Warmer, drier summers expected for Kinbasket: report

Climate change will bring drier summers and wetter, warmer winters to the Kinbasket reservoir, a report has found.

Authored by Greg Utzig, a conservation ecologist and technical advisor to the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative, the Climate Change and the Columbia River Treaty report projects precipitation and temperature trends through the year 2100 based on research from U.S. scientists involved in the Columbia River Treaty negotiations.

According to Utzig, data show increasing temperatures in the Columbia Basin – however, the extent to which they rise is contingent on whether greenhouse gas emissions are curbed in the near future. More greenhouse gas emissions mean higher temperatures.

“The obvious trend is that temperatures are going up in all seasons. How much they continue to go up will depend on how many greenhouse gas emissions we make,” Utzig said. “Both (low- and high-emission scenarios) are bad, but one’s a lot worse than the other.”

The report also includes graphs of two extremes when discussing how climate change will impact precipitation levels. A “dry projection” represents the low end of projected precipitation levels, while a “wet projection” shows the higher end. In both cases, the Kinbasket reservoir will get more precipitation during the winter and spring than it historically has, but will receive significantly less water in the summer.

Rising year-round temperatures and drier summers are a nasty combination for a province already plagued by wildfire and drought, according to Utzig.

“There’s no question that the decreasing precipitation inputs in the summer, and increasing temperatures, are going to lead to more wildfires,” Utzig said. “Even though precipitation is increasing in the winter months, the amount that will come as snow will be less because it will be warmer ... Absolutely, the increasing temperatures and lower snowpack will have an impact (on wildfires).”

Impacts already here

B.C. has already seen these effects in recent years, Utzig added.

“2021 would be the best example. In June, we experienced the heat dome with unprecedented temperatures. It was a globally significant event,” he said. “And then less than six months later, we had the extreme atmospheric river event that came in and flooded out significant portions of the Coquihalla ... Those are two extreme events that were not completely caused by climate change, but climate change amplified the impacts significantly.”

Other examples of severe weather events intensified by climate change – last year’s wildfires, provincewide drought, severe landslides from increased precipitation – came to mind for Utzig. He believes that as disasters like these become more frequent due to climate change, governments will have to plan more carefully for emergency management of their reservoirs. Wet winters and dry summers will cause bodies of water to fluctuate unpredictably, and Utzig feels authorities will need to plan for emergencies more thoroughly than they have done previously.

“In the Kootenays in 2012, we had an unusually wet spring and an extremely wet June. They hadn’t left enough room in the reservoirs to capture those floodwaters, and we ended up with flooding in Kootenay lake and some other areas around there,” Utzig said. “Climate change creates a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of extreme events are hard to plan for.”

Even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced dramatically in the next few years, the Columbia Basin will still see consequences from higher temperatures and increased rainfall, according to Utzig – and he’s far from optimistic that this lesser-of-two-evils scenario will come to pass.

“If we want to resolve these issues, we need to stop burning oil. It’s only going to get worse,” he said. “The announcement of the opening of the [Trans Mountain] pipeline is scary. We’re going in the wrong direction.”

Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat