Monthly Archives: October 2013

Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO

Revisiting Adaptive Management

What to do about low water levels is mired in controversy. The talk has mainly concerned where best to site engineering structures to fix them, whether in the St. Clair or Niagara rivers or some combination of the two. Almost never talked about is adaptive management. The International Upper Great Lakes Study Board endorsed it, as did the International Joint Commission in its letter to the U.S. and Canadian governments, but among the Georgian Bay crowd it was denounced as the unacceptable do-nothing option.

Stranded dock, Bell Island

Compared to dikes, weirs, inflatable flap gates, and hydrokinetic turbines, all mitigation measures, adaptive management doesn’t look like The Big Fix.

It is about exchanging information,  stepping gingerly forward, assessing and regrouping. Still, it is gaining ground in the world community as the best way address the uncertainties of climate change.

A recently released UNESCO study entitled Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters, has come up with some pointers on how adaptation works after looking at how 34 countries have approached the subject. The Great Lakes wasn’t discussed. Still, UNESCO surfaced some relevant lessons and principles that should help us move forward.

Why adaptation might be a better fit than mitigation, at least for now.

UNESCO bases its argument for adaptive management on the “cascading uncertainties” resulting from climate change.  The Big Fix solutions require a high degree of certainty if they are going to  make a return on investment and not back fire.

Despite sophisticated computer modeling, the UNESCO authors profess little confidence in any guidance climate projections might provide for water management; for example, you can’t draw a line from emission trends, through their impacts and conclude what sort of floodgates are necessary.

Red tree, Crothers Woods

According to the UNESCO report, precipitation and evapotranspiration are impossible to predict. Changes in mean temperatures are slightly more predictable, but extreme temperatures aren’t. And then there are “shifting means” (the upshot of skewed extremes) that are ignored in most climate models. Different models can produce vastly different results, and comparing average yearly temperatures is highly dependent upon which particular years are compared. Also changes in river discharges and runoff cannot be estimated because they are not consistent with changes in precipitation. Similarly, it is not known what impact extreme precipitation events have on the replenishment of groundwater.

The Upper Great Lakes Study Board uncovered similar uncertainties. After $17 million dollars worth of work, its highly qualified authors confessed to an imperfect understanding of net basin supplies; a compromised ability to predict water levels a month ahead; and a poor understanding of lake dynamics and inter-annual and decadal timescales. Again, runoff is the big mystery because of an incomplete gauging of the affected land area. The Study Board concluded that the “extreme extremes” expected by climate change are beyond any proposed regulatory plan. So it shelved structures in favour of adaptive management, which it hoped could effectively address risks related to extreme water level conditions.

Big Fixes carries carry big risks and exorbitant costs.  The UNESCO paper notes, “Adaptation requires flexibility in a domain dominated by long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs:” an apt description of the engineering marvels being bandied about for the middle Great Lakes.

The UNESCO report struck other notes that might be worth paying attention to in Georgian Bay’s water levels debate.

“Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” This might have relevance for the construction of the proposed engineering project in the St. Clair River, whose specialty project is raising water levels in the middle Great Lakes.

“Adaptation should not be undertaken in a way that focuses only on climate as a risk driver to the exclusion of other more dominant drivers of water risk, such as social, economic and political systems.” 

The complexity of actors and interests in the enormous regional economy around the Great Lakes necessitates a great sorting through if we are to live with changed climatic conditions. But assembling and studying the injuries inflicted on all these actors and interests by low water may not be the most helpful way of getting to the best solution. If the objective is to restore the old status quo, then the tallying up of the economic and environmental costs could be just a rationalization for building a “long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs” of limited utility.

Adaptive management is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as a hopeless exercise to strip the change out of climate. But it is really about changing our behaviour in terms of our water and land uses to allow for a growing economy and a restored and possibly retooled environment. However, it carries its own set of risks and dangers. Adaptive management could be far less saleable politically than coming up with the money for dams and dikes and weirs. It may result in a shouting match  with the strongest, not necessarily the more legitimate voices getting heard.

Here’s a problem: marinas around Georgian Bay are facing economic hardships as a result of their boat slips being too shallow to accommodate their customers’ boats. At the same time wetlands are drying up, forcing its critters to relocate, putting them in conflict with human land uses, including marinas. The marinas are the keystone economic drivers in many small communities. The wetlands are important nurseries for all manner of aquatic life. In the adaptive management model, this is a problem for land and water use planners, not the hydrological engineers, the lesson being  we shouldn’t try to mitigate our way out of this dilemma with Big Fixes.

The UNESCO document talks about water security: ensuring we have enough water for our economic needs, not too much such that we have floods, and water quality sufficient for the environment and our health. The discussion is about getting to those goals in very changed circumstances.

“From a risk perspective, the long-term consequences of ‘normal’ (high probability, low initial impact) but recurrent and chronic threats to water security such as competition for water resources among various users or pollution deserves much greater attention from a risk perspective.”

So climate change is the opener. It is only the first step to assessing what our needs are and how we are going to deal with them. The danger is we will pursue solutions that won’t work but that everyone wants to believe will work. Getting to real solutions to our real problems is going to be much much harder than that.

Adaptive management is the sleeper issue behind the water levels crisis.

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters can be found at

Wolves, Moose and Climate Change on Isle Royale

Split rocks thanksgiving weekendA furious battle is going on right now about whether a declining wolf population on (Michigan’s) Isle Royale National Park  in Lake Superior warrants a helping hand from us human folks or whether nature should be allowed to take its course.

The intervention being considered would introduce some healthy wolves to an inbred population that has been devastated by a genetic deformity affecting their vertebrae. The “nature” that might be allowed to take its course has been compromised by climate change: our fault of course.

This dilemma came to light as a result of the Wolf-Moose Project, at fifty years old, the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system in the world. Several times, the study has been threatened with closing when it appeared that all that could be known had been captured. But then, having survived, it went on to uncover more mysteries, reach deeper depths of understanding, and turn up more insights into the highly complex links roughly characterized as predator prey relationships. Who knew moose ticks could play a part in the survival of wolf packs?

From the project’s excellent website, here’s what it’s uncovered: how wolves affect their prey, how population health is affected by inbreeding and genetics; what moose teeth can tell us about long term trends in air pollution; how ravens give wolves a reason to live in packs;  why wolves don’t always eat all the food they kill; and the role of ticks.

Analyzing wolf scat, researchers were able to identify that in 1997, a large alpha male crossed over to the island via an ice bridge that lasted several weeks that winter, one of only two years in the previous 15 when Lake Superior had frozen sufficiently to allow this migration. He quickly took over a pack, forced another to extinction and grew his pack to 10 members, the largest in the previous 20 years.

But contrary to what the researchers first anticipated, the wolves survival rates did not increase. But digging deeper the scientists noticed that at the same time, the moose population had declined dramatically as a result of food shortages, a tick outbreak and a severe winter.  The implication is that, had the food supply been in the normal range, the consequences of the alpha male’s arrival would have been more positive for the pack. The lesson:  unrelated conditions can mask the beneficial effects of a widening of the gene pool.

More recently, these beneficial effects disappeared when his successful breeding eventually lead to all the wolves on the island being his descendants and the prevalence of genetic deformity in the vertebrae.

If we are ever to tackle the problem of when it is appropriate to intervene to save a species, we have to know these sorts of things.  Even if knowing a little more leads to greater uncertainties.

From the Wolf-Moose Project website: “Every five-year period in the Isle Royale history has been different from every other five-year period—even after fifty years of close observation…and the next five decades will almost certainly be different from the first five decades…the most important events in the history of Isle Royale wolves have been essentially unpredictable events—disease, tick outbreaks, severe winters and immigrant wolves.”

If enlightened ignorance isn’t predictive, why are we bothering to study animal behaviour at all? Because it may stop us from committing more harm to the environment, plus it is absolutely fascinating.

For a description of what the fight to save the wolves is all about check out a story in the Detroit Free Times.

For a more gratifying understanding of the underlying issues in this complex story, check out the Wolf-Moose Project’s website.

Shadow Boxing with the Climate Change Deniers or What’s Wrong with the U.N. Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change

Scientific American has come out swinging against the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its massive authoritative report, six years in the making. The complaints, described in an October 2013 editorial, “Fiddling While the World Warms” concern the fact that much of its research is dead on arrival, while the latest alarming findings (for example, on the thawing of Arctic permafrost with implications for a massive spill of greenhouse gases, and the speeded-up melting of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic with huge implications for sea level rise) came after the Report’s two-year lead time.

The failing is the result of the Panel’s laborious review process, the fact that it waits to bundle all its findings together for a common release date, which means pertinence gets lost and the latest findings don’t make it into the bundle at all.

The editorial also points out that the Panel’s climate models have also been outclassed by more exacting versions coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These have predicted more storms of greater severity.

Garden channel wetlands

The better way would be to include a more effective use of yes, the Internet! The Panel should be shoveling research out the portal as it passes muster and deal with the full-throated responses when they can have some impact, or be dismissed.

IPCC seems to be shadow boxing with climate change deniers, in the hope that they can be won over with more “certain” science, with scientific findings that are painstakingly graded according to degrees of certainty, the IPCC way. But the dynamics are all wrong.

Climate change deniers, like evolution aren’t Holocaust deniers, aren’t interested in authoritative arguments. They’re drunk on the power of no. How wonderful it must be to see climate change scientists struggling to explain why they revised (in reality, reverted to an earlier projection) the lower end of their expected warming range from 2 degrees Celsius to 1.5 C., half a degree. (The upper limit remains unchanged at 4.5 C.) This change represents a slight increase in the degree of uncertainty associated with these numbers, and changes nothing in the big picture. No such comparable conscientious attention to the research can be expected from the deniers.

Science has fallen on hard times. Like music lessons, it’s one of the first to get booted out of budgets. Studying hard, getting good marks in peer reviews, publishing in prestigious journals, writing excellent grant applications gets less and less respect. The circumstances differ between Canada and the U.S., but the net result is not many people, including scientists, seem to want their children to grow up to be scientists when instead they could go into the investment business or make laptop presentations on new potentially billion dollar apps to venture capitalists in Starbucks.

Science is leaching esteem because arguments swirling around in the popular media are given equal weight, from the most authoritative to the wacky.  The media go looking for second opinions to give their subjects context, lend an air of impartiality and pander to the reflective oppositionist out there. This is great for policy makers who really really really don’t want to scale the steep slope that must be crossed to deal with climate change.

But back to the U.N. document on climate change. Unfortunately all the refinements to the projections don’t provide a shred of advice on how that slope might be scaled.

Fortunately, UNESCO has stepped up to the challenge of providing good policy advice.  More on this in a later blog.

The Scientific American editorial referred to here is called “Fiddling While the World Warms”, one of its 10.2013 columns. It is available somewhere at, but access is restricted to registrants.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Report can be found at

Watermark, the movie and Canadian Water Guilt

“Watermark”, the latest film by Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, is a companion piece to their earlier “Manufactured Landscapes”.  It opens in silence with what looks a cloud and then a tidal wave arching across the entire screen, which is then pulled back to reveal the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in China. The movie takes in a tannery in Bangladesh releasing a torrent of blue-dyed water into a river, millions of people bathing in the Ganges River, California surfing, and Las Vegas water shows.

Hole in rock

Despite the long aerial tracking shot of a Canadian River, (It’s surely not possible to make a movie about water that doesn’t include this.) the movie is about man’s manipulations of water, irrigation systems, dams, landscapes left parched by its removal. This stops it from being a sentimental travelogue about beautiful water: no souring string sections or thundering brass, instead music that provides a subdued counter-point, music on a different current from the visual.

Still, Burtynsky can’t stop himself from creating gorgeous quilt-like patterns, watering our emotions with images of the fearsome power of engineering projects. By making us feel we ought to constrain our admiration for something that is obviously terrifyingly bad, he delivers an environmental equivalent of a pornographic hit.

As Canadians sitting on about 32 per cent of the world’s fresh water in the biggest country in the world with a population less than California’s, we watch this movie from a vantage point different from just about everyone else on the planet. We are bounced between the almost universal anxiety about water insecurity to our own water guilt for having so much.

(Maybe having so much environmental stuff that much of the world is short of, explains why we have a reputation for being quiet and self-effacing. We don’t want people to cotton on to what we have.)

But are we less likely to be profligate users of water after watching this movie? Are we more likely to want to throw up the barricades to keep the water-starved people out? Where are the adults to ensure  we don’t become xenophobic water hoarders but responsible conservationists?

You can read about “Watermark” at