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How global warming will impact your business

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April 1, 2013 by Jim Barnes

“There’s no question that the world’s climate is changing. It doesn’t matter why… It’s going to change, and that means we have to change with it,” says Clive Thurston, president, Ontario General Contractors Association, Mississauga, Ont. Everyone in this industry – owners, architects, engineers and contractors included – is in the front lines in this struggle.

Climate change is a “how to boil a frog” proposition… the changes have been gradual as the temperature rises slowly. There is almost no aspect of life in Canada that will not eventually be touched by these events. Repairing the damage, building new infrastructure to support northern development and building defences against natural disaster are all challenges Canada’s construction industry will face.

In Canada, on average, temperatures increased by more than 1.3 degrees C between 1948 and 2007. That increase was about twice the global average, according to Professor Gordon McBean, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction affiliated with the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. The national average temperature for 2010 was 3.0 degrees C above normal, making it the warmest year on record since record keeping began in 1948.

Average global temperatures are warmer today than at any time in at least 4,000 years, Shaun Marcott and other researchers recently reported in the journal Science. Over the coming decades, they are likely to exceed levels not seen since the last ice age. And this is all happening in the blink of a geological eye.

Polar disorder

The Arctic is ground zero for these changes. Mean temperatures are increasing at twice the North American average rate there, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Paris. Since the 1980s, temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have increased by some 3 degrees C.

Last September, the ice over the Arctic Ocean shrank to a new, recorded low: 3.41 million sq. km. It may become completely ice-free in summer by 2030.

A NASA study revealed that the Arctic could experience the equivalent of a 20-degree latitude shift by the end of the century, compared to 1980. “It’s like Winnipeg, Man., moving to Minneapolis-Saint Paul in only 30 years,” said researcher Compton Tucker of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The loss of the sea ice will be a game-changer for the region.

•                  The Port of Churchill in Manitoba may become a major transportation gateway for trans-polar shipping to Northern Europe.

•                  Mining and oil and gas resources in the region will become much more accessible.

•                  New fisheries will open up.

•                  As countries race to reinforce their claims, demand for military and police facilities will expand.

•                  Infrastructure for all of the above will be needed urgently.

“There is going to be a huge demand for construction in both the public and private sectors,” says Michael Atkinson, president, Canadian Construction Association, Ottawa, Ont.

An Arctic staple, permafrost, will become noticeable by its absence. Recently, a showplace RCMP headquarters in Iqaluit was badly damaged when the thermosyphons needed to keep the permafrost it was built on solid, failed, for reasons yet to be determined.

“It has become obvious that climate warming is progressing in the North more rapidly than is being recognized and this will impact the stability of many structures that are built on frozen ground,” said consulting engineer Igor Holubec in a 2008 report, Flat Loop Thermosyphon Foundations in Warm Permafrost.

“In the north, requirements will change for infrastructure and building as a result of what’s happening to the permafrost,” said Karen Leibovici, president, Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

She points out that ice roads, used in winter to service remote communities, are on the endangered list. A way has to be found to replace them. “The costs to employers there in terms of transportation are going to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. We need to ensure that those northern communities are not isolated,” she adds.

The heat goes on

The thawing Arctic will have another consequence. Melting sea ice means higher sea levels – a potential increase of a metre or more over the next century, according to McBean, and Canada’s coastal cities will suffer.

In Atlantic Canada, sea levels have been rising anyway, for geological reasons. The additional increase in sea level will accelerate the problem, causing erosion, rapid migration of beaches and flooding of coastal freshwater marshes.

Storm surges in particular will be a problem for coastal cities, where unprecedented flooding is to be expected.

The west coast will face the same problems, particularly for low-lying municipalities like Delta, which could face inundation when sea levels rise.

Rises in temperature will have dramatic effects. In areas not affected by drought, agriculture may benefit. Warmer temperatures will open up new regions to agriculture, creating profitable farmlands. In the cities, demand for air conditioning and potable water will rise, straining already rickety systems.

The impact on forests will likely be significant. As a consequence of the temperature change, expect loss of old-growth trees, colonization by new species, infestations by insects and frequent forest fires.

In fact, the occurrence of forest fires in Canada may increase by 25 per cent by 2030, depending on which region is considered.

“The rate of change [in the B.C. forests] is so rapid that no equilibrium will be reached for a century. It will probably take centuries,” Richard Hebda, curator of botany and Earth history at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. told the Calgary Herald. “British Columbia is going to be transformed into something very different in geologically very short order – within the lifetime of a human.”

While flood and drought seldom belong in the same sentence, climate change will bring both to Canada. For example, warming in the mountains will decrease snowpack, simultaneously increasing winter flooding and reducing summer flows.

By 2050, seasonal precipitation is expected to decline over parts of western and Atlantic Canada in the summer, while average precipitation is likely to increase over all of Canada in the winter.

At the same time, frequent and heavy storms will create flooding in many parts of the country. Flooding damage accounts for the highest number of property insurance claims in Canada. Low water levels will derive from increased heat and from changes in precipitation.

Alberta experienced severe drought last year, caused by a combination of high summer temperatures and low precipitation. The result was economic hardship and increases in food prices. Match that with severe flooding in Winnipeg and Ontario.


The poster child of climate change is the superstorm. Superstorm Sandy, which hit the U.S. Eastern Seaboard last fall, inflicted an estimated $20 billion in insured losses.

More storms of all kinds can be expected. Natural Resources Canada expects more frequent freezing rain events because of climate change, with tremendous potential for destruction. Just one, the ice storm that hit Ontario and Quebec in 1998, caused
total insurance losses of nearly $1.5 billion and damaged power lines, telephone cables, transmission towers and utility poles. Over a million people in Ontario lost power, in some cases for almost three weeks.

“[Our] infrastructure was built to withstand storms that would come once every hundred years, and now we’re seeing them once every 10 to 20 years,” says Leibovici.

The strain on municipal infrastructure is building. “It’s going to mean a real reassessment of our public-infrastructure assets,” says Atkinson. “As storms get worse, there’s going to be a need to rehabilitate some of our storm-sewer systems.”

Water is becoming a major challenge. “[Some insurance losses] are driven in part by Canada’s aging sewer infrastructure, which is often incapable of handling the new, higher levels of precipitation,” says McBean. “A significant long-term deficit in infrastructure improvement has left sanitary/surface water systems vulnerable as, in some areas of the country, the storm and sanitary sewer infrastructure is simply unable to handle the increasing levels of precipitation.”

Retrofits to culverts, greater use of permeable paving, reinforced electrical and telecom infrastructure, upgrades to stormwater management systems and water-treatment facilities and modifications to dams can all be expected.

“Our older infrastructure needs to be upgraded to meet the demands resulting from climate change,” says Leibovici. “In my own city of Edmonton, we’ve had some severe flooding issues over the past 10 years. We have had to repair and rebuild our drainage systems to meet the new requirements.”

“The infrastructure that supported Canada’s rapid growth in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s is now reaching the end of its service life and must be replaced,” noted a document published by the Municipal Infrastructure Forum, itself sponsored by the FCM. It cited worn-out municipal roads, upgrades needed for a quarter of Canada’s wastewater plants and traffic congestion in particular.

Cracking the codes

“Some [municipal] infrastructure is reaching 50, 60 or 100 years old. The standards are changing. We need to make sure that we can meet the new requirements and standards,” says Leibovici.

Governments at all levels are starting to work on codes, standards and regulations.

For example, one focus of the next edition of Ontario’s Building Code is to make buildings in Ontario more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather linked to climate change.

Ontario is working with other provinces and the federal government through the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes to update climate data for the model National Building Code and new provincial building codes across Canada.

“[The Standards Council of Canada] is committed to mobilizing the expertise of Canada’s national standardization network to identify solutions that will address the unique vulnerabilities of Canada’s northern infrastructure,” says John Walter, CEO, Standards Council of Canada.

Northern construction is an urgent concern. “CSA Group has actively been researching the role standards and codes play in helping to mitigate the risk associated with changing climate and its impact on infrastructure in various regions of Canada since 2005,” says Bonnie Rose, president, Standards, CSA Group.

“From the impact of prairie drought to increased hurricanes in the East to less ice in the North, CSA Group has been examining how these changes will affect existing infrastructure and new construction standards. This collective knowledge will prove invaluable in developing new standards for Canada’s far northern cities, towns and aboriginal communities,” she says.

In November, CSA announced it is developing four new standards related to climate change in Northern Canada, as part of the Northern Infrastructure Standardization Initiative (NISI):

•                  Thermosyphon-supported foundations for new buildings in permafrost;

•                  Moderating the effects of permafrost degradation on existing buildings;

•                  Changing snow loads in the North; and,

•                  Community drainage system planning, design and maintenance.

Short-term thinking about climate change got us here. Short-term thinking about a response to the problem will make things even worse. Early planning and investment beat losses and disaster relief.

Part of the solution is in place… sustainable building practices have an established a foothold in the Canadian industry. Alternative energy sources and better attitudes toward energy efficiency are coming into wider use, to avoid greenhouse gas emissions.

“Sadly, in terms of global warming, Canada is the country to be in and construction is the sector to be in,” says Atkinson.

 Jim Barnes is a contributing editor to On-Site.

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