Feel good about your information and become a local news champion today

Heat-related climate risks pose a complex threat to Calgary, committee hears

Prolonged and intense heat poses a significant risk today and into the future, and has a far-reaching impact, according to Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) chief.

Councillors attending the Emergency Management Committee meeting on Thursday got a high-level look at the potential risk of increasing heat and how the City of Calgary will manage it moving forward.

CEMA Chief Sue Henry said the delivery of this report came at an opportune time.

“We’re normally months away from the hot dry days of summer and that is not the case this year,” Chief Henry said.

“As you know, we are experiencing some very high temperatures and conditions that are at or near record-breaking this season.”

She said heat-related risks are complex and they pose a significant risk to communities and businesses. Henry said, however, their emergency management practices have evolved to put effort toward proactively managing the risks rather than deal with the consequences of inaction.

“The effectiveness of this pre-work, starting with the risk assessment, increases resilience and directly correlates to successful response and recovery,” Chief Henry said.

Five primary heat-related risks were outlined in the CEMA report.

Further, Henry said that climate-related impacts beyond Calgary – such as Western Canada wildfires – have also had an impact on things such as water and air quality. These heat-related risks are all interrelated and contribute to one another she said.

“For example, wildland fires contribute to poor air quality and the potential for water contamination. We know drought and heat also contribute to the risk for wildfires,” she said.

“Some of these events are immediate and acute, such as extreme heat events, and some are more gradual and longer in duration, such as a drought risk.”

City working on solutions

Chief Henry said that the city’s common goal is to reduce the vulnerability and increase the city’s resilience to the risks.  Each city department differs in its approach, but their work is complementary, she said.

“Our emergency management is more focused on the near-term risks and addressing those that are existing and emerging,” she said.

“Our work also focuses on a broader range of risks including natural, technological and human-induced hazards.”

Others, like climate and environment, look at the future and longer timelines for climate impact over decades rather than years.

Terri Lang, with Environment and Climate Change Canada said that in Canada, the warming trends are at a much higher rate than most parts of the world. In the Calgary area, between 1948 and 2012 there was a mean annual temperature increase of 1.5 to 1.75 degrees Celsius – with the world average around one degree Celsius.

“Our warming climate is expected to intensify some weather extremes in the future,” Lang said.

“Extreme hot temperatures will become more frequent and intense, resulting in an increased severity of heat waves being bringing an increased risk of drought and wildfire.”

To address some of the human risks associated with heating, the city is already requiring cooling requirements in affordable housing projects and in downtown office-to-residential conversions. For smaller building projects they’re installing heat pumps to improve cooling while reducing energy use.

The city has created a place-based heat map that shows natural cooling areas (water parks, rivers, natural canopy coverage) and warm areas (pavement and mall areas) to better inform future planning. That will be available for public use later this year.

Water risk is highlighted

Dawn Smith with the City’s Climate Adaptation team said potential drought brings about a number of issues.

“The biophysical impacts of drought are significant, including wind erosion, reduced streamflow and groundwater reductions,” she said.

Smith said there are a number of plans that address the safe supply of water in Calgary.

A long-term drought resilience plan is being developed by city administration and will be presented to Calgary city council later this year.

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner, who is chair of the Emergency Management Committee said that water plays a significant role and is intertwined with other aspects such as tree canopy.

“Calgary is in a really fortunate position with our proximity to the watershed,” Penner said.

“However, we know the watersheds decreasing and I think what’s really important is our proximity means that other people are far away.”

Penner said managing water in the future will be an ongoing discussion, particularly around licensing.

Frank Frigo, Manager of Environmental Management at the City of Calgary, said they’ve also been looking at how to use stormwater in different ways. That might include changing retention ponds to allow for more potential irrigation.

“We’re really trying to unpack that very carefully understand what the opportunities are, and shift away from having just short-term storage and some of our stormwater facilities and other facilities for longer-term storage that can take us more through that seasonal period,” he said.