Canada’s rangy, iconic beasts under mortal threat from winter ticks
9 hours ago
Scientists in New Brunswick and Quebec track moose to understand how climate change is altering the animals’ lives. 3:29
This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it’s reshaping our economy.
Flying over southern New Brunswick in a helicopter, it doesn’t take long to spot moose running through the snow in the forest beneath. What isn’t visible from the air are the thousands of ticks invading their bodies.
In nearby New Hampshire and Maine, over a three-year period, scientists found an alarming 70 per cent of calves didn’t make it through their first winter due in large part to tick infestation, according to a study in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. In some cases, up to 80,000 ticks were found on a single moose.
Researchers from the universities of New Brunswick and Laval are now studying how ticks survive in the differing climates of New Brunswick and Quebec — and how that affects moose.
Their data show moose populations in both provinces have been healthy and growing over the past three decades, but wildlife biologist Serge Couturier says warmer winters and less snow cover make it easier for ticks to survive.
“Global warming is likely increasing their abundance,” he said in an interview in the woods near Tracy, N.B. “The northern limit is moving north, and north, and north.”
Ticks are an external parasite. They feed on the animal’s blood, staying on their skin for the fall and winter, until they drop off to lay their eggs on vegetation. Unlike deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, winter ticks do not carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. According to the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative, the meat of infected animals is suitable for humans to eat.
Jean-Pierre Tremblay, a professor in the department of biology at Laval University in Quebec City and principal investigator on the moose research project, says unlike other species, such as white-tailed deer, moose tolerate the ticks until it’s too late. Many moose end up weak with anemia.
Their skin also becomes inflamed and they change their behaviour, he says, spending more time grooming, rubbing against trees until their fur comes off and less time eating.
“That’s a critical time of year, at the end of winter, when they have used most of their fat reserve, especially for calves,” said Tremblay.
Trapping a moose
When the team spotted a moose from the air, Couturier shot a net from the helicopter to trap the animal — a technique he says is “very efficient, very safe” for the animals.
On the ground, a veterinarian was on hand to sedate the animal, monitor her breathing and temperature, and generally keep her comfortable.
“She’s not really anesthetized, just sedated,” said Dr. Benjamin Lamglait, after he had injected a 172-kilogram female calf. “We want her to be calm.”
The moose lay on the ground in the snow, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, a mask over her eyes, also to keep her calm.
When the scientists pulled open her fur, they revealed dozens of ticks attached to a tiny patch of the animal’s skin, literally sucking the life out of it. They estimated there were many thousands on her entire body.
When the team finished working on the moose they captured, the vet administered a reversal injection and within three minutes the animal woke up and walked away.
The team is in the process of weighing, measuring and tagging 116 moose with GPS collars in New Brunswick and Quebec. Half of them will be treated with a pesticide used to kill ticks and half won’t. This will help them determine whether the moose are dying from ticks or some other factor.
“Our GPS collars, we can control them remotely so we can get a location once every hour, or once every several hours,” said UNB master of science student Douglas Munn, who along with the other New Brunswick researchers is based in Fredericton.
Munn explained that the collars also track the animal’s activity in 15-minute increments, which he says allows him to determine whether heavily parasitized moose differ in how they move and select habitats.
Future forest management
J.D. Irving Woodlands Division is one of 16 partners on the project, including Parks Canada, the Government of Quebec and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Andrew Willett, director of research for J.D. Irving, says the company needs to understand how climate change is affecting the wildlife on its lands so that it can understand how the habitat is changing in order to potentially adapt its forest management.
“We’re planting a tree today, we’re going to harvest it in 40 years’ time,” he said. “The climate is going to be completely different in 40 years than it is today.”
The scientists say the work is important in part because the moose is such an emblematic animal in Canada.
“They’re an important game species,” said Munn. “But also because they’re valued spiritually by First Nations and Native Americans in the United States and Canada, and also because of their role in ecological systems.”
The Winisk River has been freezing later and later in the year. So, too, have the muskeg and the creeks and streams that then thaw in the warmer months, feeding into Hudson Bay.
“In the old days, everything used to freeze by the first of November,” says Sam Hunter, an environmental steward for Weenusk First Nation, at the southern end of Polar Bear Provincial Park. “Now, it’s around December.” Encompassing nearly 24,000 square kilometres, the park, established in 1970, is Ontario’s largest — and these bodies of water are essential to its ecosystem.
“For us, you can actually see [the permafrost] melting and turning into swampland, and trees are dying. Trees that sink right into the muskeg were once four or six feet on dry land,” says Hunter. The park is largely on the traditional Weenusk lands, and members still hunt, fish, and trap game, although global warming has brought new challenges: changing ice formations, for example, have led to hunts being called off.
And, according to a 2019 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada, even more dramatic changes are coming: the country is warming at double the global average; sea-ice coverage in northern Ontario is declining. TVO.org spoke to experts and researchers about how climate change is affecting wildlife at Polar Bear Provincial Park — and what risks are being posed to the major wetland area and to the people who live there.
“It’s difficult to specifically pinpoint to the park, but the broader [James Bay lowlands] polar-bear sub-population has likely declined over the last half decade or so by around 17 per cent,” says Joe Northrup, a Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry scientist.
In the winter, bears travel on the frozen surface of Hudson Bay to hunt seals and other animals. They return to shore when the ice melts, usually in July or August. As the ice now melts sooner and freezes later, the bears have less time to hunt and feed. “Every day that they’re on land, they’re burning close to a kilo of fat. They’re spending close to a month longer on land than they were 40 years ago,” Northrup says, adding that that means “more time spent fasting.”
And the longer they stay on land, the more likely polar bears are to encounter towns, heightening dangers for the people who live in them — and putting the animals at risk of being shot. Polar-bear sightings in places such as Fort Severn First Nation and Churchill, Manitoba, Northrop notes, are on the rise.
Because polar bears are the region’s top predator, Northrup says, they serve as a barometer for the overall health of its ecosystem. Most species, he says, “rely on ice for most aspects of their life. When we start to see declines in polar bears, it’s an indication that there’s a broader problem in the whole Arctic ecosystem.”
Warming temperatures have affected the growth cycles of plants, and that, in turn, has had an impact on snow geese and Canada geese hatchlings, which feed on greenery. “In some cases, they hatch well before the greenup,” says Ken Abraham, a former MNRF scientist who studied the region for many years (“greenup” refers to the point at which plants have reached their nutritional peak). “In some cases, they hatch after the greenup … the outcome of which is that goslings have poor growth and poor survival in certain years.”
Generally, though, warmer temperatures are helping to boost snow-geese populations — they’ve increased nearly tenfold over the past 40 years, says Abraham. And that has had an effect on the southern coastal lowlands regions in which they nest. To feed, geese pull out vegetation by the root, acting like manual “rototillers,” as Abraham puts it. Foraging areas can become bare — even desertified — and soil can become unfriendly to plants as saltwater from the coast seeps in. “Everything else that lives in that environment, whether it’s invertebrates, spiders, insects, or aquatic invertebrates” are subsequently affected, says Abraham. Water quality can suffer when shorelines erode. “It may pop a lot of nitrogen into the ponds, which might have an algal bloom,” he says. “It provides significantly less habitat in those areas.”
Climate change has resulted in the introduction of new species — garter snakes, pelicans, mountain lions — to the region. But it’s also made the park inhospitable to others. Over the past few years, Hunter says, the once-abundant muskrats have disappeared from the Winisk River and the surrounding creeks.
Hunter’s grandfather used to trap the small aquatic mammals — they had always, Hunter says, been a fixture of the ecosystem (and of the local diet). But warming temperatures have spurred the growth of the pike population, and pike prey on muskrat kits. “The weeds, they grow from the bottom of the river all the way up to the top of the water,” says Hunter, adding that this gives the predatory fish a competitive advantage for breeding and hunting.
On a past fishing trip with his uncle, Hunter recalls, he saw a massive four-foot pike snag an adult muskrat in the water. But 10 or 15 years ago, he noticed that something was different — muskrat populations seemed to be declining.
Now, he says, they’re gone.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It’s brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
Ontario’s Environment Minister has cancelled a $200-million wind farm south of Ottawa — one almost fully constructed — because the giant turbines pose a threat to nearby bat populations.
In a Dec. 4 letter, Minister Jeff Yurek said he’s revoking the approval given to the Nation Rise Wind Farm, which has already erected a number of the 29 planned turbines in a rural area near the villages of Crysler and Finch in the Township of North Stormont.
The surprising decision comes about seven months after construction began on the 100-megawatt project, proposed by EDP Renewables, a subsidiary of a multinational with North American headquarters in Texas.
Yurek wrote to Margaret Benke, an appellant and leading critic of Nation Rise, that he was concerned about the effect of 200-metre high turbines on colonies of Hoary bats and Big and Little Brown bats, the latter being listed on Ontario’s Species at Risk list.
“In my view, the harm will be both serious and irreversible to animal life given the relatively small bat species populations in the local area.”
The minister also said he has the authority to “confirm, alter or revoke” a January decision of the Environmental Review Tribunal “as I consider in the public interest.” He also said he had to consider the potential harm to the wildlife “in the context of the minimal contribution the project is likely to have on the electricity supply in Ontario.”
The wind farm had caused deep divisions in the community as the township had twice voted against being a “willing host” for the project.
While some 70 property owners were happy about leasing land to EDP, many others were concerned about noise, the visual disruption and the possible impacts on health and the water table in the area.
Benke is a founding member of the grassroots organization Concerned Citizens of North Stormont. She appealed the approval from the Review Tribunal, which had held nine days of hearings in the fall of 2018.
The retired principal, a lifelong resident of the area, said she had to read the Yurek letter twice to make sure she didn’t misunderstand the stunning outcome.
“I was thrilled,” she said Monday. “There is no real mitigation measure to protect the bats.” She’s been fighting the battle for more than four years and estimates Concerned Citizens has spent in excess of $100,000 to fight the plan.
EDP Renewables said it “strongly objects” to Yurek’s decision. It has, however, halted construction and is assessing “all potential legal actions” because the project was already approved by Yurek’s own’s ministry and ratified by the tribunal.
The Conservative government of Doug Ford — and the premier himself — have been critical of so-called industrial wind farms but this was the last one approved by the departing Liberal government in May 2018, only days before the election writ was dropped.
In July 2018, only weeks after taking office, the Ford government nixed the Green Energy Act and cancelled 758 early-stage renewable-energy projects.
EDP says the project has created more than 230 construction jobs and, over the next 30 years, would pump some $45 million into the local economy through municipal taxes, a community benefit fund, charitable contributions and landowner fees. It has already built a network of roads and laid a great deal of electrical cable in the area.
Since signing a contract in 2016, EDP has done a number of studies related to the effects of the wind farm, including noise models, a wildlife analysis, geological work, and following regulated setbacks of 550 metres from the nearest house.
It said experts had provide evidence the project would have “no material adverse effects” on the natural environment, including the bat population.
“Decisions of this nature should be based on science and law, yet there was no expert testimony or evidence presented at the Tribunal or to the Minister that would provide a reasonable rationale for the Minister’s decision.”
Opponents were thrilled to hear about the reversal, as even their own MPP had told them the project was too advanced to stop.
“I am ecstatic,” said Ruby Mekker, 68, a retired educator and one of the project’s most vocal opponents. “I can’t believe that they actually sided in favour of the people. I’m so thrilled.”
She says a handful of wells in the area have already had problems suspected to be connected to the wind farm infrastructure.
About six of the turbines are fully built and another half-dozen have the towers erected. The project was to be finished in the first quarter of 2020.
“We could be up to a month behind where we should be at this time of year”
“Freeze-up is very, very late this year,” says Gjoa Haven’s Willie Aglukkaq, who took this photo on Oct. 18. “Can still drive boats to mainland, which is very unusual for Gjoa Haven. Never seen the ocean open this late in my lifetime.” (Photo by Willie Aglukkaq)
“We were tied for the second-lowest [amount of ice] with 2007 and 2016, but quite a bit above 2012,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“But now we’re actually below 2012 levels for this time of year because it’s a slow freeze-up—2012 recovered pretty quickly, but we’ve been very sluggish in growing ice this year.”
As of Oct. 15, sea ice levels dropped below those from 2012, which previously held the record. (Graph courtesy of the NSIDC)
With sea ice growth, the big driver is air temperature.
“If you have an area of open water and the temperatures above it are cooler than the water temperature, it’ll lose heat into the atmosphere and the water will start cooling off to the point where it reaches freezing,” said Langis.
From April onward, every month has ranked in the top three warmest—in terms of Arctic air temperature—on record, with May and August now holding top spots.
According to Meier, because of this, there was an abundance of ice-free water throughout the summer that absorbed a lot of solar energy and warmed up quite a bit.
“That heat is just taking a while to dissipate into the atmosphere and for the ocean to cool enough to grow ice.”
(Photo courtesy of UNEP)
What’s going on this year is representative of something larger.
“Under the influence of global heating caused by human-induced greenhouse gases emissions, we have seen a sharp decrease in the extent of Arctic sea [ice] since 1979,” says Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva, in a press release published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Much like the scenario currently playing out across the Arctic this year, declining sea ice has amplified Arctic warming over the last several decades.
According to the press release, “Temperatures increased by around 0.5°C per decade between 1982 and 2017, primarily due to increased absorbed solar radiation accompanying sea ice loss since 1979. This is twice as fast as the global average.”
This season isn’t an exception.
But while the year-to-year trend continues on, ice coverage this year is on the rebound.
“It’s just finally starting to freeze,” said Aglukkaq.
Over the last 10 days, since Oct. 20, sea ice coverage has increased by almost 1.5 million square kilometres, including the water near Gjoa Haven.
If the current pace of ice growth continues, 2019 may soon once again be above 2012 levels.
EDMONTON, Alberta, Oct 18 (Reuters) – Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s planned march in Canada’s energy heartland of Alberta will face a counter-rally by a convoy of oil and gas workers on Friday.
The truck convoy organized by pro-oil group United We Roll left the city of Red Deer on Friday morning, bound for Edmonton where the organizers plan to protest against outside interference.
“I am asking everyone connected to the oil and gas industry to come out in unity to show Greta we do not need her yelling at us,” United We Roll said on its Facebook page, adding that Alberta was proud of its “clean energy.”
Swedish activist Thunberg, who has mobilized a global youth movement against climate change, faces a difficult audience in Alberta where the energy sector provides 150,000 direct jobs and contributes more than C$71 billion ($54.1 billion) annually to Canada’s gross domestic product.
Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg
Thunberg’s Edmonton march, which is being organized by indigenous and environmental groups, comes days before a tight Canadian federal election in which climate change and the future of Canada’s oil and gas sector are hot topics.
Premier Jason Kenney said he has not had any request to meet Thunberg and hoped she would take a “fair and objective look” at Alberta’s energy sector. Last month in Montreal she met privately with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a massive rally in Montreal.
Canada is the world’s fourth-largest oil and gas producer but the sector, which accounts for roughly 11% of GDP, has struggled to recover from the 2014-15 global oil price crash because of delays building new export pipelines as a result of environmental opposition and regulatory hold-ups.
Its vast oil sands, which hold the third-largest crude reserves globally, have been blacklisted by environmentalists for high carbon emissions and many oil and gas workers feel unfairly targeted by foreign activists.
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Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Fonda have campaigned against the sector after visits to northern Alberta where some 3 million barrels of bitumen are extracted every day.
United We Roll organized a truck convoy across Canada earlier this year protesting new energy sector regulations introduced by the Liberal government.
Edmonton Police Service (EPS) said they were aware of the climate rally and convoy counter-protest and had prepared as they would for any major event. ($1 = 1.3134 Canadian dollars) (Writing by Nia Williams; Editing by Alexander Smith)
Russ Fee rushed to a neighbouring campsite when he heard screaming and found a wolf trying to drag a man away
CBC News ·
Russ Fee thought the panicked voices rising from the campsite next to his were from parents whose child had gone missing — until he heard both a man and a woman desperately scream, “Help!”
Panicked himself, Fee fumbled with the zipper on his tent, finally got the mesh door open and rushed over with a lantern in hand.
At the neighbouring campsite, the Calgary man saw a wolf trying to drag something from a destroyed tent, like a dog yanking at a bone.
“It was just so much larger than any dog I’ve ever seen,” Fee told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.
Rare wolf attack
A Calgary man witnessed a serious wolf attack while camping last week in Banff National Park. We hear more about what he saw. 8:17
Inside the tent was a family of four visiting Banff, Alta., from New Jersey — two young boys and their mom and dad. The father’s arm was clamped in the animal’s jaws as he tried to fend off the wolf.
Fee made a snap decision on how to help.
“I had a good run going at the time … and it was just so quick and the screams were so intense, that I knew it was obviously a terrible situation, so I just kind of kept running at it and I just kicked it sort of in the back hip area.”
An opponent ‘out of my weight class’
Fee doesn’t think his kick injured the wolf, but it was enough to startle it.
The animal let go of its would-be prey — the father, Matt Rispoli — but didn’t run away.
Fee started wondering if he had made a big mistake.
“I felt like I had kind of punched someone that was way out of my weight class,” he said.
“I immediately regretted kicking it, but as soon as it popped out of the tent, Matt came flying out. His whole half side was just covered in blood, but he was pretty amped up too, so we both just started screaming at it.”
Fee says the animal backed off a bit, but they had to throw rocks at it to keep it at bay.
Eventually, Fee and the American family fled to Fee’s campsite and joined his wife, taking shelter in their vehicle.
The view from inside the tent
Elisa Rispoli, Matt’s wife, posted the story from her point of view from inside the tent on Facebook.
She says her husband threw himself between the snarling wolf and his family.
“I laid my body on top of the kids and Matt pinned the wolf to the ground and held open its jaw with his hands, and the wolf started to drag Matt away, while I was pulling on his legs trying to get him back,” wrote Elisa.
“I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly describe the terror.”
She wrote that Matt suffered puncture wounds and cuts on his arms and hands, but that he’s OK.
Jon Stuart-Smith, a wildlife management specialist with Parks Canada, said this is the first incident of its kind within a national park.
“There have been two other incidents in provincial parks, one in B.C. and one in Ontario,” he said. “These three incidents are the only ones where people have actually been injured [in protected areas like provincial parks and national parks].”
Smith said there have been other incidents outside of parks where people have been injured in wolf attacks.
Previously, the federal agency said there were “no significant wildlife attractants or food found inside or in the immediate vicinity of the tent.”
Rampart Creek Campground, where the attack took place, has since reopened.
WATCH: After a difficult year for the chucks at the Calgary Stampede, one chuckwagon driver is sharing his perspective on a safety review into the deaths of six horses and the future of the sport.
Jordie Fike and his team of thoroughbreds are back home for some rest after a tough year for the GMC Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede.
“The chuckwagon community is still mourning,” Fike said. “We lost family members. It hurts.”
Six horses died over 10 days in incidents related to the chuckwagon races, compared to no deaths at in at least three other circuit stops this year.
Fike isn’t sure why that’s the case, but he acknowledged that for drivers, the stakes are very high at Stampede.
He hopes to share a competitor’s perspective on the Stampede’s safety review.
“Our sport has evolved a long way. If it needs more in the name of horse safety, the drivers are all for it,” Fike, a fourth-generation driver, said. “During a race, if you feel something is wrong, you just do your best to save your animals.
It’s a view shared by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the national body representing Canada’s veterinarians.
“Thoroughbreds are very much bred to race,” CVMA council member Dr. Trevor Lawson said from the group’s annual conference in Toronto. “However, any animal put in a situation that maybe doesn’t provide ideal conditions could provide risk. Many thoroughbreds race uneventfully without harm.”
The CVMA accepts the humane use of animals in competition and sport, according to its official position statement.
“Risk of injury, suffering, illness, and distress must be mitigated during training, sport and competition and every opportunity must be provided for the expression of normal behaviour in the rest periods between training, sporting, and competition events,” part of the statement reads.
Climate change is no longer theoretical. It’s in our backyard.
Here are four snapshots of this new reality — and what we’re doing about it.
The only thing I’m thinking is my mama burning alive, and she’ll be crying out my name.
When John Bino learned that a wildfire was closing in on his home in Fort McMurray’s Abasand neighbourhood on May 3, 2016, he was at work — one and a half hours away.
John Bino holds up the framed number of his house in Fort McMurray.
John Bino holds up the framed number of his house in Fort McMurray, which burned to the ground in the 2016 wildfire. (Craig Chivers/CBC)
He called home and told his wife, Jenny Solidum, to gather their two young boys and go to a friend’s place in nearby Timberlea. In the meantime, Bino would drive back to the house to retrieve his 76-year-old mother, who was visiting from India. She was a polio survivor and too heavy for his wife to lift.
But by the time he arrived at home, police had barricaded the road. Bino pleaded with them to let him through.
“I said, ‘My mom, she’s handicapped, she cannot move. She doesn’t speak the language. She’s stuck. She has no idea what’s happening. We need to rescue her and the door is locked.'”
Police assured him his mother would be rescued and told him to go. Bino waited hours at a nearby evacuation centre. But Solidum kept calling him, in a panic, as the fire approached Timberlea.
“I had to make a decision, right? To take care of my wife and kids or to take care of my mom.” Bino decided to rejoin his family. But as they fled north from evacuation centre to evacuation centre and eventually onto a flight to Calgary, Bino made frantic phone calls to 911 and the Red Cross. No one knew anything about his mother’s whereabouts.
Bino tried not to dwell on reports that Abasand was burning. “The only thing I’m thinking is my mama burning alive, and she’ll be crying out my name.”
Two days after being forced to abandon his home, Bino got a surprise phone call. A doctor at Leduc Community Hospital, just outside Edmonton, asked if he knew someone named Salimma Michael, who had been airlifted to safety.
“I was so relieved, my knees were shaking,” Bino said. The family rushed to Edmonton, and arrived at the hospital to visit Michael the next morning.
When Bino and Solidum bought the house in Abasand back in 2014, they loved the fact that the neighbourhood was on a hill surrounded by forest. “The trails were great. And it was peaceful and quiet,” Bino said. “No one ever mentioned [anything] about forest fires being a risk.”
Infographic showing the number of hectares burned by wildfires each year across Canada. Source: National Forestry Database
There has been a “significant increase” in the area burned by wildfires each year across Canada, Environment Canada reports. On average, wildfires in Canada have been burning 2.5 million hectares a year (nearly half the area of Nova Scotia) — double the 1970s average. B.C. and Alberta have been bearing the brunt of that increase.
Source: National Forestry Database
Climate change has increased the risk of major wildfires by extending the fire season by several weeks and generating hotter, drier conditions that support more extreme, fast-burning fires. The Fort McMurray fire in 2016, nicknamed “The Beast,” led to the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history. By the time it was extinguished that August, the fire had destroyed 6,000 square kilometres and caused $3.8 billion in insured damage alone.
When Bino and Solidum finally returned to the house, it was among 2,400 buildings that had burned to the ground. Almost everything the family owned was gone — from their children’s first locks of hair to a medal of valour Bino’s late father had received from the Indian navy.
The events of those few, intense days changed Bino’s perspective. “You know, we got our mom back. So to hell with the stuff, right?” But their struggles weren’t over. Solidum was so traumatized by the event, and the guilt of leaving Bino’s mother behind, that for more than a year, she became shell-shocked and unresponsive whenever she heard sirens or saw flashing lights.
Ashy remains of Bino’s neighbourhood after the wildfire had been extinguished.
This photo of the Abasand neighbourhood after the fire was taken by John Bino’s neighbour, Peter Fortna, when residents were allowed to return and look for belongings that may have survived. (Peter Fortna)
Bino also suffered. He was laid off from his engineering job, and once the family had settled in Edmonton, he got a position that required a five-hour commute back to Fort McMurray. Bino ended up quitting that job to care for his mother, but the situation eventually became untenable, and he was forced to send his mother back to India.
In spite of the trauma, Bino said the whole experience left him with a deep sense of gratitude for his family’s safety and care.
“The government, people — everybody was so helpful. It was amazing. It was like … how do people care about each other so damn much here?”
Adapting to wildfires
Climate change is the biggest and most significant factor behind the increase in wildfire risk and damage, said Laura Stewart, president of Firesmart Canada, which provides tools to communities to reduce the risks and impacts of wildfires.
But the development of industry and housing in forested or grassland areas also plays a role — as illustrated by Fort McMurray’s Abasand neighbourhood, which is surrounded by boreal forest.
Boreal forests contain trees like jack pine and lodgepole pine, whose seed cones only open when exposed to heat, and are reliant on wildfires to regenerate.
Natural Resources Canada estimates the cost of managing wildfires has been rising about $120 million per decade since 1970, to an annual cost of up to $1 billion in recent years.
Governments and communities can reduce the risks and impacts of wildfires by:
Imposing fire bans or even forest closures to shut down industrial operations when the risk of fires is high.
Thinning or removing conifer trees in surrounding communities to reduce the risk of crown fires, which spread from treetop to treetop, and are the most intense and dangerous wildland fires.
Creating fire breaks around communities, such as golf courses and soccer fields.
Burying power lines to eliminate the risk of them starting fires (as happened in California in 2018).
Deep in the ocean west of British Columbia, salmon eat fish and plankton before they head inland to spawn. Well-fed enough to make it upriver, they swim back toward the coast and past the islands of Haida Gwaii, where the area’s indigenous population fishes them.
That’s how it was for decades. But in the 2000s, fish populations were declining, and unemployment among the Haida was high.
Enter an eccentric San Francisco-based entrepreneur named Russ George. He had spent much of his career bouncing between ambitious environmental projects: cold fusion, reforestation, and, most recently at the time, a startup called Planktos, which focused on something called “ocean restoration.”
In 2011, George told the Haida residents of the village of Old Massett that he could bring back the salmon. The plan? To drop a hundred tons of iron dust in the middle of the ocean, a few hundred nautical miles west of the islands. The method had been tried before, but George was attempting it at a larger scale.
His theory: that the iron would trigger an algae bloom about the size of Jamaica over the course of the following weeks. The salmon would feed on the algae (and the smaller fish it attracted). And the uneaten algae would take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then sink to the ocean floor when it died off, essentially “capturing” carbon at the bottom of the sea. They’d fight climate change and restore their fisheries at the same time.
With the Haida’s blessing (and money from their economic development fund), George and his crew of 11 ventured into the cold waters of the Pacific in July 2012. The ship, the Ocean Pearl, was outfitted with state-of-the-art oceanographic equipment borrowed from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and with 100 tons of iron sulfate in a fine greenish-brown dust.
The ship zigzagged slowly across the target patch of ocean. The iron, mixed into an acidic slurry, got dumped — and that’s when the trouble began for George. Upon his return to land, he was accused of violating international law. The agencies whose equipment he’d borrowed renounced him, claiming they hadn’t known what he was really up to. Canada investigated him for illegal dumping.
“The story was that I was an independent and rogue geoengineer,” George told me this spring. “The facts prove that those are utter lies.”
Seven years later, George’s venture into the Pacific has become a flashpoint in the growing debate over the possibilities and limits of technology and unilateral action to fight climate change.
George points out that, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the year after his venture saw a record salmon harvest. He also insists that the data he was collecting would have demonstrated that he had succeeded in removing carbon, if the Canadian government hadn’t seized it for an investigation.
But environmentalist groups saw things differently, accusing George of illegal dumping and of being a dangerous distraction to better climate mitigation efforts. Experts say the salmon boom is hard to attribute to George’s actions, and the carbon benefits unproven. And in George’s broader ambitions to curb climate change unilaterally, they saw something frightening — the dawn of the age in which actors take matters into their own hands and attempt to solve the climate crisis themselves.
“What would the world do if someone were to decide to go ahead and undertake unilateral action?” Janos Pasztor, the executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, asked me.
In a recent paper, Pasztor warned of a “chaotic and dangerous future” where “a single country, a large company or indeed a wealthy individual might take unilateral action on climate geoengineering” — perhaps injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, which would change the climate a lot faster than any ocean dumping ever could.
What happens when some individual or country wants to go big in the battle against climate change without buy-in from their neighbors? Could a country unilaterally pursue climate solutions that, unlike ocean iron dumping, pose substantial risks?
The first time we were confronted with this dilemma in the form of George’s voyage, it was a mostly harmless small-scale experiment. We may not be so lucky with future attempts.
Geoengineering refers to deliberate, typically large-scale intervention in the Earth’s ecosystems to slow or reverse climate change. These proposals commonly fall into two camps. In the first camp is solar geoengineering: to cool the planet by, say, imitating the cooling atmospheric effects of a supervolcano via releasing chemicals into the upper atmosphere.
The second set of proposals involves the removal of carbon from the atmosphere, often via alteration of Earth’s ecosystems to use — and keep — more carbon.
The two strategies are very different, and the term “geoengineering” is sometimes wielded to misleadingly conflate them. But there are important similarities. Both of them might be necessary parts of the climate solution. Both of them can also affect the whole world — but don’t require worldwide buy-in to pull off.
While George’s stunt raises the specter of one form of disaster — zealots or billionaires trying to take the climate into their own hands — many experts think the more plausible scenarios involve nation-states, perhaps driven to desperation by a rapidly changing world.
“As effects intensify, the propensity toward unilateral action will grow stronger,” Florian Rabitz, a political scientist at Kaunas University of Technology, told me. His paper “Going rogue? Scenarios for unilateral geoengineering” explores the plausibility of “rogue rich guy” scenarios as well as geopolitical ones.
While he thinks it’d be easy to shut down future individual actors before they do too much damage, major nation-states could move ahead with a project and leave their neighbors few alternatives but war. “We have countries with serious climate risks, like China, where a lot of the climate centers are in coastal regions. India, similar story,” he told me. “If one of those countries decided to go unilateral, there’s a lot of scope for conflict.”
But while the urgency over geoengineering has been mounting, international policy hasn’t really kept up. And that’s why George’s 2012 excursion was seen as a harbinger of future trouble.
Iron dust in the oceans
The idea George pitched to the Haida villagers was simple. Large areas of the ocean have sunlight but little plant life. There aren’t enough nutrients for many plants to grow there, and things that feed on them can’t grow there either.
Some scientists, starting with oceanographer John Martin in 1990, have argued that the missing ingredient is iron, which would greatly enhance ocean plants’ ability to make use of the rest of the nutrients in the ocean. More plants would lead to more salmon.
Martin once declared: “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.”Research has proven to be more equivocal. A large-scale iron fertilization experiment in 2000 was unable to detect any significant carbon uptake, leading some to argue that iron fertilization won’t work; a review in 2008 of such research argued that most early studies were poorly designed and wouldn’t have observed carbon capture even if substantial carbon capture occurred.
The 2012 foray wasn’t even George’s first attempt at rolling back global warming with an ocean dump. In 2007, he had planned a similar project winding around much of the Pacific, hoping to dump up to 100 tons of iron into the water.
But the plan was scuttled amid outrage from regulators and scientific andenvironmental groups. ETC Group, an advocacy organization focused on environmental issues, issued a press releasecondemning George titled “Geoengineers to Foul Galápagos Seas.” (George and Planktos had been trying to avoid the “geoengineering” label — they prefer “ocean restoration.”) “Climate change should be tackled by reducing emissions, not by altering ocean ecosystems,” Dr. Paul Johnston, head of Greenpeace International’s science unit, said in the ETC Group press release.
Recounting the experience years later, George remains embittered by what he sees as unfair treatment by the media and advocacy groups.
“There was this maelstrom of anti-Planktos, anti-Russ George, anti-ocean restoration publicity,” he told me. He seethed at what he saw as inaccurate claims by critics, including allegations that he’d be dumping near protected areas and their representation of the scientific consensus as having settled that ocean iron fertilization could never work.
“They knew full well that was an utter lie,” he added. (Greenpeace, responding to George’s charge, stands by Johnston’s assessment at the time.)
But that failure did not stop George. One of the dumping grounds he’d been considering for subsequent excursions, if the 2008 voyage had gone better, had been a location off the coast of British Columbia. And he had contacts: In 2004, running a reforestation community, he’d worked with Old Massett’s economic development officer John Disney.
“He told us he was the world’s leading expert on OIF [ocean iron fertilization],” Disney told an interviewer in 2017. Disney, in turn, pitched the plan to locals as a route to financial independence. “Old Massett is controlled by the outside world,” hetold residents at these meetings. “You need to create your own wealth to govern yourselves.”
With funding and backing from Old Massett’s community, plus oceanographic equipment borrowed from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to measure the results, the Ocean Pearl set off.
“It worked like a charm,” George told me. “We put 100 tons of rock dust into 10,000 square kilometers. And that area of ocean swirled and mixed and the ocean bloomed immediately. Fish arrived by the tens of thousands, whales arrived by the hundreds.” (Satellite imagery confirmed the magnitude of the algae bloom.)
George argues that the project succeeded at capturing carbon too. There’s no available evidence to back him up — it’s exceptionally difficult to measure the carbon captured by experiments like these, and the results from more carefully controlled experiments are not promising.
It wasn’t until a few months after George’s experiment that the word got out, with a report in the Guardian raising outrage worldwide. Environmentalists worried that experiments like these could trigger ecological catastrophes. “Ministers of the government of Canada stood up inside Parliament and called me a criminal,” George laments.
Initial reporting suggested that George might have broken international law. But no law clearly applies, environmental law analysts point out, and the real situation is in some ways even worse — George probablydidn’t break international law, mostly because international law is profoundly unequipped to deal with rogue actors.
In 2008, in response to George’s first experiment, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted resolutions frowning on ocean fertilization and geoengineering. The signatories — Canada among them — agreed to “ensure … that no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place” until there is an “adequate” scientific basis for them or unlessthey’re small-scale and for the sole purpose of research.
But “it doesn’t have any legal teeth,” Andy Parker, who studies governance for solar geoengineering at the University of Bristol, told me. It’s not clear whom enforcement would fall to or what forms it could take. It’s not clear how disputes are resolved.
Indeed, here are some questions that international law leaves unanswered: If one country undertakes a project that harms their neighbors, can their neighbors demand it stop? Demand compensation? Whose buy-in is needed to embark on a large project?
UCLA environmental law professor Ted Parson told me that these discussions are mired in the same inaction that characterizes international climate negotiations generally. Until we fix that, he argued, George’s project — and other interventions like it — “exist in a near legal vacuum.”
Researchers have conducted extremely small-scale tests of solar engineering, as well as continuing to explore ocean fertilization. These ideas have graduated from fringe proposals to ones seriously contemplated in the IPCC’s most recent report on the state of options for managing climate change.
So geoengineering is being taken more seriously as part of the response to climate change — but geoengineering governance remains stalled at, basically, nothing.
That opens us up to trouble. One 2018 paper outlined one (deeply unlikely) nightmare scenario: some desperate anti-climate change group calling on individuals to release heat-reflecting particles in weather balloons — which would be a chaotic, uncontrolled way to do solar geoengineering. A former United Nations climate official has warned of a different kind of nightmare scenario, “where a country decides to do geoengineering and another country decides to do counter-geoengineering” — escalating tensions and maybe provoking a war.
“At some point,” Rabitz told me, “we might stumble into geoengineering when it turns out that climate change is worse than we thought, and some government might rush into a geoengineering scheme without governance measures in place.”
When Russ George dumped iron filings in the ocean, the world was outraged, critics issued condemnations, and experts talked soberly about the potential for disaster. But we failed — as we have on climate change in general — to build any kind of international consensus about a solution.
In the meantime, we live in a world where anyone can dump iron into the oceans, and where local, commercial, and national actors might move ahead with larger-scale interventions as climate change worsens. Recent papers have outlined new ways that individuals could DIY-engineer our planet out of the climate crisis — or at least try, with uncertain consequences. Are we more prepared for that than we were in 2012? Not really.
Russ George, for his part, considers himself vindicated, and told me he’s continuing to work. In his last email to me, he signed off: “The greatest threat to the environment is waiting for someone else to save it.”
There are 65 species of plants and animals living in the Credit River watershed that are at risk of extinction.
Earlier this month, United Nations (UN) agency Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a critical report assessing 1 million species threatened with extinction across the world. It was compiled by 145 experts from 50 different countries based on a review of 15,000 scientific and government sources.
The report blamed the stark rise of at-risk species on human land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. It also made recommendations for governments to act in response to the “unprecedented” species extinction in human history.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide,” IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said.
Credit Valley Conservation ecologist Laura Timms says the numbers are higher than what’s expected for “baseline extinction” — species that go extinct because of natural processes.
“The number of species going extinct now is way higher because of human activity,” she said. “There’s a lot of evidence for it.”
An example from the watershed is the Jefferson Salamander. It’s a salamander that lives in the wetlands and forests that has been threatened by development and land conversion in Brampton and Mississauga.
“They’re a symptom of this problem of wetland loss,” Timms said.
She explained Ontario has lost around 85 per cent of its wetlands since European settlement and that the loss of wetlands not only threatens species, but flood attenuation.
Another example of an at-risk species in the watershed is the Bank Swallow. This bird, an aerial insectivore, is in decline, which inadvertently increases the number of mosquitoes — their prey. Timms added that there are indeed “more mosquitoes around these days.”
In the watershed, land development is the primary cause of creating at-risk species, Timms identified.
UTM associate professor of political science and geography Andrea Olive says the IPBES report coincides with new changes to the Endangered Species Act.
Olive says when it comes to environmental matters in the watershed, they’re a provincial responsibility.
“Ontario’s Endangered Species Act was seen as the best one in Canada,” Olive said. “But now, you can pay to get out of protecting a species.”
Olive is referring to changes to the act proposed through Bill 108, which would allow developers to pay a charge or a mitigation fee to build in areas where there are endangered species. The money would be collected into a fund that is intended to be used for conservation and other services.
“You can never pay enough,” she said. “You’ll never be able to replace the habitat.”
At-risk species in the Credit River watershed:
Blue-spotted Jefferson Salamander
Western Chorus Frog
American White Pelican
Lake Ontario Kiyi
Eastern Persius Duskywing
West Virginia White
Eastern Small footed Myotis (bat)
Little Brown Myotis
Eastern Flowering Dogwood
Midland Painted Turtle
Northern Map Turtle
Ali Raza is a reporter for Mississauga News and Brampton Guardian. Reach him via email: email@example.com