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Where's the Rain?

As summer in Vancouver creeps into October, climate anxiety is rising.

Josh Kozelj 20 Oct

Josh Kozelj is the inaugural Hummingbird Fellow with The Tyee.

There’s something about the rain that has always fascinated Angie Natingor. Having grown up in Saskatchewan, she grew tired of the dry summers and cold winters, golden brown grass and yellow wheat fields in her home province.

So in 2002, Natingor moved to Vancouver to be surrounded by the weather the city is so well known for — rain. She loves the city’s dark, rainy fall nights, the mist, and the moody, low-hanging clouds.

“While others lament the rain, I’m usually pretty excited when it starts happening,” Natingor, who works in health administration, told The Tyee from her Vancouver home.

But towards the end of September, Natingor developed a new routine. Every morning when she woke up, she checked the weather app on her phone, searching for rain in the forecast.

B.C. is in the middle of a historic drought. Since July, the province has been drier than the Mojave Desert. Clearwater and Port Alberni reached 25 C on Oct. 5, breaking heat records that had stood for over 100 years.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, 37 temperature records were shattered, and the weekend of Oct. 15 and 16 saw another two dozen records broken in the province.

There was a total of just seven millimetres of rain in Vancouver last month, a stark contrast to the 155 millimetres that fell in the city last September.

Across September, October and November 2021 — a period in which Vancouver saw numerous atmospheric rivers — 611.5 millimetres of rain fell in Vancouver, smashing a record that dated back to 1996.

While the lack of rain has extended the warm, dry weather characteristic of the summer into October, it has also heightened fears for some about climate change and its real-time impacts on our daily lives.

“It’s the middle of October,” Natingor said. “This just doesn’t feel right.”

A view of Jericho Beach in Vancouver. There are logs resting on the sand in the foreground. A young woman is walking across the beach wearing a black backpack. The sky, hazy with wildfire smoke, is blue. Tankers are visible in the water.
The sky is hazy at Jericho Beach in Vancouver this week due to wildfire smoke. This season has seen more days of exposure to high particulate matter in the air, which can cause respiratory problems and an irregular heartbeat. Photo by Josh Kozelj.

What’s behind the fall drought?

The current drought is being caused by a high pressure system over the Pacific Ocean.

Similarly to the 2021 heat dome that caused 619 deaths in the province, a ridge of high pressure is sitting above B.C.’s south coast and blocking any incoming weather systems.

This fall’s high pressure system isn’t as intense as last year, but it’s lasting longer, said Rachel White, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Earth, ocean and atmospheric science department.

She said the current high pressure has ebbed and flowed in strength over the summer and early fall, picking up power from the circulation changes in the Pacific Ocean.

White speculates that cyclones in the south Pacific Ocean could be impacting jet stream flows in the Pacific Northwest.

Modelling from the University of Washington in 2013 predicted that climate change will lead to drier summers and wetter fall, spring and winter seasons in the Pacific Northwest.

But White says it’s too early to tell whether climate change will lead to drier falls in Vancouver, or if this fall is just a one-off weather event.

“When it’s just one year, it’s hard to attribute that to climate change, when it’s not what the models are saying,” White said. “If the models are saying, ‘Yes, we expect drier falls,’ then I’d be like, ‘OK, this is what we’re expecting.'”

Drought causing late-season fires

As of Wednesday, due to the dry conditions, there are 205 forest fires burning in B.C. Sixty four new fires were sparked from Oct. 7 to 14 — including two that combined to scorch over four hectares south of Port Alberni.

Several regions in the province are under Drought Response Level 5 conditions, meaning that the conditions are “exceptionally dry.”

An air quality advisory was also issued in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley on Sunday due to wildfire smoke.

Dr. Michael Schwandt, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, says that wildfires are the biggest area of concern for public health.

Schwandt said that as summers become drier, cumulative effects of wildfires can impact public health in both the short and long term.

“It can cause harm to the lungs, can cause exacerbation of asthma or heart disease,” Schwandt said.

“There’s more and more research that shows that people that are being exposed to wildfire smoke, repeatedly, season after season, might have longer range effects on health as well.”

While Metro Vancouver hasn’t had the same intense wildfire smoke events as in years past, Schwandt said this fall has seen more days of exposure to high particulate matter in the air, which can cause respiratory problems and an irregular heartbeat.

Particulate matter is air pollution that comes in the form of soot, dust, dirt or smoke. Bigger pieces of particulate matter are roughly 10 microns in diameter and can aggravate your nose and throat.

Smaller pieces of particulate pollution are called “fine particles” — under 2.5 microns — and are more dangerous because they can enter your lungs.

“Some of the smallest particles, like PM10 or 2.5, can get into our lungs and they can block out the smallest entries to the air vessels. Basically that reduces our lung’s capacity to breathe,” said Zafar Adeel, executive director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University.

Adeel added that people with pre-existing respiratory conditions — such as asthma — are particularly vulnerable to particulate matter, and that wearing a mask outside can protect you from the smoky conditions.

In 2021, according to the Metro Vancouver Air Quality Advisory, there were a total of 10 days with air quality advisories, with none issued after Aug. 14.

As of Oct. 16 this year, there have been 18 days with air quality advisories — and 12 of those 18 days have come since mid-September.

“This September and October, it’s been a large proportion of the days that there’s been some amount of caution,” Schwandt said.

Cognitive dissonance

Chrissy Kay, a 44-year-old lifelong Vancouverite, doesn’t remember many extreme weather events in the city when she was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Although Kay admits that she is an anxious person — the 2021 heat dome and atmospheric rivers gave her high anxiety — this fall’s drought is impacting her mental health differently.

She says the current sunshine is a double-edged sword. While it’s nice to be outside, she’s nervous about seeing brown grass this late into October and the potential of fireworks sparking wildfires on Halloween.

“It’s given me this sort of cognitive dissonance where, I know it’s bad, but I’m enjoying it at the same time,” Kay said.

Additionally, she’s worried if the dry conditions will make it easy for flooding when the rains come. On. Oct. 13, the province warned citizens about the potential for floods after the drought is over.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had this confluence of really dry, hard ground and a lot of rain coming in,” Kay said.

“I don’t know if the rain’s going to come down hard, but that’s often what happens in October, November, so it’s a bit nerve-racking.”

Similarly, Sonya Hart, a Nanaimo-based CBC radio producer, is conflicted about the weather. She grew up in the Lower Mainland but both of her parents are from warm countries — her dad is from Argentina and mom is from Mauritius — and she never liked feeling cold.

While she was excited that the summer sunshine was spilling into mid-September, it’s now giving her the chills.

“It's strange and dystopian,” Hart said. “I love the sun, I’m even enjoying the sun walking around today, but it’s underscored by this, ‘Why is it this way?’”

Hart, 31, has always been conscious of climate change. But the latest stretch of drought in B.C.’s south coast has elevated her thoughts about how the warming weather will impact her life in the future.

“I’ve always been worried about climate change but now it’s like, ‘Holy moly, it’s here,’” Hart said.

“I was telling my husband the other day, I’m starting to think about, do I want kids? Like we were so excited one day for having kids, but will they be safe on this planet? Will there be resources for them?”

How climate change impacts mental health

This fall’s drought is far from the first time an unusual weather event has prompted climate anxiety in B.C.

In a study released in January, SFU researcher Kiffer Card and a team from the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance found that the June 2021 heat dome led to a 13-percent increase in climate change-related anxiety for British Columbians.

Card said that it’s still too early to say whether the current fall drought has had any more impact on the well-being of people in B.C.

He doesn’t believe there has been as much media coverage on the fall sunshine compared to the 2021 heat dome, and added that warmer weather in October doesn’t make everyone feel uncomfortable.

“Unseasonably warm weather in October isn’t necessarily viewed by all as a bad thing,” Card said. “I wouldn’t expect, for example, to see that kind of meteoric rise and levels of anxiety that we saw after that [2021] heat wave.”

However, he does understand how people’s anxiety can rise when they see viral videos — such as the thousands of salmon found dead in a dried-up creek in Bella Bella earlier this month — that have been tied to climate change.

“Once you start to see those consequences unfold on animal populations, on human populations, food, those sorts of things can definitely cause some distress,” Card said.

How to prepare for and cope with a changing climate

Moving forward, Schwandt believes that climate resilience needs to be integrated more into communities.

He would like to see plans to develop more affordable, safe housing with air filtration systems that will handle the smoke and heat. During extreme events, Schwandt added that it’s paramount for local governments to create clean air and cooling centres for people who may not have access to a climate-resilient building.

“These sorts of events might have been very uncommon in previous decades, but we’re seeing almost every summer a risk of one or both of extreme heat and smoke exposure,” Schwandt said.

Zafar Adeel of SFU’s Pacific Water Research Centre agrees that extremely high temperatures and prolonged periods of drought are going to become more common in the future.

In his opinion, to cope with those challenges, water consumption management needs to be more ingrained in our daily lives.

He points to water restrictions imposed on the Sunshine Coast on Monday, which include banning non-essential commercial water use, as one example of a preemptive measure that calls on the public to ensure there will be enough water to last an extended dry spell.

Extreme heat and smoke are just two examples of how climate change is impacting our daily lives.

Meteorologists are predicting that rain is going to return to Metro Vancouver by Friday, with 10 millimetres of precipitation forecast for the weekend.

Because of the dry conditions, parched ground and vegetation that has been burned because of wildfires could be at risk of flash flooding if there’s a significant amount of rainfall in a short period of time.

So, Adeel said, residents should look for early warnings from their municipality and take caution if needed.

“Particularly for those who love the outdoors, be more cautious and not venture into dry stream beds, which may look safe but in a manner of hours can have raging torrents of water going through,” Adeel said.

Within the past year, B.C. has experienced a record drought, historic flooding and forest fires that continue to engulf parts of the province in haze. Saskatchewan transplant Angie Natingor says those events feel “never ending.”

But even though the ravages of climate change may seem daunting when we face them alone, SFU researcher Card believes social support is a vital component for people to manage their climate anxiety.

We need to find people to talk with, Card says. Everyone needs people “to share your feelings with, who will accept and acknowledge and who will empathize and sympathize with you.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Environment

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