A new project launched in April 2011 at the University of Regina will study how climate change will impact the Prairies, especially the agricultural and Indigenous communities. This five-year project, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) under the International Research Initiative on Adaptation to Climate Change (IRIACC) is part of a $2.5 million international project on Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Extremes in the Americas.
“The project goal is to examine how vulnerable people and regions can adapt to climate change and extreme climate events such as severe flooding or drought,” explains Dr. David Sauchyn, Senior Research Scientist with the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC). “As part of an international project, we have teamed up with scientists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, who are doing research in similar types of watersheds.”
Two watersheds in the southern Prairies were selected, the Swift Current Creek Basin in Saskatchewan, a mostly dryland region, and the Oldman River Basin in Alberta, which includes both dryland and irrigation. “Our South American colleagues are conducting similar research in watersheds where lots of people derive their water and irrigation from snow melt in the Andes Mountains,” says Sauchyn. “These five regions of the Americas have some similar issues in terms of vulnerabilities to extreme climate and the impacts of climate change.”
The first project theme is a regional vulnerability assessment, which includes discussions with as many people as possible in the watershed communities to find out their experience with extreme climate, the impacts and their capacity. “The farm community is one of the primary focuses, as they tend to be the ones most exposed to the weather and climate,” says Sauchyn. “The project will look at farm management practices, government policies, regulations, land use plans and other factors.”
The second theme focuses on the natural sciences and the climate and agro-ecological variability in the region. “There is a fair bit of evidence that the Prairies have been the subject of some fairly intense flooding and drought just in the last 10 years, and more scientific evidence that with a warming world we can expect more extreme climates and more often,” explains Sauchyn. “We want to test this by collecting as much scientific data as we can to look at indications that conditions are getting worse and linked to climate change. Then we will ask people how prepared they are for more events of this size and frequency.”
The third theme is an integrative risk analysis. “We need to hear from the people on the ground in these communities, because they are the ones who know best what is happening, and stand to be impacted the most,” said Sauchyn. “The more we know about possible impacts, the better able we are to deal and adapt to potential change.”
Collaborative Research and Communities
Researchers initiated in-depth consultations with external partners and key stakeholders in the two study areas at the start of the project. “In Alberta we partnered with the Oldman Watershed Council, other external partners including Alberta Agriculture, Alberta Environment, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and others,” explains Sauchyn. “Our partners are helping us a great deal and are our presence in the community. Through these collaborative partnerships, we are able to work with many of the people that live and work in the basin.”
Research and collaboration with communities is ongoing, and although researchers will lead the process, they rely on the communities for input and decisions. “Participants will be asked to assess their risks and vulnerabilities, determine why they experience damage and losses when there are extreme climate events and identify some practices and tools that can help avoid some of the hardship and save a little money,” says Sauchyn. “Over the winter, three students will be spending several weeks talking to as many people as they can in the Pincher Creek and Taber areas. They will compile the results of those interviews and have some insight into what people have experienced and what they think.”
At the same time, researchers will be compiling a large scientific database of the basin, collecting information from weather stations, satellites and other sources. In previous research, Sauchyn and his students have collected samples from 1000-year old trees in the Oldman basin, which shows the water availability over the past 1000 years. “This information helps us look at the natural cycles in the climate and helps us understand how global warming is changing what used to be natural cycles,” says Sauchyn. “These cycles have always been around, they are just shifting in terms of their magnitude and intensity.”
Researchers will present their initial findings based on the science and discussions with all stakeholders to the communities. “We want communities to have ownership of this project and are open to any kind of recommendation or proposal on how we can improve the resilience and sustainability of communities,” explains Sauchyn. “We will help them examine the science, identify gaps in policies and then work with the community to identify practices and tools that will help them improve their capacity to deal with extreme climate.” Project updates will be provided through newsletters, the website and community forums.