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What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods

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This week:

  • What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods
  • Canada’s transition … to SUVs
  • Trash pandas in Calgary? Sightings raise questions about growing raccoon population

What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods

What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods
(Loren McGinnis/CBC)

What On Earth27:01Revisiting the Fort Simpson flood

The latest UN climate report warns that now is the time for communities to prepare for climate change. What On Earth guest host Loren McGinnis finds out how Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is tackling the problem, months after the village flooded. 27:01

After going through a devastating flood in May 2021, the people of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., not only had to hunker down for a massive cleanup but also reckon with the fact that climate change was making the threat of flooding ever-present.

The original Dene name for the spot where Fort Simpson sits is Liidlii Kue, which means where two rivers meet. In this case, the Liard and the Mackenzie, which are both huge.

Fort Simpson is home to about 1,200 people, about two-thirds of whom live on an island accessed by a short causeway that connects to the rest of the community, which is located on a hilly boreal forest landscape. 

After the river peaked last spring, much of the island was underwater. 

“I just thought, wow, this is my community really being destroyed by the river,” Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said in an interview for What On Earth. “All we could do is pray at that point that it wouldn’t get any worse.”

While the N.W.T.’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs does not have an official tally of how many people were displaced in the communities hit by the floods, more than 100 homes and businesses were damaged. Eighteen homes were beyond repair and demolished, nine of which were in Fort Simpson.  

Derek and Julia Erasmus and their daughters, now two and six, lived in one of those houses. At first, they thought it might be saved. But the damage was too much. And its location on the banks of the river meant they would constantly live in fear of future floods.

To access government support, they had to agree to move off the island to a property on higher ground. In October, their flood-damaged home was demolished. 

“I’ll miss the view — that’s beautiful,” said Julia Erasmus. “But you know this [new place], it’ll be surrounded by trees. Trees are gorgeous, too.” 

After watching the village become submerged in water last spring, Whelly is rethinking where buildings are constructed and how infrastructure is developed. For example, the community has hopes for a new health centre. But after the flood, Whelly is adamant it must be located off the island. This gradual, deliberate move away from the town’s original geographic footprint is a form of managed retreat.

Whelly is also lobbying to have existing infrastructure relocated. The flood shut down the diesel power plant, and he’s worried that flooding and erosion could see the water treatment plant crumble down the bank and into the river. 

This type of vulnerability was highlighted in the recently released report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC takes aim at policy-makers with a focus on impacts, adaptation and on worsening problems if we don’t change course. 

In a section on climate-resilient development, the report says including local and Indigenous knowledge leads to decisions that are “more effective and sustainable, because they are locally appropriate and lead to more legitimate, relevant and effective actions.”

To that point, Dene people are pushing to help lead big decisions about the future of Fort Simpson. 

Gerald Antoine, who was chief of the Liidlii Kue First Nation last spring and is now national chief of the Dene Nation, said the history of excluding Indigenous perspectives is part of the story of why the flood was so devastating. 

The original traders and the Hudson Bay Company saw the island as a strategic place for business and settlement. 

“Dene people are very knowledgeable about their home. And the elders and the families of that area know that that place is a sandbar,” said Antoine. 

Whelly, who is non-Indigenous, said the flood taught people a lesson about the importance of Dene perspectives.

“As we get ready for another spring flood-risk situation, I’m making sure that we’ve got First Nation, Indigenous participation in all of the planning activities that we’re going to be undertaking. It’s not just lip service — we have to have that kind of input.”

With this year’s spring breakup nearing, the threat of another flood is a reminder that the village must change. 

“In 40 or 50 years, there’ll still be a town down on this island,” said Whelly. But that will be the old town. 

“I hope that we’ll have a rejuvenated, newer town off the island.”

Loren McGinnis

Reader feedback

Last week’s story on climate anxiety garnered a number of emails.

Janet Lewis:

“It’s a small thing, but I have found that staying mostly clear of television reports that play scenes of all manner of disasters over and over ad infinitum helps me to focus on what I can do in a positive manner, rather than on things over which I have no control. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I read much more news than I watch.”

Paul Brennan:

“One of the other ways to reduce mental anguish among youth is to encourage them to engage with groups of youth and adults to advocate and make changes to reduce climate change. This helps enormously compared to staying at home in fear and anguish, not feeling one has any control or influence on the issues.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! This week, What On Earth guest host Lisa Johnson brings you three climate stories — from the war in Ukraine to the latest UN climate change report to an update on Alberta coal miningWhat On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Canada’s transition … to SUVs

Oil is a topic of endless fascination, but it is rarely more urgently discussed than when forces conspire to raise the price at the pumps. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has done a number on worldwide oil prices: right now, North America and Europe are seeing the highest prices on record (Vancouver, for example, registered $2.10 a litre on the weekend). If we take the average provincewide price on GasBuddy.com on March 10 and assume the average car has a 56-litre tank, it costs you $92 to fill a car in Alberta (home to the lowest average, $1.66/L) and $112 in B.C. (the highest, $2/L); for a truck or SUV (with a 94-litre tank), you’re paying $112 and $188, respectively.

While gas prices have been a singular obsession of the media, if you adjust for inflation, prices were actually much higher in 1980. Not only that, but the graphic below suggests our concern about what we spend on gas is at best selective. Around 2010, the sales of new SUVs and trucks in Canada for the first time eclipsed cars, and the gap has been widening ever since. 

A recent story in The Atlantic reminds us that “on a historical basis, gas was very cheap from 2014 to 2021,” and that when the price is low at the pumps, “people tend to buy bigger, less fuel-efficient cars.” The effect of that thinking is evident in a report from January 2021 by the International Energy Agency, which found that COVID-19 restrictions had led to a drop in carbon emissions in all sectors but one: SUVs.

What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods
(CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The Nature Conservancy has purchased land in the Appalachians that includes some areas strip-mined for coal. That’s left behind large, flat areas close to electrical transmission lines that the conservation group plans to turn into utility-scale solar farms.

Trash pandas in Calgary? Sightings raise question about growing raccoon population

What one N.W.T. town can teach us about dealing with future floods
(Loic Venance/Getty Images)

When his porch light flicked on at 2 a.m., Douglas Dauncey thought the skunks were back. Instead, an unexpected visitor was crawling down the wooden fence, arms stretched out, headed straight for his full trash bags. 

Dauncey admits he missed garbage pickup. His slip-up was the raccoon’s opportunity. 

“I managed to catch him before he tore it all apart,” Dauncey said. “I kind of banged on my door and didn’t want to scare him away entirely, because he was really adorable.”

Many Calgarians like Dauncey have never seen a raccoon in the wild. While Calgary does have a raccoon population, they tend to fly under the radar. But according to one expert, over the past number of years there has been a turning point. 

They aren’t as common as coyotes and jackrabbits, but the city’s raccoon population is on the rise. 

“I’ve been in Western Canada most of my life, and I’ve never seen a raccoon in person,” Dauncey said. “I’ve always had skunks … under my stairs. I’m always getting skunks in my garbage.”

But raccoons? Dauncey said he’s only seen them in zoos. 

Between 2017 and 2020, citizen scientists identified 263 photos of raccoons captured on wildlife cameras as part of a program called Calgary Captured.

The animals have called southern Alberta home for decades, according to wildlife biologist Chris Fisher. But unlike their delinquent cousins in Ontario, these raccoons aren’t as brazen. 

They mostly keep to themselves and hang out in the city’s parks — only really coming out at night and snoozing during the day.

Raccoons might come and visit the stray trash bag on occasion, said Fisher, as they thrive in urban environments. But he said they are just as happy eating crabapples or feasting on other urban fare that has not been bundled up and waiting for garbage day. 

“The trend is we are seeing more and more raccoons in southern Alberta, and specifically Calgary,” Fisher said. 

He said the critters seek out good tree coverage — they love to crawl into the hollows of cottonwood trees for shelter. 

Fisher said Calgary won’t see a population as large or as pesky as the one in a place like Toronto — yet. There isn’t enough habitat. But he did note that climate change is helping these southern species to thrive in Alberta.

He guesses there are dozens of individuals living in Calgary, whereas in Toronto there are tens of thousands roaming the streets.

Fisher thinks it will be a few decades before the raccoons in Calgary undergo a full-on trash panda transformation. 

“It’s going to be just something that we’re going to have to get used to as they’re going to become a greater part of the character of Wild Calgary.”

Helen Pike

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty




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