UN panel says climate change has implications for North America's water supply

Athabasca RiverThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations organization that assesses the impacts of climate change, has released a new report, the second part of a larger assessment by the panel. The Globe and Mail reports, "(It) lists outcomes such as the displacement of populations, food shortages and economic shocks that are triggered or exacerbated by rising temperatures."

This new report has a chapter on North America. "So far, among the most obvious impacts experienced by city dwellers in North America are meteorological, including a higher risk of dangerously extreme heat in summer, heavier precipitation and flooding events and a decreasing snowpack in winter months. ...(But) larger consequences for North America are in store, including the loss of glaciers in the West, with implications for water supplies, threats to the livelihood of northern communities because of vanishing sea ice in the Arctic and impacts on coastal industries because of shifts in populations of economically important fish species."

Natural Resources Canada has stated, "Glaciers play a role in recharging groundwater aquifers. This aspect of our hydrology is critical to understanding the variability of water supply under a changing climate…" NRC says, "Canada’s glaciers hold water resources equivalent to all of the water contained by our lakes and rivers. As a Nordic country, much of Canada’s freshwater is derived from seasonal and perennial snow and ice, which exerts important controls on the timing and magnitude of water fluxes." And they have cautioned that there will be "decreases in water availability resulting from increased intensity and frequency of drought, declining snowpack and glacier dimunition" in Canada.

Previous news reports have also told this story. In 2011, CBC reported, "The snowpack across the northern Rocky Mountains has shrunk far more quickly in the past 50 years than in the previous 800... Runoff from those layers of snow feed rivers that supply water to more than 70 million people (in the western United States), raising concerns that the declining snowpack will lead to water shortages in western North America, reported (a) study published online in Science Express. ...Robert Sandford, chair of a group that connects policy makers with scientific research on water, said the study shows the declining snowpack will add to the gradual decline in stream flows that are already happening in some of Canada’s most important watercourses."

And Postmedia News has highlighted, "(The melting snowpack is) altering river flows in the Canadian prairies and central British Columbia, said (the study's) co-author Brian Luckman, at the University of Western Ontario. 'Snowpack is essential for water supply to many of these areas,' Luckman said, noting that the Rockies feed rivers flowing through central B.C. and the Bow, Athabasca and Oldman rivers in Alberta. 'Between 60 to 80 per cent of the water in those rivers is snowmelt from the mountains.' ...The study says the changes are affecting the Colorado, Columbia and Missouri Rivers, which together supply water to 70 million Americans."

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has stated, "The issue of glacier melt is where climate justice and water justice come together. Water abuse is hurting the climate, and climate injustice is hurting water. The most important thing to remember is that water governs us. It is our lifeblood. It is not a resource for our profit and pleasure, but the most important element of the ecosystem which we depend on for life. We must build solidarity between the water and climate justice movements, between the global north and south, and among those who care for the future. We must vow to be one family and be brave because we are up against terrible forces."

We continue to focus on the stopping of the pipelines – Energy East, Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain – that would be major contributors to climate change. According to a recent Pembina Institute study, Energy East would lead to the creation of 30 million to 32 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. And we have in our calendar the next two United Nations climate summits (COP 20 in Lima, Peru, December 1-12, 2014 and COP 21 in Paris, France, November 30 – December 11, 2015) as possible points of intervention on this critical issue.

Further reading
Shrinking snowpack hurts water supply
Will UN climate negotiations lead to a meaningful agreement in 2015?
New study shows climate change impact on the world's water

Photo: The Athabasca River is dependent on snow melt.