, like climate-carbon cycle feedbacks and changes in ice glow, but even in the worst scenarios predicted by climatologists, severe sea level rise tends to take place on a timescale of centuries and millennia. An updated set of climate change predictions from the IPCC is due in 2014.
(Wired) (March 8)

Authorities in Kiribati, seen here in an aerial photo taken in 2004, have been considering several unusual options to combat climate change, including constructing sea walls and even building a floating island. Richard Vogel, AP/MSNBC

Obama Approves Bill for Quileute Tribal Move
President Barack Obama has approved a bill that will allow the Quileute Tribe to move its buildings out of a tsunami zone on the Washington coast to higher ground in Olympic National Park.  President Barack Obama has approved a bill that will allow the Quileute Tribe to move its buildings out of a tsunami zone on the Washington coast to higher ground in Olympic National Park. Signed into law Monday, the bill will transfer 785 acres of park land to be held in trust for the tribe so it could move out of harm’s way. It also settles a boundary dispute between the park and tribe. In return, the tribe assures access to coastal beaches that are reached by trails through tribal land. The tribe’s village in La Push, Wash., sits in a coastal flood plain. Its school, elder center, housing and headquarters are located in a tsunami zone. The tribe has about 700 members, and hundreds live along the Quillayute River.
(Seattle Times) (February 27)

Quileute Tribe ‘Ecstatic’ About Move Out Of Tsunami Zone
“Ecstatic,” “amazed,” and “stunned.” Those are some of the words being used Tuesday around the tiny Quileute Indian Reservation on the Washington coast. This, after the U.S. Congress slightly shrank Olympic National Park to allow the tribe to move out of a tsunami zone. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation soon [see above]. The U.S. Senate moved with surprising swiftness to clear the way for the Quileute Indian Tribe to move part of its village uphill. Lawmakers voted to transfer 785 acres of adjacent Olympic National Park to the tribe.

Quileute tribal chairman Tony Foster says a celebratory feast is planned. And then the top priority is to move the low-lying school and elder center out of harm’s way. “It’s going to take a lot of time,” Foster says. “I mean, now the work begins. We’ve had 30 or 40 years of fighting for the upper land.” The tsunami and flood protection legislation does not include any money for relocations, though. Foster is unsure how much the move could cost or who will pay. He says ordinary residents in the village of La Push who’ve lived near the ocean all their lives will have the option to move onto safer high ground, but won’t be forced to.

On the Web:
HR 1162 – Quileute Indian Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection:
http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr1162rh/pdf/BILLS-112hr1162rh.pdf

(Oregon Public Broadcasting) (February 14)

Monster Earthquake Threat Looms over B.C. Coastal Communities
First Nations village on the west coast of Vancouver Island is moving to higher ground. Anacla, a First Nations village on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is moving up, heading for higher, safer ground. A new “big house” has been built 50 metres up from the pounding surf of Pachena Bay. And there are plans to replace the 49 houses on the beach, which could be swallowed by the sea with just minutes’ notice. It has happened before, says Tom Happynook, a hereditary chief with the Huu-ay-Aht First Nations, recalling how the village in the bay vanished in 1700, when a quake kicked up giant waves off Canada’s West Coast. “The village was completely wiped out,” says Happynook.

Scientists say the strain is building again beneath the sea floor as enormous tectonic plates push against each other about 100 kilometres offshore. A monster earthquake rivalling the one that devastated Japan last March is all but a certainly on North America’s Pacific coast, they say. No one can say when it will occur, but when it does a huge and powerful wall of water could hit the outer coast areas within 30 to 45 minutes. “They’ll be no time to collect the family photos,” says geologist John Clague, who says Canada — and Canadians — could learn much from Japan’s triple disaster that occurred a year ago Sunday. […]

Huu-ay-Aht First Nations has opted for pre-emptive action, and with good reason as the village is “extremely vulnerable,” says Rogers. Elders have long recalled how the village in Pachena Bay was washed away in 1700, and the community’s government has committed to moving people from the 49 beachfront homes up the hill to safer ground. Happynook expects it will take about 10 years to get new homes built and move everyone out of the tsunami danger zone.

If the quake and tsunami hit before then, the plan is to evacuate people to the community’s big house — about a 20-minute walk up from the beach — where there are food and water supplies. But the community’s more immediate worry is with the debris from the Japanese tsunami now being swept across the Pacific. “It is a big concern for us,” says Happynook, whose council is keen to meet with federal and provincial government about the material expected to start washing ashore on Vancouver Island in the coming year. “We need to start a big discussion and develop a plan on how do deal with this,” says Happynook, noting that his community has only limited landfill space and some material may need to be returned to Japan. “It will be a huge cleanup, and what do we do with it.”
(Vancouver Sun) (March 9)

On NW Coast, Potential for Tsunami Waves up to 100 Feet Now Seems Possible
Japan’s megaquake and tsunami last year has Northwest emergency planners wondering whether a similar earthquake here would unleash a much larger tsunami than anticipated. The specter of 30-foot waves slamming into the Northwest coast used to be about the worst thing emergency managers in Washington and Oregon could imagine. Now, a year after Japan’s megaquake and tsunami, they’re wondering whether their nightmares were bad enough. Scientists and planners are reconsidering the region’s tsunami risk in light of the massive walls of water that swept nearly 20,000 people to their deaths on the day the Japanese simply call 3-11. The tsunami reached 130 feet high in some places, taking everyone by surprise. Levels that extreme are unlikely in the Pacific Northwest, but experts say it’s possible some parts of our coast could be hit by waves of up to 100 feet the next time the offshore fault called the Cascadia subduction zone snaps. “That is definitely something we need to be prepared for,” said Vasily Titov, head of tsunami modeling at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. …
(Seattle Times) (March 10)

Frozen Out
From Nature Editorial, 01 March 2012 [483(7387):6, 2012] …
Canada’s government should free its scientists to speak to the press, as its US counterpart has. Media interactions with government scientists have undergone a reversal across North America during the past six years. In the United States, President Barack Obama’s administration has directed federal science agencies to develop integrity policies with clear guidelines for scientists who are approached by journalists.

In December, agencies including the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued guidelines that promote openness with the press. For instance, NOAA and NSF-funded scientists and staff are free to speak to journalists without first seeking the approval of a public-affairs officer. The NSF’s policy states that researchers are free to express their personal views as long as they make clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the agency. And scientists also have right of review over agency publications and press releases that claim to represent their expert opinions. Such policies may not be implemented successfully in all cases, but they show that attitudes have evolved encouragingly since 2006, when charges that then-president George W. Bush’s administration had silenced US government researchers made front-page news.

Over the same period, Canada has moved in the opposite direction. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

The Harper government’s poor record on openness has been raised by this publication before (see K. O’Hara Nature (467(7318):920, 2010), and Nature’s news reporters, who have an obvious interest in access to scientific information and expert opinion, have experienced directly the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists. Little has changed in the past two years: rather than address the matter, the Canadian government seems inclined to stick with its restrictive course and ride out all objections.

That position is coming under increasing pressure as a result of the scientific-integrity policies taking shape across the border. The clarity of the US guidelines undercuts the Canadian government’s assertion that its own media policies are adequate and have simply been misunderstood. If the Harper government truly embraces public access to publicly funded scientific expertise, then it should do what the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and several other organizations have called for in a letter [see below] sent to the prime minister on 16 February: “implement a policy of timely and transparent communication” like those used by NOAA and the NSF.

The letter coincided with a symposium, ‘Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Debate’ [see below], which was held last week at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada. With the country taking centre stage as the meeting’s host, the Harper government found its media policies in the international spotlight. Scientists and other visitors from around the globe discovered, to their surprise, that Canada’s generally positive foreign reputation as a progressive, scientific nation masks some startlingly poor behaviour. The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

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From the AAAS Annual Meeting, 16-20 February 2012, Vancouver, Canada:

Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How To Re-Open the Discourse
Session Abstract:  Across Canada, journalists are being denied access to publicly funded scientists and the research community is frustrated with the way government scientists are being muzzled. Some observe that it is part of a trend that has seen the Canadian government tighten control over how and when federal scientists interact with the media. As a result, media inquiries are delayed, and scientists are less present in coverage of research in Canada. In 2008, Environment Canada ordered its scientists to refer all media queries to Ottawa, where communications officers and strategists would decide if the scientist could respond and help craft “approved media lines”. Stories written for the CBC, Postmedia news, the journal Nature and others have then revealed how these communication restrictions had spread to other government departments. And the situation is somewhat similar in the United States. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review details how restrictive practices established by George W. Bush’s administration still hold under the current government. This panel will be an occasion to better understand the friction between the media and the governments. Are the tightened communication strategies symptomatic of a worldwide trend in public and private sectors? How obstruction in communications with scientists compromise science research progression and undermine democracy? And in the end, what can be done to improve the situation?

The Muzzling of Canada’s Federal Scientists
Margaret Munro, Postmedia News, Vancouver, BC, Canada

  • Abstract:  Margaret Munro is Senior Writer with Postmedia News, which serves more than a dozen newspapers across Canada including the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun. Munro has been writing about science for 30 years. Munro’s work has taken her from the Arctic to write about ancient permafrost melting into the sea to remote Canadian First Nations communities struggling to cope with debilitating diabetes epidemics. She has also documented how the Canadian government has been muzzling scientists. Munro’s honors includes several writing awards from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, the 2003 Michener Fellowship for Public Service Journalism, the 2008 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism and a 2009 media award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Communication Policies: From Bush to Obama
Francesca Grifo, Scientific Integrity Program, Union of Concerned Sciences

  • Abstract:  At Union of Concerned Scientist, she acts to mobilize scientists and citizens to defend the integrity of government science from political interference. She was director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and a curator of the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In addition to her scholarly work, Dr. Grifo was the manager of the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups Program at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Grifo has testified before Congress on the subject of scientific integrity in federal policy making and is widely quoted on the topic in media outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Climate Science Communication in Canada
Andrew Weaver, University of Victoria

  • Abstract:  Andrew Weaver is one of the world’s foremost climate scientists. He was a lead author in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the group that, with Al Gore, won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Prime Minister, Please Unmuzzle the Scientists
From a letter submitted by the CSWA [Canadian Science Writers’ Association] and others Feb 16, 2012 to the Prime Minister’s office…

Dear Prime Minister Harper,

Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists. Open letters to your government from concerned journalists have been followed by editorials and public lectures calling for improved access. Still, cases of government muzzling of publicly funded scientists continue.

Last fall, Environment Canada prevented Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research, work which had been published in the journal Nature. And earlier, the Privy Council Office stopped Kristina Miller, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, from granting interviews about her work—findings that had been published in the journal Science on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in British Columbia.

Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the “consent” of media relations officers. Delays in obtaining interviews are often unacceptable and journalists are routinely denied interviews. Increasingly, journalists have simply given up trying to access federal scientists, while scientists at work in federal departments are under undue pressure in an atmosphere dominated by political messaging.

After several unsuccessful attempts to resolve this issue, our organizations—which represent science journalists and communicators and scientists across Canada and around the world —have agreed to a joint campaign to push for timely and open access to federally funded scientists. Our campaign will use a variety of tools to draw public attention for this issue and to spur your government to tear down the wall that separates scientists, journalists, and the public.

We urge your government to implement a policy of transparent and timely communication, one similar to that introduced in the U.S. recently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This policy now encourages scientists to speak to the media without any intermediary. It even encourages scientists to express their own opinions, provided they indicate that they are speaking personally and not on behalf of the employer.

Many federal scientists are world-renowned experts in areas such as climatology, agriculture, environment, energy solutions, infectious disease, nanotechnology, engineering, and health care. Their important research in support of public health and security, environmental protection, and economic development costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and is valuable to scientists worldwide. Clearly Canadians have the right to learn more about the science they support and to have unfettered access to the expertise of publicly funded scientists.

Prime Minister, we want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.

Sincerely,

Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec (ACS)
– Mathieu Robert-Sauvé, President
Association science et bien commun (ASBC)
– Florence Pilon, President
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
– Arnold Amber, President
Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA)
– Peter McMahon, President
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC)
– Gary Corbett, President
World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)
– Jean-Marc Fleury, Executive Director

(CSWA National Office) (February 16)

Canada’s Environment Minister Delayed Release of Climate Research: Kent Overlooked Calls for ‘Transparency’ on Climate Science Research
Environment Minister Peter Kent overlooked calls from his department in 2011 to show more “transparency” and he delayed the release of a scientific paper on Canada’s climate change challenges — prepared several months before the May 2 federal election — until late July, newly released internal memorandums reveal. The memos referred to an analysis of Canadian trends in greenhouse gas emissions that projected a sharp rise in emissions from the energy-intensive oilsands industry. The research was actually used by Kent for a speech in January that suggested Canada was one-quarter of the way toward reaching its target of reducing annual emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the country by 17 per cent below 2005 levels. “Public release of this detailed paper (and associated tables) would permit the government to proactively frame Canada’s current progress and challenges in managing greenhouse (GHG) emissions, while maintaining the commitment to transparency and informed public dialogue consistent with Environment Canada’s status as a world class regulator,” wrote the department’s deputy minister, Paul Boothe, in a May 30, 2011, memo to Kent, released through access to information legislation.

Major science academies and governments from around the world have agreed that humans must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land use changes that are contributing to global warming in order to avoid major impacts to life on the planet. But instead of signing off on Boothe’s request that the research be released in response to another access to information request that was due on June 10, Kent waited until he received a second memorandum requesting that the material be released in late July. […]

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, said the memos suggest the Conservative government was trying to control the message about its environmental record by withholding the research paper before the last election. “They didn’t want to talk about that during an election they had obviously planned by last January,” said Bennett. “So, I think what it does show is a recognition by this government, despite its behaviour, that Canadians are concerned about climate change … Releasing things in late July is a way to make sure that very few people see them.” […]

Environment Canada recently has declined to release a separate discussion paper that estimates emissions per barrel from the oilsands sector, arguing that it contains information that may harm Canada’s national security and foreign relations. The department also said, in response to an access to information request, that this discussion paper includes privileged advice to the government on a matter under consultation. …
(Vancouver Sun) (March 7)

Canada’s Failure to Protect Marine Biodiversity ‘Disappointing and Dismaying,’ Asserts Panel Chair
Canada is failing miserably at protecting its rich marine biodiversity from the looming threat of climate change, an expert-panel report [pdf] for the Royal Society of Canada concluded Thursday. “Canada has made little substantive progress in fulfilling national and international commitments to sustain marine biodiversity,” the panel report found. The report noted that the Fisheries Act is beset with regulatory conflicts in terms of protecting and exploiting fish stocks, and the minister of fisheries and oceans wields too much discretionary power. The report also says the Species at Risk Act has proven ineffective at protecting and recovering marine species at risk, and a promised national marine protected areas network “remains unfilled.” The application of a “precautionary” management approach with harvest-control rules and recovery plans remains “absent for most fisheries,” the report added.

Panel chairman Jeff Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the federal government’s lack of action at protecting marine biodiversity is “extremely disappointing and dismaying,” a concern that also applies to management of high-profile Atlantic cod stocks. “Anybody can see, and anybody can assuredly be bloody angry, that 20 years after the collapse of the northern cod fishery we don’t have a target for recovery,” he told a Vancouver news conference. “How is that possibly consistent with responsible management of our oceans?” Canada has the world’s longest coastline and a total of 7.1 million square kilometres of ocean — in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic — amounting to a global stewardship responsibility, the report found. Well under one per cent of Canada’s oceans is protected. …
(Vancouver Sun) (February 2)

Exclusive: Run-of-River Power Projects Kill Fish
Freedom-of-information documents detail death of salmon, steelhead due to water fluctuations. The Mamquam River pours cold and fresh off the Coast Mountains, forming pools and canyons and chutes of white water on its way to the Squamish River and Howe Sound. It was a natural place for federal fisheries biologists to assemble on an August 2010 weekend for swift-water safety training. Like the river itself, however, their exercise took an expected turn.  Rather than watch the Mamquam flow predictably to the sea, the biologists were dismayed to witness the water levels fluctuate wildly — and with dire consequences. Young steelhead were dying, stranded without water.

The culprit? The Capital Power run-of-river hydro plant, located just upstream. The independent power industry bills itself as green, sustainable and environmentally responsible. But more than 3,000 pages of documents obtained separately by The Vancouver Sun and the Wilderness Committee through freedom of information requests show water-flow fluctuations caused by run-of-river hydro projects are killing fish — and the problem is not isolated. While independent power producers insist their sector remains the cleanest energy option, the documents bolster environmentalists’ long-standing concerns about the industry.

“I’m seeing significant environmental problems,” said Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee. “And that runs completely counter to what the companies are saying, which is essentially, ‘Trust us with your wild rivers and there won’t be any problems.’” The documents detail repeated short-term fluctuations in water flows, resulting in the stranding and killing of juvenile fish downstream of two plants, Capital Power on the lower Mamquam and Innergex on Ashlu Creek, another tributary of the Squamish. …
(Vancouver Sun) (March 10)

The Lamprey, Close to Extinction, Could Bring Down NW Salmon Too

Yakama tribe member, Harry Tomalawash, holding eels ready for roasting by open fire. Source: Crosscut.com

The lamprey may be ugly, but it is an important food source for Northwest salmon and the tribes of the Columbia River Basin. Scientists say it’s nearly extinct. Plain of color, slimy of skin, devoid of jawline, and nightmarish of mouth, lamprey would handily lose an aquatic beauty pageant. Given their reputation as slimy, blood sucking parasites and invasive pests, they would also place poorly in the personality segment. Even a good result in the talent segment is likely out of their reach, for lamprey are poor swimmers. Whatever one thinks of the Pacific lamprey’s looks and talents, scientists worry their extinction could mean game over for the recovery of Northwest salmon, which rely on lamprey as a food source. The tribes of the Columbia Basin, to whom the lamprey is an important food source and cultural icon, are one of the eel-like fish’s only advocates. They, along with a handful of marine biologists, are struggling to save the Pacific lamprey from extinction.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the loss of lamprey is already severe, meaning the species has declined more than 70 percent in range or number. In the Columbia River Basin, the numbers of Pacific lamprey have gone from hundreds of thousands at Celilo Falls (the site of the Bonneville dam), to around 10,000 at today. In many inland streams the species is already functionally extinct. …
(Crosscut.com) (March 2)

World Seabird Numbers Still Falling, Says a New Review
Almost half of the world’s seabirds have populations that are thought to be in decline, according to a new review. The study, published in Bird Conservation International, found that 28% of species are considered to be in the highest categories of risk. Conservationists are particularly concerned by the albatross family. Threats to the birds include commercial fishing and damage to breeding colonies caused by rats and other invasive species. Seabirds make up just a small proportion (3.5%) of the world’s bird species. But researchers say they are an important indicator of the health of the oceans. The review, carried out by BirdLife International, found that of 346 species, 47% are known or suspected to be in decline. It says that seabirds are now more threatened than any other group of birds. …
(BBC) (March 8)

Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government
As climate change gets worse, only governments will have the capacity to deal with the catastrophes it creates. Look back on 2011 and you’ll notice a destructive trail of extreme weather slashing through the year. In Texas, it was the driest year ever recorded. An epic drought there killed half a billion trees, touched off wildfires that burned four million acres, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and buildings. The costs to agriculture, particularly the cotton and cattle businesses, are estimated at $5.2 billion—and keep in mind that, in a winter breaking all sorts of records for warmth, the Texas drought is not yet over. In August, the East Coast had a close brush with calamity in the form of Hurricane Irene. Luckily, that storm had spent most of its energy by the time it hit land near New York City. Nonetheless, its rains did at least $7 billion worth of damage, putting it just below the $7.2 billion worth of chaos caused by Katrina back in 2005. […]

Like it or not, government is a huge part of our economy. Altogether, federal, state, and local government activity—that is collecting fees, taxing, borrowing and then spending on wages, procurement, contracting, grant-making, subsidies and aid—constitutes about 35 percent of the gross domestic product. You could say that we already live in a somewhat “mixed economy”: that is, an economy that fundamentally combines private and public economic activity. The intensification of climate change means that we need to acknowledge the chaotic future we face and start planning for it. Think of what’s coming, if you will, as a kind of storm socialism. After all, climate scientists believe that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beyond 350 parts-per-million (ppm) could set off compounding feedback loops and so lock us into runaway climate change. We are already at 392 ppm. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels immediately, the disruptive effect of accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere is guaranteed to hammer us for decades. In other words, according to the best-case scenario, we face decades of increasingly chaotic and violent weather.

In the face of an unraveling climate system, there is no way that private enterprise alone will meet the threat. And though small “d” democracy and “community” may be key parts of a strong, functional, and fair society, volunteerism and “self-organization” alone will prove as incapable as private enterprise in responding to the massive challenges now beginning to unfold. To adapt to climate change will mean coming together on a large scale and mobilizing society’s full range of resources. In other words, Big Storms require Big Government. Who else will save stranded climate refugees, or protect and rebuild infrastructure, or coordinate rescue efforts and plan out the flow and allocation of resources? It will be government that does these tasks or they will not be done at all.
(Mother Jones) (January 26)

The Climate Plans That Aren’t Helping Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
It was 2005 when cities really started taking the lead in the government-level fight against climate change. Seattle’s then-Mayor Greg Nickels made a pledge that even if the United States wouldn’t comply with the greenhouse gas reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol, at least his city could. He then challenged other cities to do the same. Within a few months, Nickels had another 140 mayors on his side. And ever since he formally created the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the leaders of more than 1,000 U.S. cities have pledged to take similar efforts to quell greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be hard to argue that these signatures don’t carry weight, but signing an agreement is much different from actually enacting the regulations and policies to actively reduce a city’s emissions. Often the next step is the adoption of a formal city climate plan. More than 600 cities are developing or have already enacted such plans, which would seemingly translate into real, tangible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the city level. But as it turns out, climate plans aren’t really doing all that much to bring greenhouse gas emissions down. A new study in the Journal of Urban Economics looked at the climate plans and greenhouse gas emission reductions of cities in California to find that there doesn’t seem to be any causal connection between greenhouse gas reductions and climate action plans. …
(The Atlantic) (March 8)

EPA Beach Pollution Rules Allow 1 in 28 to Get Sick
Proposed new beach pollution regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meant to protect public health, instead would continue to allow lots of people to get sick, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. The EPA proposal, released in December, would allow 1 in 28 beachgoers to experience some gastrointestinal illness after swimming, rather than the 8 in 1,000 that were previously acknowledged. It’s mostly a tale of numbers, but the NRDC is trying to force the EPA to better the odds. The EPA is under a federal consent decree to update the standards by October 2012. The current proposal is open for public comment until Feb. 21.

The federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required the EPA to issue by 2005 new criteria to protect beachgoers from the effects of polluted waters at the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes beaches. When the deadline passed, the NRDC sued and this new proposal is the result. However, activist attorneys claim the proposal does not update the standards that have been in place since 1986, but instead ignore new evidence that says those standards were failing. “They’re supposed to be using the new science to come up with a determination of what’s protective of public health,” says Steve Fleischli, senior attorney at NRDC. “All they’ve really done is said, ‘Well, the 1986 numbers are fine.’ And we’re saying, ‘How on Earth can you say that’s fine when they’re one in 28?” …
(LA Times) (February 1)

First Report on UK Climate Impact
Climate change this century poses both risks and opportunities, according to the first comprehensive government assessment of its type. The report [pdf] warns that flooding, heatwaves and water shortages could become more likely. But benefits could include new shipping lanes through the Arctic, fewer cold-related deaths in winter and higher crop yields. The findings come in the Climate Change Risk Assessment. This 2,000-page document has been produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It forms part of the government’s strategy for coping with global warming. The research was carried out over the past three years and involved studying the possible impacts in 11 key areas including agriculture, flooding and transport. The assessments rely on multiple scenarios based on computer modelling of the future climate. The authors admit that there are large uncertainties leading to a wide range of possible results.

The relatively small size of the UK means that modelling at a regional and local level remains a serious challenge. A further limitation is that the studies share the assumption that no sectors of the economy will make any attempt to adapt to future conditions. This is designed to provide a “baseline” for the assessment so that it is easier to demonstrate the risks unless action is taken. However it is acknowledged that many bodies are already responding in different ways. Headlines for possible negative outcomes, assuming nothing is done in preparation, include:

  • Hotter summers leading to between 580-5900 deaths above the average per year by the 2050s.
  • Water shortages in the north, south and east of England, especially the Thames Valley area by the 2080s.
  • Increased damage from flooding could cost between £2.1bn-£12bn by the 2080s.

Such widely-varied outcomes may lead to the criticism that the results are too vague to be useful for policy makers, businesses and local authorities. All the scenarios rely on computer models of the future climate and therefore inherently involve uncertainties. The report itself acknowledges that the sea-level in London could rise later this century by anything between 30cm and 190cm. “We do not know,” the document says, “how fast greenhouse gas emissions will rise, how great the cooling effects are of other atmospheric pollutants or how quickly the ice caps may melt.” …
(BBC) (January 26) See also: Summary of the Key Findings from the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2012

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