Box 141 Accelerating wildfire and ecosystem disturbance dynamics

Since 1980, an average of 22,000 km2/yr has burned in U.S. wildfires, almost twice the 1920 to 1980 average of 13,000 km2/yr (Schoennagel et al., 2004). The forested area burned in the western U.S. from 1987 to 2003 is 6.7 times the area burned from 1970 to 1986 (Westerling et al., 2006). In Canada, burned area has exceeded 60,000 km2/yr three times since 1990, twice the long-term average (Stocks et al., 2002). Wildfire-burned area in the North American boreal region increased from 6,500 km2/yr in the 1960s to 29,700 km2/yr in the 1990s (Kasischke and Turetsky, 2006). Human vulnerability to wildfires has also increased, with a rising population in the wildland-urban interface.

A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread (Running, 2006). Westerling et al. (2006) found that in the last three decades the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased by 78 days, and burn durations of fires >1000 ha in area have increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, in response to a springsummer warming of 0.87°C. Earlier spring snowmelt has led to longer growing seasons and drought, especially at higher elevations, where the increase in wildfire activity has been greatest (Westerling et al., 2006). In Canada, warmer May to August temperatures of 0.8°C since 1970 are highly correlated with area burned (Figure 14.1c) (Gillett et al., 2004). In the south-western U.S., fire activity is correlated with El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) positive phases (Kitzberger et al., 2001; McKenzie et al., 2004), and higher Palmer Drought Severity Indices.

Insects and diseases are a natural part of ecosystems. In forests, periodic insect epidemics kill trees over large regions, providing dead, desiccated fuels for large wildfires. These epidemics are related to aspects of insect life cycles that are climate sensitive (Williams and Liebhold, 2002). Many northern insects have a two-year life cycle, and warmer winter temperatures allow a larger fraction of overwintering larvae to survive. Recently, spruce budworm in Alaska has completed its life cycle in one year, rather than the previous two (Volney and Fleming, 2000). Mountain pine beetle has expanded its range in British Columbia into areas previously too cold (Carroll et al., 2003). Insect outbreaks often have complex causes. Susceptibility of the trees to insects is increased when multi-year droughts degrade the trees' ability to generate defensive chemicals (Logan et al., 2003). Recent dieback of aspen stands in Alberta was caused by light snowpacks and drought in the 1980s, triggering defoliation by tent caterpillars, followed by wood-boring insects and fungal pathogens (Hogg et al., 2002).

Many coastal areas in North America are potentially exposed to storm-surge flooding (Titus and Richman, 2001; Titus, 2005). Some major urban centres on large deltas are below sea level (e.g., New Orleans on the Mississippi; Richmond and Delta on the Fraser), placing large populations at risk. Breaching of New Orleans floodwalls following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (see Chapter 6, Section and Box 6.4) and storm-wave breaching of a dike in Delta, British Columbia, in 2006 demonstrate the vulnerability. Under El Niño conditions, high water levels combined with changes in winter storms along the Pacific coast have produced severe coastal flooding and storm impacts (Komar et al., 2000; Walker and Barrie, 2006). At San Francisco, 140 years of tide-gauge data suggest an increase in severe winter storms since 1950 (Bromirski et al., 2003) and some studies have detected accelerated coastal erosion (Bernatchez and Dubois, 2004). Some Alaskan villages are threatened and require protection or relocation at projected costs up to US$54 million (Parson et al., 2001a). Recent severe tropical and extra-tropical storms demonstrate that North American urban centres with assumed high adaptive capacity remain vulnerable to extreme events. Recent winters with less ice in the Great Lakes and Gulf of St. Lawrence have increased coastal exposure to damage from winter storms. Winter ice provides seasonal shore protection, but can also damage shorefront homes and infrastructure (Forbes et al., 2002a).

Impacts on coastal communities and ecosystems can be more severe when major storms occur in short succession, limiting the opportunity to rebuild natural resilience (Forbes et al., 2004). Adaptation to coastal hazards under the present climate is often inadequate, and readiness for increased exposure is poor (Clark et al., 1998; Leatherman, 2001; West et al., 2001). Extreme events can add to other stresses on ecological integrity (Scavia et al., 2002; Burkett et al., 2005), including shoreline development and nitrogen eutrophication2 (Bertness et al., 2002). Already, more than 50% of the original salt marsh habitat in the U.S. has been lost (Kennish, 2001). Impacts from sea-level rise can be amplified by 'coastal squeeze' (see Glossary) and submergence where landward migration is impeded and vertical growth is slower than sea-level rise (see Section 14.4.3) (Kennish, 2001; Scavia et al., 2002; Chmura and Hung, 2004).

14.2.4 Agriculture, forestry and fisheries


Over the last century, yields of major commodity crops in the U.S. have increased consistently, typically at rates of 1 to 2%/yr (Troyer, 2004), but there are significant variations across regions and between years. These yield trends are a result of cumulative changes in multiple factors, including technology, fertiliser use,

2 Eutrophication is a process whereby water bodies, such as lakes, estuaries, or slow-moving streams receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth (e.g., algal blooms and nuisance plants weeds).

seed stocks, and management techniques, plus any changes due to climate; the specific impact from any one factor may be positive or negative. In the Midwestern U.S. from 1970 to 2000, corn yield increased 58% and soybean yields increased 20%, with annual weather fluctuations resulting in year-to-year variability (Hicke and Lobell, 2004). Heavy rainfalls reduced the value of the U.S. corn crop by an average of US$3 billion/yr between 1951 and 1998 (Rosenzweig et al., 2002). In the Corn and Wheat Belt of the U.S., yields of corn and soybeans from 1982 to 1998 were negatively impacted by warm temperatures, decreasing 17% for each 1°C of warm-temperature anomaly (Lobell and Asner, 2003). In California, warmer nights have enhanced the production of high-quality wine grapes (Nemani et al., 2001), but additional warming may not result in similar increases. For twelve major crops in California, climate fluctuations over the last 20 years have not had large effects on yield, though they have been a positive factor for oranges and walnuts and a negative for avocados and cotton (Lobell et al., 2006).

North American agriculture has been exposed to many severe weather events during the past decade. More variable weather, coupled with out-migration from rural areas and economic stresses, has increased the vulnerability of the agricultural sector overall, raising concerns about its future capacity to cope with a more variable climate (Senate of Canada, 2003; Wheaton et al., 2005). North American agriculture is, however, dynamic. Adaptation to multiple stresses and opportunities, including changes in markets and weather, is a normal process for the sector. Crop and enterprise diversification, as well as soil and water conservation, are often used to reduce weather-related risks (Wall and Smit, 2005). Recent adaptations by the agricultural sector in North America, including improved water conservation and conservation tillage, are not typically undertaken as single discrete actions, but evolve as a set of decisions that can span several years in a dynamic and changing environment (Smit and Skinner, 2002) that includes changes in public policy (Goodwin, 2003). While there have been attempts to realistically model the dynamics of adaptation to climate change (Easterling et al., 2003), understanding of agriculture's current sensitivity to climate variability and its capacity to cope with climate change remains limited (Tol, 2002).


Forest growth appears to be slowly accelerating (at a rate of less than 1%/decade) in regions where tree growth has historically been limited by low temperatures and short growing seasons (Caspersen et al., 2000; McKenzie et al., 2001; Joos et al., 2002; Boisvenue and Running, 2006). In black spruce at the forest-tundra transition in eastern Canada, height growth has been increasing since the 1970s (Gamache and Payette, 2004). Growth is slowing, however, in areas subject to drought. Radial growth of white spruce on dry south-facing slopes in Alaska has decreased over the last 90 years, due to increased drought stress (Barber et al., 2000). In semi-arid forests of the south-western U.S., growth rates have decreased since 1895, correlated with drought linked to warming temperatures (McKenzie et al.,

2001). Relationships between tree-ring growth in sub-alpine forests and climate in the Pacific Northwest from 1895 to 1991 had complex topographic influences (Peterson and Peterson, 2001; Peterson et al., 2002). On high elevation north-facing slopes, growth of sub-alpine fir and mountain hemlock was negatively correlated with spring snowpack depth and positively correlated with summer temperatures, indicating growing-season temperature limitations. On lower elevation sites, however, growth was negatively correlated with summer temperature, suggesting water limitations. In Colorado, aspen have advanced into the more cold-tolerant spruce-fir forests over the past 100 years (Elliott and Baker, 2004). The northern range limit of lodgepole pine is advancing into the zone previously dominated by the more cold-tolerant black spruce in the Yukon (Johnstone and Chapin, 2003). A combination of warmer temperatures and insect infestations has resulted in economically significant losses of the forest resource base to spruce bark beetle in both Alaska and the Yukon (ACIA, 2004).

Freshwater fisheries

Most commercial freshwater fishing in North America occurs in rural or remote areas, with indigenous peoples often taking a major role. Recreational inland fisheries are also significant and increasing (DFO-MPO, 2002; DOI, 2002). Ecological sustainability of fish and fisheries productivity is closely tied to temperature and water supply (flows and lake levels). Climate change and variability increasingly have direct and indirect impacts, both of which interact with other pressures on freshwater fisheries, including human development (Schindler, 2001; Chu et al., 2003; Reed and Czech, 2005; Rose, 2005), habitat loss and alteration (including water pollution), biotic homogenisation due to invasions and introductions (Rahel,

2002), and over-exploitation (Post et al., 2002; Cooke and Cowx, 2004). Cold- and cool-water fisheries, especially Salmonids, have been declining as warmer/drier conditions reduce their habitat. The sea-run3 salmon stocks are in steep decline throughout much of North America (Gallagher and Wood, 2003). Evidence for impacts of recent climate change is rapidly accumulating. Pacific salmon have been appearing in Arctic rivers (Babaluk et al., 2000). Salmonid species have been affected by warming in U.S. streams (O'Neal, 2002). Lake charr in an Ontario lake suffered recruitment4 failure due to El Nino-linked warm temperatures (Gunn, 2002). Lake Ontario year-class productivity is strongly linked to temperature, with a shift in the 1990s toward warm-water species (Casselman, 2002). Walleye yield in lakes depends on the amount of cool, turbid habitat (Lester et al., 2004). Recent contraction in habitat for walleye in the Bay of Quinte, Lake Ontario was due in part to warming and lower water levels (Chu et al., 2005). Success of adult spawning and survival of the fry (new-borne) of brook trout is closely linked to cold groundwater seeps, which provide preferred temperature refuges for lake-dwelling populations (Borwick et al., 2006). Rates of fish-egg development and mortality increase with temperature rise within species-specific tolerance ranges (Kamler, 2002).

3 Sea-run: having the habit of ascending a river from the sea, especially to spawn.

4 Recruitment: the number of new juvenile fish reaching a size large enough to be caught by commercial fishing methods.

14.2.5 Human health

Many human diseases are sensitive to weather, from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses due to heatwaves or air pollution, to altered transmission of infectious diseases. Synergistic effects of other activities can exacerbate weather exposures (e.g., via the urban heat island effect), requiring cross-sector risk assessment to determine site-specific vulnerability (Patz et al., 2005).

The incidence of infectious diseases transmitted by air varies seasonally and annually, due partly to climate variations. In the early 1990s, California experienced an epidemic of Valley Fever that followed five years of drought (Kolivras and Comrie, 2003). Water-borne disease outbreaks from all causes in the U.S. are distinctly seasonal, clustered in key watersheds, and associated with heavy precipitation (in the U.S. Curriero et al., 2001) or extreme precipitation and warmer temperatures (in Canada, Thomas et al., 2006). Heavy runoff after severe rainfall can also contaminate recreational waters and increase the risk of human illness (Schuster et al., 2005) through higher bacterial counts. This association is strongest at beaches closest to rivers (Dwight et al., 2002).

Food-borne diseases show some relationship with historical temperature trends. In Alberta, ambient temperature is strongly but non-linearly associated with the occurrence of three enteric pathogens, Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter (Fleury et al., 2006).

Many zoonotic diseases5 are sensitive to climate fluctuations (Charron, 2002). The strain of West Nile virus (WNV) that emerged for the first time in North America during the record hot July 1999 requires warmer temperatures than other strains. The greatest WNV transmissions during the epidemic summers of 2002 to 2004 in the U.S. were linked to above-average temperatures (Reisen et al., 2006). Laboratory studies of virus replication in WNV's main Culex mosquito vector show high levels of virus at warmer temperatures (Dohm and Turell, 2001; Dohm et al., 2002). Bird migratory pathways and WNV's recent advance westward across the U.S. and Canada are key factors in WNV and must be considered in future assessments of the role of temperature in WNV dynamics. A virus closely related to WNV, Saint Louis encephalitis, tends to appear during hot, dry La Niña years, when conditions facilitate transmission by reducing the extrinsic incubation period6 (Cayan et al., 2003).

Lyme disease is a prevalent tick-borne disease in North America for which there is new evidence of an association with temperature (Ogden et al., 2004) and precipitation (McCabe and Bunnell, 2004). In the field, temperature and vapour pressure contribute to maintaining populations of the tick Ixodes scapularis which, in the U.S., is the micro-organism's secondary host. A monthly average minimum temperature above -7°C is required for tick survival (Brownstein et al., 2003).

Exposure to both extreme hot and cold weather is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, compared to an intermediate 'comfortable' temperature range (Curriero et al.,

2002). Across 12 U.S. cities, hot temperatures have been associated with increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease (Schwartz et al., 2004a). Emergency hospital admissions have been directly related to extreme heat in Toronto (Dolney and Sheridan, 2006). Heat-response plans and heat early warning systems (EWS) can save lives (Ebi et al., 2004). After the 1995 heatwave, the city of Milwaukee initiated an 'extreme heat conditions plan' that almost halved heat-related morbidity and mortality (Weisskopf et al., 2002). Currently, over two dozen cities worldwide have warning systems focused on monitoring for dangerous air masses (Sheridan and Kalkstein, 2004).

14.2.6 Human settlements

Economic base of resource-dependent communities

Among the most climate-sensitive North American communities are those of indigenous populations dependent on one or a few natural resources. About 1.2 million (60%) of the U.S. tribal members live on or near reservations, and many pursue lifestyles with a mix of traditional subsistence activities and wage labour (Houser et al., 2001). Many reservation economies and budgets of indigenous governments depend heavily on agriculture, forest products and tourism (NAST, 2001). A 1993 hantavirus outbreak related indirectly to heavy rainfall led to a significant reduction in tourist visits to the American South-west (NAST, 2001). Many indigenous communities in northern Canada and Alaska are already experiencing constraints on lifestyles and economic activity from less reliable sea and lake ice (for travelling, hunting, fishing and whaling), loss of forest resources from insect damage, stress on caribou, and more exposed coastal infrastructure from diminishing sea ice (NAST, 2001; CCME, 2003; ACIA, 2005). Many rural settlements in North America, particularly those dependent on a narrow resource base, such as fishing or forestry, have been seriously affected by recent declines in the resource base, caused by a number of factors (CDLI, 1996). However, not all communities have suffered, as some Alaskan fishing communities have benefited from rising regional abundance of selected salmon stocks since the mid-1970s (Eggers, 2006).

Infrastructure and extreme events

About 80% of North Americans live in urban areas (Census Bureau, 2000; Statistics Canada, 2001b). North American cities, while diverse in size, function, climate and other factors, are largely shielded from the natural environment by technical systems. The devastating effects of hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005, however, illustrate the vulnerability of North American infrastructure and urban systems that were either not designed or not maintained to adequate safety margins. When protective systems fail, impacts can be widespread and multi-dimensional (see Chapter 7, Boxes 7.2 and 7.4). Disproportionate impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the poor, infirm, elderly, and other dependent populations were amplified by inadequate public sector development and/or

5 Zoonotic diseases: diseases caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between (or are shared by) animals and humans.

6 Extrinsic incubation period: the interval between the acquisition of an infectious agent by a vector and the vector's ability to transmit the agent to other hosts.

execution of evacuation and emergency services plans (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006).

Costs of weather-related natural disasters in North America rose at the end of the 20th century, mainly as a result of the increasing value of infrastructure at risk (Changnon, 2003, 2005). Key factors in the increase in exposure include rising wealth, demographic shifts to coastal areas, urbanisation in storm-prone areas, and ageing infrastructure, combined with substandard structures and inadequate building codes (Easterling et al., 2000; Balling and Cerveny, 2003; Changnon, 2003,2005). Trends in the number and intensity of extreme events in North America are variable, with many (e.g., hail events, tornadoes, severe windstorms, winter storms) holding steady or even decreasing (Kunkel et al., 1999; McCabe et al., 2001; Balling and Cerveny, 2003; Changnon, 2003; Trenberth et al., 2007: Section

North America very likely will continue to suffer serious losses of life and property simply due to growth in property values and numbers of people at risk (very high confidence) (Pielke Jr., 2005; Pielke et al., 2005). Of the US$19 trillion value of all insured residential and commercial property in the U.S. states exposed to North Atlantic hurricanes, US$7.2 trillion (41%) is located in coastal counties. This economic value includes 79% of the property in Florida, 63% of the property in New York, and 61% of the property in Connecticut (AIR, 2002). Cumulative decadal hurricane intensity in the U.S. has risen in the last 25 years, following a peak in the mid 20th century and a later decline (Figure 14.1e). North American mortality (deaths and death rates) from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning have generally declined since the beginning of the 20th century, due largely to improved warning systems (Goklany, 2006). Mortality was dominated by three storms where the warning/evacuation system did not lead to timely evacuation: Galveston in 1900, Okeechobee in 1926, and Katrina in 2005.

Flood hazards are not limited to the coastal zone. River basins with a history of major floods (e.g., the Sacramento (Miller, 2003), the Fraser (Lemmen and Warren, 2004), the Red River (Simonovic and Li, 2004) and the upper Mississippi (Allen et al., 2003)) illustrate the sensitivity of riverine flooding to extreme events and highlight the critical importance of infrastructure design standards, land-use planning and weather/flood forecasts.

14.2.7 Tourism and recreation

The U.S. and Canada rank among the top ten nations for international tourism receipts (US$112 billion and US$16 billion, respectively) with domestic tourism and outdoor recreation markets that are several times larger (World Tourism Organization, 2002; Southwick Associates, 2006). Climate variability affects many segments of this growing economic sector. For example, wildfires in Colorado (2002) and British Columbia (2003) caused tens of millions of dollars in tourism losses by reducing visitation and destroying infrastructure (Associated Press, 2002; Butler, 2002; BC Stats, 2003). Similar economic losses were caused by drought-affected water levels in rivers and reservoirs in the western U.S. and parts of the Great Lakes (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2000; Kesmodel, 2002;

Allen, 2003). The ten-day closure and clean-up following Hurricane Georges (September 1998) resulted in tourism revenue losses of approximately US$32 million in the Florida Keys (EPA, 1999). While the North American tourism industry acknowledges the important influence of climate, its impacts have not been analysed comprehensively (Scott et al., 2006).

14.2.8 Energy, industry and transportation

North American industry, energy supply and transportation networks are sensitive to weather extremes that exceed their safety margins. Costs of these impacts can be high. For example, power outages in the U.S. cost the economy US$30 billion to 130 billion annually (EPRI, 2003; LaCommare and Eto, 2004). The hurricanes crossing Florida in the summer of 2004 resulted in direct system restoration costs of US$1.4 billion to the four Florida public utilities involved (EEI, 2005). From 1994 to 2004, fourteen U.S. utilities experienced 81 other major storms, which cost an average of US$49 million/storm, with the highest single storm impact of US$890 million (EEI, 2005).

Although it was not triggered specifically by the concurrent hot weather, the 2003 summer outage in north-eastern U.S. and south-eastern Canada illustrates costs to North American society that result from large-scale power interruptions during periods of high demand. Over 50 million people were without power, resulting in US$180 million in insured losses and up to US$10 billion in total losses (Fletcher, 2004). Business interruptions were particularly significant, with costs of over US$250,000/hr incurred by the top quartile of recently surveyed companies (RM, 2003).

The impacts of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 and Ivan in 2004 demonstrated that the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and natural gas platforms and pipelines, petroleum refineries, and supporting infrastructure can be seriously harmed by major hurricanes, which can produce national-level impacts, and require recovery times stretching to months or longer (Business Week, 2005; EEA, 2005; EIA, 2005a; Levitan and Associates Inc., 2005; RMS, 2005b; Swiss Re, 2005b, c, d, e).

Hydropower production is known to be sensitive to total runoff, to its timing, and to reservoir levels. For example, during the 1990s, Great Lakes levels fell as a result of a lengthy drought, and in 1999 hydropower production was down significantly both at Niagara and Sault St. Marie (CCME, 2003).

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