By Lori Thompson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Being water-locked is a challenge in the face of a changing climate. One of the ways species are able to deal with climate change is to migrate but migration corridors are constrained by an island setting, meaning animal and plant species have a limited ability to move from Island to mainland as the temperature increases.
“The fact that we’re living on an island creates for unique climate risks,” said Al Douglas, president of Climate Risk Institute (CRI) and a coordinating lead author of the Ontario chapter of `Canada in a Changing Climate: Regional Perspectives Report’ released on August 15. We spoke with Mr. Douglas and co-coordinating lead author David Pearson to see how the changing climate could affect Manitoulin Island.
Some animals might be able to travel across the ice during winter months, but the nature of the Island more or less running east to west means there’s not a whole lot of room to be able to migrate, he said. “You’ve got to be thinking about that in the context of climate change. Certain tree species will also face pressure from changing average temperatures. If we consider forest regeneration, more southern species would be appropriate.”
He also worries about fire: although risks are no higher than on the mainland and although fire helps with natural regeneration of forests, a large fire on the Island would be disruptive and destructive to ecosystems if widespread, he said. There would also be impacts from smoke, even in nearby areas, that would constrain travel to or from the Island.
It’s not only general warming, but also extreme conditions of precipitation. Take snow as an example. The deer population suffers in winters with large amounts of snow, because they can’t get to the food they need. This leads to more predation of deer and the wolf population, the next level up in the food chain, can see increases.
These ebbs and flows in different levels of the food chain are normal and natural, but in the context of climate change these can be pushed to further limits.
Water levels on Lake Huron continue to fluctuate and there’s no agreement in the models on future levels. Encroachment and development on shorelines is risky if water levels rise, possibly to heights we haven’t seen before, and it’s easy to lose sight of that possibility during periods of low water, Mr. Douglas said.
Warmer winters mean an increased potential for shorter and less ice cover years, which will have a significant impact on shorelines and evaporation, he noted. Shorelines gain protection from ice formation and without ice, and in times of high water, those shorelines can face erosion from wind events. The ice also slows evaporation and so warmer air and water, and later formation of ice (or earlier retreat) means more water loss to the atmosphere.
“Warmer water also affects the cold water species that are a big part of our fishery on the island,” said Mr. Douglas. “Trout and salmon seek cold water and as air and water warm, suitable habitat declines. In response, good work like that of Manitoulin Streams to rehabilitate shorelines and riverbeds helps create habitat and refugia for those species.”
Some residents believe the frequency of windy days and wind speeds have increased, but there aren’t any data sets for wind. “In the context of climate change, and we think about climate change in terms of 30-year periods, we don’t have a good solid 30-year period of wind data for us to measure against to know whether winds are increasing or decreasing,” Mr. Douglas said. “We really do need to get more monitoring going on that to get a good handle on it.”
He also believes wind is increasing from what he’s observed. It’s important to not discount that, he said. “Observations of people are a critical part of how things are changing. Now imagine where you’ve got those periods where there’s high wind and you get more trees down, that creates more fire or rather it creates the load for fire risk. It creates the load for potential more burn and larger area at risk for fire when you’ve got that dead bush in the forest.”
Fighting forest fires requires significant resources. It’s important to note what that does to people and communities, but to businesses on the Island as well. During the Parry Sound 33 fire in 2018, local tourism businesses were challenged because people couldn’t get here through the thick smoke on the highways.
Municipalities on the Island may also face issues around flooding. “No community is immune to heavy rainfall events or rain on frozen ground, both of which can cause flooding,” Mr. Douglas said. “Proper grading and lots of permeable surfaces and green spaces in municipal settings will help manage more intense rainfall events. Proper protection of the shorelines, as I mentioned before, also helps manage runoff to lakes and rivers by helping remove contaminants.”
Dr. David Pearson feels Manitoulin Island is in a very advantageous position to be braiding Indigenous knowledge with western science because of the strength of the Indigenous population on the Island. Dr. Pearson is a professor in the School of the Environment, working in the Vale Living with Lakes Centre at Laurentian University.
He points to the storytelling approach that is part of two-eyed seeing. Two-Eyed Seeing is a guiding principle developed by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall that recognizes that better outcomes are more likely if we bring two or more perspectives into collaborations.
“We have to collaborate,” Dr. Pearson said. “We have to work together. That’s exactly the way that Albert Marshall spoke. I find that in a way extraordinary because those are people that have unfortunately come through that awful era of **>residential<** schools and colonialism but still have their feet on the ground and realize we have to collaborate.”
In general, responding to climate change has to become a higher priority for people, he said. “The risks are often underestimated or underappreciated and as time goes on with limited response, the burden is shed to future generations. We have to be learning from others.”
Part of the teamwork that’s necessary can be found in people who are able to scale down an example from a city like Toronto and scale those lessons down to their own community. It can’t just be a business approach it has to have a vision in it as well, said Dr.
Pearson. “It’s the vision that enables people to feel not just the events of the past but also how the future might look, how the future might feel.”
Islanders already have a strong social cohesion that will be helpful to keep watch over the vulnerable populations in times of events like extreme heat, power outage or flooding, Mr. Douglas said.
He still has the sense that the importance of adapting to climate change is not quite there. “It’s not elevated to the point where it has to be. It’s not part of the conversations. It’s not part of the lens through which we make decisions at municipalities. That has to increase. That has to change. It’s got to become more mainstream as part of our conversation. This isn’t a fringe issue. This is an issue that really does require attention.”
With 30 years worth of data and science behind us, it’s clear we have a problem. We’ve got to take stock of that and build it into our decision making at municipalities, Mr. Douglas said. “It’s related to a lot of things. It’s planning decisions, engineering decisions, public health decisions. The lens of climate change has to be right there. It has to be at the forefront.”
Lori Thompson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter who works for
THE MANITOULIN EXPOSITOR. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.