Climate change imperils Sackville as year of record heat unfolds

Town increasing emergency preparation, university has no strategic climate change plans

The weather may be cooling as Sackville slips into autumn, but make no mistake: 2015 has been a year of record heat that shows no sign of slowing down. August was the sixth month in a row to break its global monthly temperature record, and five of the most anomalously warm months ever recorded happened this year. Both July and August exhibited the warmest average ocean temperatures ever recorded as well. According to the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2015 has a 97 per cent chance of becoming the hottest year ever recorded, which would make it the second year in a row to break this record.
“If you are roughly under 30 years old, you’ve never experienced a month that [was] cooler than the global average temperature for that month across your 30 years,” said Joshua Kurek, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environment. “That reflects a very strong global signature of anthropogenic climate change.”
Kurek, an environmental scientist whose research relates to climate change, teaches the weather and climate course at Mount Allison. He said local temperatures have gradually increased since about the 1980s, and local precipitation has increased by about 20 per cent since 100 years ago. The last time an annual cold-temperature record was broken in Sackville was in 1923.
Increased precipitation will adversely affect Sackville due to the town’s proclivity for flooding. According to Kurek, Sackville experienced a relatively dry summer this year but was flooded several times due to periods of short-but-intense rainfall. Extreme weather events like rainstorms, blizzards, and hurricanes generally cause more damage to the town than overall increases in temperature and precipitation.
“We will definitely see these extreme events becoming more frequent, and we’ve certainly seen that over the past few decades,” said Kurek.
The town is also threatened by rising sea levels. Tantramar is bounded by 33 km of dykes, most of which were built by Acadian settlers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to protect low-lying areas of the town during periods of high tide. During most high tides the dykes can keep the sea at bay, but large storms can temporarily increase the local sea level and overtop the dykes. According to the New Brunswick Climate Change Action Plan, some of Tantramar’s dykes are presently at risk of overtopping, the likelihood of which increases with climate change.
“Sooner or later our luck will run out. I can’t say when, but I think probability has some useful things to say about this,” said David Lieske, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environment. Lieske created the Town of Sackville’s official flood-risk map in 2012; the previous one was made in the 1960s and hadn’t incorporated sea-level rise.
The annual probability that a severe storm will overtop the dykes is predicted to increase from the current 1 per cent to 10 per cent by 2050.
Sackville’s dykes are, on average, 8.6 meters high and near the average height of high tide, but sea level is projected to rise 40 cm by 2055 and up to 1 meter by 2100.
In the meantime, some students are already feeling the effects of climate change in Sackville. Melanie Nadeau, a fourth-year psychology student, lives in a low-lying area of town prone to flooding. She said her bedroom was flooded both this summer and last winter following intense rainfalls which also flooded her most direct route to campus.

 

Historical precipitation data for Moncton made publicly available by Environment Canada. Moncton is the nearest location with a precipitation record, and has the oldest climate record in New Brunswick. Clay Steell/Argosy.
Historical precipitation data for Moncton made publicly available by Environment Canada. Moncton is the nearest location with a precipitation record, and has the oldest climate record in New Brunswick. Clay Steell/Argosy.

 

Town focusing on near-term threats

The Town of Sackville is taking several measures to prepare for climate change, and in the last decade has broadened its emergency-response plans for extreme weather and flooding. The Town must co-operate with the Province of New Brunswick, which manages the dyke system, and Canadian National Railway (CNR), which has rail lines both on the dykes and in areas of the town which need increased drainage infrastructure.
“It’s going to take three players to come to the table. It’s going to require a major commitment in money, but we know what the issue is and at the present time that is the immediate concern to the town with respect to climate change,” said Jamie Burke, the Town’s senior manager of corporate projects.
Burke said the Town intends to co-operate with the Province to expand the dykes’ currently undersized abedoes – drainage valves which allow floodwater to flow out to sea – and co-operate with CNR to expand existing culverts for flood drainage which run underneath rail lines. They are trying to model exactly how much water would need to drain through these culverts and abedoes to mitigate severe floods.
While these infrastructural upgrades may mitigate immediate flooding threats, the Town currently has limited planning in climate-change adaptation but may expand this in the near future.

“It would be nice to see Sackville develop a community-based climate-change adaptation plan. That’s one thing the community doesn’t have that other communities do,” said Amanda Marlin, executive director of EOS Eco-energy, a Sackville-based nonprofit which promotes climate-change adaptation and mitigation.
Burke said that the municipality is currently working with EOS Eco-energy on a draft of terms of reference for a climate-change adaptation plan, which he expects will be completed in 2016.
Sackville has an emergency-preparedness plan which has been approved by the Emergency Measures Organization of N.B., and has held successful drills and mock emergencies for floods and other extreme events that will likely increase with climate change. The Tantramar Veterans Memorial Civic Centre has cots and other supplies for residents displaced by extreme weather events or floods, and can accommodate up to 500 people in the event of an emergency. Sackville Fire and Rescue also has three boats in its inventory for use in extreme floods. The Town’s sentinel alert system sends emergency alerts over phone or text to any residents signed up for it.
The Town of Sackville has a sustainability committee which implements goals outlined in the “Sustainable Sackville” report approved by the Town in 2012. Marlin said this report has some content on climate-change adaptation, but that the Town needs a more expansive climate-change adaptation plan. The report outlined 15 priority projects, three of which have not yet been undertaken: Hiring a dedicated staff person for sustainability purposes, upgrading the Crescent St. sewage lagoon, and establishing a community volunteer database.
By adopting the “Sustainable Sackville” plan, the Town received a $1-million grant and a low-interest loan from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to build its new town hall. The fire and police stations were integrated into the new town-hall building so that it could serve as a centralized emergency response center. In the event that the town hall is compromised, the town has an agreement with Mt. A to use the facilities-management boardroom as an emergency-response centre.
Over the long term, Sackville may have to adapt its layout to increased flooding events by developing upland areas. Some of the Town’s zoning laws have changed to limit development in flood-prone areas, such as a bylaw preventing newly built houses from having bedrooms built below the flood-risk elevation. Lieske said he advocates rezoning the town’s high flood-risk areas, such as the historical downtown, and encourages development in higher elevation areas of the town.
“This is a moment to imagine Sackville,” said Lieske. “This is a moment to reimagine the town.”

University lacks long-term plans

The Mt. A campus sits above the flood-risk zone, which is generally considered to be any area of Sackville west of Main Street.
According to Mt. A’s Vice-President Finance and Administration Robert Inglis, the university does not currently have a long-term strategy to address operational threats posed by climate change, and instead responds to events on a short-term, reactionary basis.
“I think the university should have strategies and plans for the things that climate change may bring, but not so much climate change itself,” said Inglis.
Though floods do not directly imperil the university, they may still disrupt its operations along with other extreme events caused by climate change. More frequent extreme weather events like hurricanes and blizzards may increase school closures and class cancellations, as well as limit accessibility to and within campus. Transportation from Sackville to Nova Scotia may be prevented from days to weeks in the event of the dykes’ overtopping, as several kilometers of the Trans-Canada Highway outside of the town are within its flood-risk zone.
The university has a “Campus Facilities Master Plan” which considers necessary maintenance and upgrades to campus buildings and facilities, but does not include long-term plans relating to climate change in Sackville. Inglis said that concerns about the dykes, highway accessibility, and other utilities used by Mt. A are outside of the university’s purview.
Both Lieske and Kurek have said they believe the university should consider a climate adaptation plan for ethical reasons.
“The future of students currently at our university and those that will be attending years down the road is not in a fossil-fuel future, so we need to promote ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Kurek. “[The university] certainly needs to consider climate change in any strategic planning that looks forward.”
Lieske said he also believes the university should have a role in preparing the community for climate change and the threats it poses.
“The university’s a big component of the community, so it has influence,” said Lieske. “I think the university needs to capitalize on that role.”
Rob MacCormack, Mt. A’s director of facilities management, said he believes the university is currently prepared for extreme weather events related to climate change.
“I have no concerns at all. Whatever happens will happen. We have support up here and we’ll be able to overcome anything,” said MacCormack.

 

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