More on the Southern Resident Killer Whales – this time on truthiness about acoustic threats and survivorship bias

Well it has been a busy week on the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) Project file with the NEB initiating their review of tanker traffic. In all the news surrounding the plan to update the marine assessment one topic that caught my eye  was a series of news reports about the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) featuring some really scary “facts” about acoustic threats to the SRKWs. I have written previously about the risks posed by the TMX to the SRKWs but only gave a minor consideration to the noise generated by the project. Upon hearing the news stories I feared that I had missed something. Essentially every media report had the same paragraph, which said:

Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with Rainforest Conservation Foundation on Vancouver Island, said additional noise from just six extra oil tankers each week would raise the possibility of extinction for the Southern resident killer whales to between 15 and 24 per cent. Right now, that risk is less than 10 per cent, she said.

Needless to say I found this level of precision to be very surprising and went looking to find where these numbers came from. The rest of this blog post will go into detail on what I found and will show how activists are selling a bill of goods to suit their faulty narrative. In the process I hope to explain, using the concept of “survivorship bias”, another reason why the TMX may be a positive for the SRKWs.

Let’s start with the basics, where did those numbers (the 15-25% chance of extinction) come from? It appears they came from an Raincoast Conservation Society Report titled: Report on Population Viability Analysis model investigations of threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from Trans Mountain Expansion ProjectSpecifically Table 2 (page 34 of the .pdf file) from that report.

The two values represent the likelihood that the population numbers for the SRKWs will drop below 30 individuals (called “quasi-extinction” in the report) under the “Noise92.5” and “Noise100” scenarios. Not to be a pedant, but the report provides a likelihood of true extinction of the population as 0.3% and 1%, respectively under the two scenarios. That is a lot less than 15% and 24% cited in the media reports. It is funny how Ms. MacDuffee chose to use the term “extinction” even when the report clearly doesn’t use that term for these values.

So let’s look at the Noise92.5 and Noise100 scenarios. They are defined on page 33 as:

  • Noise92.5 = Feeding time reduced because of boat presence 92.5% of the time
  • Noise100 = Feeding time reduced because of boat presence 100% of the time

I hear you asking: what do they mean by feeding time reduced? Well in the report the authors identify a baseline scenario. In it they argue that due to the existing conditions in the Sea, the SRKW spend up to 85% of their foraging time in situations where noise from nearby boats interferes with their ability to hunt/communicate. Now here is the interesting part, the authors then decided to look at what it would be like if the noise was increased so that the SRKW encountered this level of noise for both 92.5% and 100% of the time. This is where the science simply disappears.

You see the authors don’t conduct any quantitative analyses to create these two numbers. The 100% is used as a worst-case scenario and the 92.% is used because it is half-way between 85% and 100%. So when Ms. MacDuffee uses that 92.5% value as the lower possible outcome in her media interviews she does so with zero basis in real-world conditions. As for the 100% value, that is even better. In the paper the authors make this statement:

With increased shipping traffic associated with the Project, Southern Residents could be around boats up to 100% of the time – according to the proponent tankers would be a “near continuous” presence. Thus, feeding could potentially be reduced by up to 19.5%.

That’s right they argue that six additional tankers a week (in a Strait that sees approximately 23,000 ship movements a year) will change the SRKWs’ exposure to noise from 85% to 100%. Yes you read that right, that is the entire basis of their argument. They don’t count the number of ships or look at population ranges, they just throw out that number and voila…a new “fact” has been created.

I asked the Raincoast Conservation Society about the source of their numbers and they referred me to a Nature Scientific Reports article (Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans) which is simply a  summary of their research output which was peer reviewed. The Nature Scientific Reports article, however, doesn’t even pretend to explain how they came across the 92.5% and 100% numbers, it just applies them. I’m guessing the peer reviewers didn’t buy the arguments they made in their initial paper so they just excluded the origin of the numbers for their article.

In a Twitter thread I pointed out that 100% is impossible since it involves tankers chasing whales throughout their range. The Raincoast Conservation Society responded that technically the tankers didn’t have to follow the SRKWs all the time, just in the designated critical habitat as defined by NOAA and the government of Canada as their summer foraging grounds. So when they say 100% of the time what they really mean is 100% of the time, during a narrow stretch in the summer. Except that is an entirely different story and not what was input into the model used in the report.

Why is my argument important? The first thing to notice is the overall habitat for the SRKW extends from California to Haida Gwaii. This information is available in the NOAA presentation: Distribution and Diet of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

SRKW habitat

Now remember the article only used summer foraging grounds. You may wonder why Raincoast was so adamant we only look at summer feeding grounds? It would be because of this:

Winter J

and this:

Winter K

You see the winter feeding grounds for J-pod are mostly in the northern Strait of Georgia while K- and L-pods travel along the Oregon and California coasts in winter. That means for essentially half of the year the SRKWs aren’t anywhere near where the TMX tankers routes. That really blows a hole in the whole 100% of the time narrative.

However, in the summer it is a different story.


In the summer they do indeed choose to forage near the tanker route, but this brings us to the second topic of our post: “survivorship bias”. Survivorship bias is:

a cognitive bias that occurs when someone tries to make a decision based on past successes, while ignoring past failures

The most famous example is from World War II (image source)


As described in Wikipedia:

During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage. Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions—the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost.

So why is survivorship bias important on this topic? Let’s look again at that map of the SRKW summer foraging and notice where we do not see foraging. Notice how the south half of the Strait of Juan de Fuca all the way to the Puget Sound (the most active shipping route), is empty of sightings while the north half has lots of sighting. That should tell us something. Now look at Rosario Strait (labelled below for those who don’t know the regional geography).


Notice how there are no sightings in Rosario Strait while there are lots of sightings around San Juan Island. That should be raising a whole lot of red flags. If it doesn’t then this heat map makes it really obvious.

heat map

The SRKWs are apparently avoiding Rosario Strait and Anacortes as well as the US marine shipping routes. This is a pretty significant thing to recognize because fishers will tell you that salmon can be found in those waters. It should be prime habitat for the SRKWs but there were very few sightings in that area. What could be causing this effect?


Oh right, those red markings on the drawing are tankers supplying the US refineries with their crude. Now look again at that heat map. Notice that the whales are not avoiding the main shipping route along Haro Strait. That is because the wide main  channel and deep water attenuates the sound and so the whales are willing to use those waters for foraging. The whales are, however, avoiding the rich fishing grounds of the San Juan Islands, this is a very important thing to recognize if you are trying to help the endangered community recover.

I know that was a lot of pictures but it is pretty important to see. Taking survivorship bias into consideration we can recognize that the real challenge for the SRKWs appears to be US-bound oil tankers. These tankers, running along the south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, through Rosario Strait and in the Anacortes, have essentially taken that entire section of the Salish Sea out of the foraging habitat for the SRKWs. That is a huge area of incredibly rich fishing grounds that the SRKWs are not using. Any project that reduced the number of large, loud tankers running in Rosario Strait and the Anacortes would be a potential bonanza for the SRKWs by re-opening that habitat for use.

Now I have to ask, can anyone remember what project is intended to supply the Anacortes and Puget Sound refineries with oil via a pipeline, thus reducing the number of tankers that have to make the Rosario Strait run? You are right, that would be the TMX.

Reading back over this blog post I can’t help but get angry. We have activists dominating the media narrative making claims that are completely unsupported by the science. That 15% increase in likelihood of extinction (but not really extinction) is based on a number completely unrelated to the number of ships moving in the area (the Noise92.5 scenario). The 25% increase in likelihood of extinction (but not really extinction)  is based on an assumption that that the six additional tankers a week will result in a massive increase in ship noise over the entire year, over the entire range of the SRKWs habitat when the area already is a busy shipping route and the SRKWs only use that area for foraging for the summer months and are still willing to use that area even with all the ship traffic.

It is unconscionable that activists can make these claims and have the media credulously repeating them in print. The numbers are essentially a fiction. The supporting references show that the numbers have no basis in quantitative science and to believe that the 15% and 25% numbers are anything other than a useful modelling exercise means completely ignoring the underlying science.

This is simply another case of activists making false narratives about a complex topic safe in the knowledge that few real scientists will recognize their falsehoods and even fewer will call them out on it. This is the advantage the activists have in this debate. They are not limited by things like the truth or provable facts. They can rely on truthiness and information that feels right and still be featured in the morning paper. Meanwhile a project that has the potential to re-open huge swathes of habitat for an endangered species gets short shrift because it simply doesn’t sound right…even though it is.


Posted in Climate Change, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

On the environmental and social consequences if the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project fails

I have spent a lot of time in the last few years researching the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX) project. Throughout I have always felt confident that good environmental and fiscal sense would prevail, and the pipeline would be built. Given the Federal Court decision I can’t help but start to doubt that confidence. The obvious question to ask is: what happens if the pipeline is not completed? In this blog I ask and answer 15 questions about a world where the TMX fails. The answers do not reassure me and I wonder if the many of the activists who have been fighting the TMX are ready for a world without the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline? To make it easier in the following list “it” means “the failure of the TMX project”. So what did I realize:

  1. Will it reduce the number of tankers in the Salish Sea: No
  2. Will it reduce the likelihood of a spill in the Salish Sea: No
  3. Will it reduce our ability to respond to spills in the Salish Sea: Yes
  4. Will it reduce the threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales: No
  5. Will it increase the amount of oil moved by rail: Absolutely
  6. Will it increase the likelihood of a rail spill: Absolutely
  7. Will it increase the cost to transport Alberta oil: Yes
  8. Will it decrease oil sands developments: Yes, likely
  9. Will that decrease in oil sands development results in a decrease in global GHG emissions: Absolutely not
  10. Will it make it harder to fight climate change in Canada: Absolutely
  11. Will it decrease Canadian prosperity: Yes
  12. Will British Columbians remain hostage to high oil prices with zero control over supplies: Yes 
  13. Will it reduce the risk to First Nations communities: Absolutely not
  14. Will it reduce the prosperity of First Native communities: Absolutely
  15. Who wins and who loses if the TMX doesn’t go through?

    Losers: Canadians, the environment, salmon, the southern resident killer   whales and Canada’s fight against climate change                                           -Winners: Activist NGOs, American refinery owners, and foreign dictatorships

The rest of this post are short explanations for my conclusions. The rest of this post is a bit long although the answer to each question has been kept as short as possible. It is a testament to just how bad the outcome is that I couldn’t keep this section short. So many negative consequences will flow from the failure of the TMX.

1) Will it reduce the number of tankers in the Salish Sea: No

As described in my previous post the refineries in the Puget Sound will still need over 645,000 barrels/day (b/d) of crude oil. Currently Cherry Point refinery alone sees 500+ tankers a year and Toresco (a committed shipped on the TMX) has said they want to add 120 tankers a year to their Andeavor facility to make up for an absence of supply. Meanwhile Westridge will still be sending out a few tankers a month. So in the end we will still see 700+ tankers a year coming in and out of the Salish Sea with 620+ of them running the narrower and much more dangerous Rosario Strait.

2) Will it reduce the likelihood of a spill in the Salish Sea: No

I have written in detail about the relative risks associated with the project to the Salish Sea. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. It will put more tankers going through narrower waters with less support from escort tugs. That is a formula for increased risk.

3) Will it reduce our ability to respond to spills in the Salish Sea: Yes

The BC west coast has been chronically under-served for spill response. One of the big gets for BC in the TMX project was a toll on the new fuel transportation to pay for improved spill response. However, if there is no expansion that toll will not be paid and that money disappears. The result is a loss of spill response capability. Right now we are looking at losing $150 million and several spill response bases. Since the funds for the spill response was coming from the private sector there is no obvious way to replace those funds. When a spill occurs the equipment will not be there to address it. So damage will be greater.

4) Will it reduce the threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales: No

I wrote about this in my last post. If you look at the entire Salish Sea, and not simply the Canadian side of the border, then you realize that the loss of the TMX will likely increase the risks to the southern resident killer whales, not decrease those risks. Foreign-flagged ships with lower safety standards will be coming in to the same waters, running through narrower straits while not following the slower speeds recommended by DFO to reduce ship noise. It will be more dangerous and louder for the southern resident killer whales. Meanwhile, more rail along the rivers puts salmon habitat at risk. Without salmon there will be no southern resident killer whales.

5) Will it increase the amount of oil moved by rail: Absolutely

As reported by Global News: the Paris-based IEA forecasts in its latest oil markets report that Canadian crude-by-rail exports will grow from 150,000 b/d a day in late 2017 to 250,000 b/d this year and then to 390,000 b/d in 2019. In June we crossed 200,000 b/d and current predictions are that we will see 300,000 b/d by December.

On the American side of the border just three (Tacoma, Anacortes, or Ferndale) of the region’s six refineries moved over 156,800 barrels of oil per day by rail in 2017 and every indicator is that the volume will be increasing absent TMX. These trains are carrying explosive Bakken crude through some of the most densely populated parts of the Pacific Northwest and along the sides of some of our most important salmon rivers.

6) Will it increase the likelihood of a rail spill: Absolutely

We all know that risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline and more of the rail route is along the river sides than is the pipeline. Many activists complain about the sourcing of the 4.5 times stat so let’s go to Citylab and the Sightline Institute, both of  which warn about the increase in risk of oil spills associated with this increase in oil volumes. There will be more oil-by-rail spills and because our rail lines run along river sides we will have far more risk to salmon habitat.

7) Will it increase the cost to transport Alberta oil: Yes

Oil-by-rail increases the cost to transport oil, which means to sell the oil to their customers producers will have to discount the price of that oil. This decreases the royalties earned by the Alberta government and the money available for transfer payments to fund our social services.

8) Will it decrease oil sands developments: Yes, likely

This is the reason the activists have been fighting the TMX. By increasing the cost and decreasing the price the result is a slow-down of future development. Just ask Suncor. The problem with this is that it will not have any effect on global oil use (see next question).

9) Will that decrease in oil sands development results in a decrease in global GHG emissions: Absolutely not

We live in an integrated world economy with a glut of oil supply. Any decrease in Canadian production will be offset by an increase in supply from any of the 30+ nations that produce crude oil. As a fungible commodity our loss is someone else’s gain and absent some change in demand the result will be a trade-off with no change in global emissions but more money for foreign dictators. This is the part of the story the activists never want to admit.

10) Will it make it harder to fight climate change in Canada: Absolutely

Alberta made the completion of the pipeline a condition for their joining the national climate action plan. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, which included an aggressive move off of coal for electricity, is also in doubt. So besides not affecting global emissions and reducing the money Alberta generates from its natural resources the loss of the pipeline will set back our national plan to cut our carbon emissions and will likely drive the Notley government out of power. Her more-climate friendly government will be replaced by a Jason Kenney government. Mr. Kenney has made it abundantly clear that he will fight the national climate plan using every tool at his disposal. Without Alberta and Saskatchewan as active partners Canada has no chance of meeting our Paris Agreement NDCs and we will likely lose the governments most committed to fighting climate change. Good work activists.

11) Will it decrease Canadian prosperity: Yes

The money generated by natural resources is pumped back into our economy and paid to our government as royalties and increased taxes. That is the money that pays for our social service net, medicare and other government services. The loss of revenue will hurt Canadian prosperity and reduce the money available to pay for the transition off fossil fuels.

12) Will British Columbians remain hostage to high oil prices with zero control over supplies: Yes 

Coastal British Columbia faces a 30,000 b/d shorfall in refined fuels which explains why we pay the highest gasoline prices in the country. So now instead of paying 2-3 cents litre more in increased tolls (tolls that would help pay for improved spill response) we will be paying a scarcity premium to US suppliers. The same 12-15 cents/litre scarcity premium  we have been paying for the last several years. We pay this premium because the current Trans Mountain is oversubscribed and we need to outbid Oregon and Californian buyers for the unallocated supply out of the Puget Sound. This will continue and instead of our gasoline purchases helping to pay for Canada’s social services net they will go to American refinery owners.

13) Will it reduce the risk to First Nations communities: Absolutely not

This is the part of the story that confuses me the most. Somehow the anti-pipeline activists have managed to convince some of the First Nations on the Fraser River that the pipeline is a greater risk to their communities than oil-by-rail. This means these First Nations have been fighting a project that has the potential to significantly decrease the risks to their communities and their food sources. These activists have literally convinced the First Nations to fight against their own best interests.

14) Will it reduce the prosperity of First Native communities: Absolutely

Every First Nation in BC relies on fossil fuels for transportation, to move foodstuffs, and to supply most of the necessities of life. Every First Nation in BC will paying more than they should for those fossil fuels if the TMX is not built. As well, the various mutual benefit agreements made between the project and the First Nations will not happen. These First Nations will be exposed to higher risks due to oil-by-rail and will lose money at the same time. That doesn’t even consider all the First Nations-owned companies slated to help build and maintain the pipeline that will not do that work. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year will be lost in communities with few other sources of income. It is simply amazing how activists using words like “sovereignty” and “pride” have convinced many First Nations to impoverish themselves.

15) So who wins and who loses if the TMX doesn’t go through?

Losers: Canadians, the environment, salmon, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, and Canada’s fight against climate change

Winners: Activist NGOs, American refinery owners, and foreign dictatorships

As an environmental scientist, when I hear activists claiming that they are fighting the pipeline to “protect the inlet” or to “protect our waters” I can say quite convincingly  that these arguments simply don’t hold water. The underlying challenge on the Trans Mountain file has been that it represents a compromise to provide the safest of the various alternative means to transport the liquid fuels we need to the Pacific Northwest.

If the TMX is blocked the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:

  • Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of First Nations communities in British Columbia.
  • Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
  • The eventual risk to the Salish Sea won’t be the one major accident every 2000+ years described in the TMX risk assessments, it will be orders of magnitude higher.

So what are we looking at if the activists manage to stop the TMX? Certainly not a decrease in ecological risk. Rather we will see an increase in risk to our rivers and the marine environment…and at what cost? Any rent-seeker who thinks that blocking the pipeline will somehow help us fight climate change is barking up the wrong tree, because the countries that will serve as the replacement for Canadian oil (the Saudis, Nigerians and Algerians) are not paying into our federation; they are siphoning money out of it. If you want your bridges, roads and sewage plants built/repaired, then you are going to need money and blocking the Trans Mountain is exactly the wrong way to obtain those funds. If you argue that fighting the TMX somehow is part of a fight against climate change that is simply bad thinking. The pipeline was part of the national plan to fight climate change and that plan looks like it has been scuttled by the activists.

While I agree the current process has not been a perfect one; it had, at least, been a transparent one. The allocation of risks associated with the status quo has not involved the balancing of risks and is anything but transparent. As I have written numerous times, we need to wean Canada off fossil fuels as our primary energy source. If we are to avoid the serious consequences of climate change, we will need to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy mix. However, contrary to what many say, the process of doing so will take decades, and in the meantime we will still need petroleum hydrocarbons. The TMX project is the best project on the books to achieve that goal.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

On Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

By now we all know about the Federal Court Decision on the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project. The two grounds for quashing the Order in Council’s approval of the project were on First Nations consultation and on the assessment of risk to the southern resident killer whales. This post is about the latter.

In the Federal Court decision the court described the NEB final decision which found:

the operation of Project related marine vessels is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale, and that it is likely to result in significant adverse effects on Aboriginal cultural uses associated with these marine mammals.

As I have pointed out online, in my opinion, the NEB’s assessment of the southern resident killer whales was one-dimensional in nature. You may ask what I mean by one-dimensional? What I mean is that the NEB only looked at the potential harms posed by the TMX to the population but it failed to consider whether the TMX may have positive influences. In this blog post I am going to take a holistic look at the TMX project with respect to the southern resident killer whales. I will consider how the project both increases risks and how it may reduce risks and/or stressors. In doing so, I want to help start a reasonable dialogue on southern resident killer whales and the TMX.

Let’s start by looking at the threats to this population. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

The greatest threats to Resident Killer Whales are reduction in prey availability, contaminants, and acoustic and physical disturbance; ship strikes have also been recently identified as a threat. Exposure to toxic spills, interactions with fisheries and aquaculture, and climate change are other human-related threats that may negatively impact the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

So let’s look at these topics one by one.


I will only briefly address this topic because I have previously addressed spills in detail. To summarize my previous post: the increased risk of a spill posed by the project is so small as to not represent a real concern. As I noted, the 7x increase in tanker numbers is counter-acted by the reduction in risk associated with the new safety requirements imposed by the NEB. This results in approximately a 30% increase in overall risk. However, the initial risk (1 major spill in every 3093 years) is so close to zero as to not elevate above de minimis levels. A 30% increase on an insignificant risk is still an insignificant risk. The real spill risks in the region are from barges, ferries and smaller, less well-regulated marine craft.

The other major contamination concern is from persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including chlorinated compounds, PCBs and dioxins. Now as we should know by now, the vast majority of these are derived from the current and historic activities in the Puget Sound and from Metro Vancouver. If you really want to reduce threats to the southern resident killer whales maybe it is time to upgrade water treatment in the Metro Vancouver area. Another suggestion would be to eliminate the combined sewers in Metro Vancouver. Our American cousins have huge historical pollution problems and maybe cleaning up some more of the Superfund sites in the Puget Sound would be appreciated by the whales. Unlike many, I don’t see the Victoria sewage as a major concern because Victoria has virtually no heavy industry so most of their waste is organics that don’t bioaccumulate and dissipate in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Physical Disturbances/Collision

With respect to physical disturbances and collisions, the argument goes: increasing the number of tankers would increase the number of collisions with marine mammals. This argument, while persuasive, is quite shallow. As the academic literature makes clear, killer whales are not at a major risk from collision in most of the Salish Sea. The major risk of collision is in Johnstone Strait, which would be a problem if tankers were heading in that direction, which they are not.

As for the increase in tanker traffic, the TMX tankers would represent an increase of 720 more ship movements in a Strait that sees 23,000 ship movements a year. Recognize that both the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Seattle are engaged in major expansions. So the increase in ship movements posed by the TMX will barely be significant.

So how did the court find differently? Well that is an example of the one-dimensionality of the NEB assessment and the Federal Court’s decision. In paragraph 425 of the Federal Court decision the court makes a big thing of noting that:

The Board expressed its expectation that Project – related marine vessels would represent a maximum of 13.9% of all vessel traffic in the regional study area, excluding the Burrard Inlet, and would decrease over time as the volume of marine vessel movements in the area is anticipated to grow.

This, of course, represents a massive case of cherry-picking. That number comes from Table 22 of the NEB report and represents the increase in project-related tanker traffic in Haro Strait compared to 2012 shipping. What a bizarre comparison.  In virtually every other part of the route the increase is much lower and by comparing the number to 2012 numbers it ignores the commensurate increases associated with the Port expansions. More importantly, this assessment ignores a critical consideration. Let’s look at Haro Strait (image source):


Now what do we see the to the east of Haro Strait? That would be Rosario Strait. For those unaware, Rosario Strait is the alternative marine route in the area. As has been pointed out:

Studies have identified Rosario Strait as the most dangerous tanker route in the inland waters of Washington state. Yet because of the location of refineries, this is the state’s busiest tanker thoroughfare, with more than 500 oil-laden ships sailing through it every year.

If there is ever a major spill here, its toll could be worse than that in Prince William Sound. Rosario Strait is in the middle of the delicate San Juan Islands and just a swift current away from the largest population areas of Washington state and British Columbia. All around it is the region’s richest concentration of sea birds, marine mammals, clams, oysters and commercial fish farms.

One of the benefits of the TMX is that it is intended to supply the Puget Sound refineries via the Puget Sound Pipeline System. The Puget Sound Pipeline, which is a spur line of the Trans Mountain, can supply the Ferndale Refinery, the Cherry Point Refinery, the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery and the Shell Anacortes Refinery. By supplying crude to these refineries, via the Puget Sound Pipeline, the TMX would reduce the number of tankers running through Rosario Strait. Consider that there are over 500 tankers that go up the Rosario Strait to the Cherry Point Refinery. |Moreover, a further 120 new tankers a year are proposed for the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery. That represents 620+ tankers that could be reduced/eliminated if the TMX is completed. The last time I checked 620+ is a bigger number than the 540-600 tanker increase associated with the TMX.

Every mariner alive will tell you that Haro Strait is much safer than Rosario Strait but the reduction of travel through Rosario was never considered in the NEB/Federal Court analyses. Unlike the NEB/Federal Court, the southern resident killer whales don’t acknowledge international borders and use both straits. Given the relative sizes of the two straits, Rosario Strait poses a much higher risk of collision and an orders of magnitude higher risk of a spill. Yet in the one-dimensional NEB/Federal Court assessment they only looked at the increase in Haro Strait traffic while ignoring the safety improvements inherent by reducing tanker transits through Rosario Strait.


Everyone knows about the acoustics issues but if acoustics are really a concern then rather than quashing the TMX, the court should be cancelling the Port of Vancouver’s expansion plans. That being said acoustics are a serious concern and so as part of the Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada they will be slowing down the tankers to reduce their noise. But going back to the previous section, the increase in TMX tankers will essentially be offset by the reduction in tankers in American waters. The construction of the pipeline will likely be a wash acoustically.


We all know that the biggest threat to the southern resident killer whales is a shortage of food. The resident whales mostly eat salmon and the reduction in salmon stocks has been pointed to as the likely major source of their recent struggles. One big benefit of the TMX is how it will substantially reduce the likelihood of a oil-by-rail spill. The risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline; the relative risk to salmon is even higher for rail, because most rail lines are situated far closer, for a longer proportion of their length, to the rivers. That means that a rail spill is more likely to affect a salmon river than a pipeline spill would because the pipeline mostly avoids the riversides.

Looking at the project from a risk assessment perspective, if you are a community that depends on the health of our rivers, you will want to get as much of that oil off the rails as is possible. From a salmon perspective a rail spill has the potential to destroy a run or even kill a river. So if you care about the major food source for the southern resident killer whales then getting oil into pipelines and off the rails is something that the courts and the NEB should be looking to do as soon as humanly possible.

What is most frustrating from the perspective of a risk assessor is that reading the NEB report the only time oil-by-rail was considered was with respect to the lower costs associated with the pipeline. The reduction in GHGs associated with pipelines versus rail and the reduction of risk to aquatic and marine ecosystems associated with getting oil off the rails was completely omitted in the analysis. Another one-dimensional analysis.


From my kitchen table in Langley I can’t do a full risk assessment of the TMX project with respect to the southern resident killer whales. But looking at the TMX project, from a holistic perspective, it becomes clear that the original NEB assessment was deficient. The NEB assessment only looked at the negative effects on the Canadian side of the border while ignoring all the benefits associated with the project on the US side of the border. Now we all know that the southern resident killer whales don’t recognize international borders so they will experience both the risks and benefits associated with the project. More ship movements through Haro Strait will be off-set by the reduction of tanker movements through Rosario Strait. More tanker noise on the Canadian side of the marine corridor will be balanced by less tanker noise on the US side of the corridor. From that perspective the TMX seems to be a wash from a risk perspective. However, when we consider that any reduction in oil-by-rail will reduce the risk to the salmon, upon which the southern resident killer whales depend for their food, the project may potentially have a net benefit to the population.

To conclude, I am confident that when a detailed assessment is carried out, the net effect of tanker traffic increases and decreases, associated with the project, will be a wash. Moreover, if the NEB considers the decrease in risk to salmon created by getting oil off the rails, on both sides of the border, that overall the TMX will be shown to be a net benefit to our endangered southern resident killer whales.

Posted in Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Some advice to parents from your child’s coach

I am the father of three: a son (age eleven) and two daughters (ages nine and six). In the last decade, I have coached (or co-coached) ten soccer teams, four baseball teams and two basketball teams. As both a parent and a coach I would like to provide some advice to other parents of young athletes

Sports should be fun, if you young child doesn’t like one sport try something else

I spent years as a competitive soccer player. It was expected that my kids would play soccer and each of my kids started soccer by age 5. My son initially liked soccer then as he grew he became less enamored by the sport. By age 8 he simply wasn’t having fun. I had watched a lot of soccer-mad friends force their kids to play soccer and realized that doing so wasn’t the right idea. Instead we looked for something else and discovered basketball which my my son loves. So now he is a basketball player. He is getting a great team experience, getting regular exercise and most importantly is enjoying it.

Forcing your child to play a sport because you love it will only hurt their development and harm your relationship. Sports have to be fun for young kids and if you want them to enjoy being active keep looking until you find an activity your child will enjoy. Of my three kids, only one still plays soccer. That is not a bad thing. I still love soccer but am learning to love basketball and more importantly, I get to watch my son do something he likes. I get to see him thrive in a team situation and I don’t have to fight to get him ready for practice. It is a win-win scenario.

Please, please don’t offer your child rewards for individual accomplishments in team sports

If there is one thing that absolutely destroys a child as a team player it is parents giving out awards for personal accomplishments in a team game. One year I had a player, one of the most-skilled on the team, whose parents gave her gifts for scoring goals. What did this do? It taught her to be selfish on the field; to look for personal opportunities over team opportunities and turned her into a frustrating teammate. In the opposition’s end she would always try to beat every player to get a shot on net. If the option was take a bad shot or pass to an open team-mate, she always took the shot. When it was her turn to play defense she would abandon her position to attack and leave the back-field undefended.

This one choice by these parents turned a great little player into a coach’s nightmare. Other parents called them on it but they didn’t care, they wanted their daughter to be a star and thought this was how you achieved that goal. The problem is soccer is a team sport and sometimes in team sports you have sublimate personal achievements for the good of the team. If you are going to reward your child do it for team achievements or for good efforts. Even better, let them learn to love the sport without bribery.

Parents, I have never seen a coach get angry when you take the time to control your child at a sports practice.

For the last six years I have been coaching a lot of younger children. These children are usually accompanied by their parents as they are too young to be left unaccompanied.

What I can never understand is when a parent just sits back and watches as their child misbehaves and disrupts a practice. The coach is there to teach skills, not to be the parent. If your child is misbehaving in a practice, call them aside and get them under control. It will help the coach and be appreciated by all the other parents as well. Sure for older kids the coach may want to deal with discipline on their own, but when a six-year-old is losing it during a practice rest assured the coach WANTS your help. Take your child aside and do what it takes to calm them down then send them back in to play. Everyone will be happier for your efforts.

At the park you are your child’s parent first and a sports fan second

In my years of coaching one common cause for concern is the parent who misbehaves. Remember you are their parent first and a sports fan second.

Don’t be the parent who yells at kids in under-eight (U8) soccer. This is U8 soccer, not the pro leagues. Let your child play, make mistakes, and have fun. A bad game in U8 has never cost a child a university scholarship, so relax and watch the kids play. Most importantly, regardless of the outcome, if your child played hard then give them a hug and some praise and they will be the better person for it.

Similarly, the referee in your child’s sporting event is almost certainly also learning their craft. Professional referees don’t officiate U9 soccer. These young referees are needed if you want your kid to be able to play. These young referees will make mistakes and your job as a parent is to accept that fact and live with it. Teach your child to respect the referee, especially when they think the referee made a bad decision. Learning how to play through adversity builds character and learning how to accept a “bad” decision will help them deal with the adversity they will face in their lives.

Don’t be afraid to call a time-out from your sport

Now for some unusual advice from a coach. Don’t be afraid to call a time-out in your child’s sports career. Last year I coached a U9 team and had a girl who just wasn’t having fun. It was a particularly cold and wet year and she really struggled with the cold. She was just too small and slight to keep warm and the wet practices and cold games made her feel miserable. Her mom suggested that she take a time-out and come back in the spring. That spring I saw her out on the field and she was having a great time. That mom’s choice worked.

Sure kids have to work through adversity, but if your son/daughter is not having fun find them something that does. Your child will only be little for a short time. Let them have fun while they can.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Revisiting the question anti-pipeline activists can’t answer about the Trans Mountain pipeline

“Pragmatic”, “hyper-rational”, “reductionist”, “positivist” these are the “insults” sent my way in the last month as I have discussed the Trans Mountain pipeline on my social media feeds. As a scientist, none off those descriptions would be considered terribly nasty, but for left-wing political scientists out there, those words are considered curses. While not all the “insults” apply in my case (I am not “hyper-rational” as defined by political scientists) I do admit to viewing the world with a pragmatic lens. So you may ask what brought on this bout of vitriol? Well I have repeatedly asked a fairly simple question:

Show me a safer way than @a to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society on the West Coast What is your alternative to ?

In the rest of this post I want to revisit that question and address some of the replies.

Let’s start with a critical consideration. The Trans Mountain pipeline is about moving liquid refined fuels and crude oils including diluted bitumen. We are talking about liquid fuels here. I can’t repeat this enough: liquid fuels. This means any response to my question that includes renewables (solar, wind, tidal or geothermal energy systems) is not answering the question. I have to make this absolutely clear because I cannot count the number of times Mike Hudema (of Greenpeace) has posted a story about a solar facility somewhere and written something like:

In just one hour, our planet receives enough solar energy to power society for an entire year: Panels not pipelines.

Well solar energy cannot replace the liquid fuels to be transported in the pipeline. It is a red herring.

Don’t imagine for a moment this is only a Greenpeace thing. I had a long Twitter discussion yesterday with Mark Worthing from the Sierra Club. When I asked him this question he posted five different links and every one dealt with electricity or natural gas and not liquid fuels. He was unable to present a single way the Wilderness Committee would address our needs for liquid fuels.

Having established that liquid fuels differ from electricity we have to ask ourselves: how are liquid fuels used in BC? Well 80% of the crude oil used in BC is used for transportation purposes. That 80% is made up of gasoline (44%), diesel (29%) and aviation fuel (7%). 96% of the energy used for transportation in BC comes from liquid fossil fuels. Most importantly, there are no non-fossil fuel options for most of those uses. Think about how liquid fuels are used: in aviation (aviation gasoline and jet fuels), in rail (diesel) in heavy commercial trucks (diesel) and in private and fleet motor vehicles (predominantly gasoline).

So let’s look at the alternatives for these sources:

Aviation: there are no viable options for electric transport planes or passenger jets. Certainly there are a number of projects to develop electric planes but none are even in the prototype stage.  If we want to continue to rely on modern aviation we have no alternatives to liquid fuels.

Rail: While electric rail is being proposed for some commuter routes, the main use of rail in BC is to transport goods. There are no viable alternatives to diesel for that purpose. The cost to electrify transport rail would leave no funds for any other activities.

Heavy Commercial Trucks: Sure everyone is talking about the Tesla Semi, now for a cold dose of reality. The first prototype is still only starting its road testing and the number that will be available in the foreseeable future is tiny. There were over 61,000 heavy commercial trucks on BC roads in 2013. Tesla is not going to make 61,000+ semis  in the next 20+ years especially since there are 447,500 heavy commercial trucks in Canada and many tens of millions world-wide. There is simply no alternative out there, for the foreseeable future commercial trucks will need diesel and without diesel Canadians don’t get the food they need to put on their tables.

Fleet Vehicles: While range anxiety is no longer a huge concern for electric cars, it is still a serious consideration for fleet vehicles. Firstly there are no fully electric pick-up trucks nor are there vehicles capable of carrying the tools and supplies needed in most fleet vehicles. Weight restrictions are a common issue with electric vehicles and even Tesla hasn’t been able to figure out how to make an electric pick-up capable of going off-road. No we aren’t talking of 4×4 driving but simply moving on muddy work roads and in places where a pick-up is needed to get the job done. Absent some new manufacturer there is no alternative for most fleet vehicles, they will rely on gasoline.

Personal Automobiles: personal autos are the obvious place where we can reduce our reliance on liquid fuels but even there we are nowhere near ready to carry out a full EV transition. Right now electric vehicles are primarily used as commuter vehicles. They are typically the second vehicle in a household that is used to commute. Why is this? Because right now the electric market is made up of small and very small cars. I have a wife, three kids and a dog. As a low-carbon family we have a single vehicle and that vehicle has an internal combustion engine because no EV model out there fits our needs. I can’t go visit my family on the island and fit everyone into an electric car. Until they have full-sized, family vehicles that don’t cost $60,000+ we will still need gasoline for cars. Let’s not even get into the issues with regards to availability. In 2017, 235,000 new cars were sold in BC, 2194 of those were electric. A friend tried to buy an electric VW and was told the wait list was 18-36 months. Put simply, car makers aren’t even making enough cars to make a dent on the market in BC we will need that gasoline.

Now I know that all sorts of European countries have talked about moratoriums on the sale of non-EV vehicles by 2030, 2035 or 2040. Well I will tell you a secret. The car manufacturers don’t have the infrastructure to meet those requirements. There is exactly zero chance that every vehicle sold in the UK will be electric in 2030 when the worldwide production capacity wouldn’t even replace BC’s auto needs.

Now we have looked at the numbers what have the activists argued? As I mentioned above, they have three approaches so far:

1) Distraction – as discussed above, this is where they talk about electricity and distract from the fact that electricity cannot replace liquid fuels.

2) Arm-waving: this is where they wave their arms claiming that we should “drive less” or that government will create politically impossible mandates. The problem with their arm-waving is that it is not supported by anything. The government mandating EV vehicles by 2030 means nothing if the car manufacturers can’t build the cars needed to meet the mandate. What will happen is what has happened every time this was done in the past. The government will either extend the deadline or simply eliminate the mandate. The only mandates that have worked in the past are the types that call for incremental improvements and provide detailed timelines. California has been great at doing this but this is not the approach anyone has used to date for electric vehicles.

3) Expand Transit: This is the only legitimate approach, but one that is simply a drop in the bucket. Listen to what Climate_Pete had to say in the most recent “report” from the Wilderness Committee

A massive investment in public transit, revitalization of local manufacturing & tempered expectations about your ability to cross the planet in less than a day would be a good start. Thankfully we’ve produced a paper with somewhat more detailed proposals.

The problem is when you read the “report” you get a small section saying we should increase transit availability, that’s it with the policies. As I have written in the past, improving transit will create incremental improvements on our fuel use but are only reasonable in our city cores. This is a classic example of the urban nature of the modern NGOs.They appear to be completely unaware of what life is like outside of the city centers. No government has the money to eliminate the need for private vehicles in Chilliwack, Enderby or Cranbrook. Even in a community like my own (Langley) the density is not there to warrant the level of transit necessary to allow myself (or my neighbors) to forego our personal vehicles.

Now As I have written before, as described by Business in Vancouver: B.C. consumed 192,000 barrels a day (bpd) of refined fuels in 2015. The Puget Sound Refineries need about 630,000 bpd and California needs to import heavy oil. As I have written repeatedly, the Trans Mountain is safer for BC, it is safer for Washington State and it is safer for the Salish Sea than the alternatives. It provides the liquid fossil fuels in the safest means possible and if we use Canadian fuels in the process the profits have the benefits of funding our government, our medical system and any transit expansion the NGOs want to see.

I also don’t want to get into the climate change argument at this time because the truth is that the pipeline is a necessary part of our battle against climate change. In this case real climate leaders DO build pipelines. But that is just another distraction (see above). The simple question I want answered is what is the alternative to the Trans Mountain?

I can’t say it enough, our society is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Every scrap of food we eat and every drop of water we drink has a carbon footprint. I can’t think of a single part of my life that doesn’t rely in one way or another on fossil fuels. Now I recognize that we, as a society, must wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but that is not a simple task. As I have explained if we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented percent of our national gross domestic product to the task we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. What this means is that British Columbia and Washington have, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. So please answer me this simple question:

Show me a safer way than @a to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society on the West Coast What is your alternative to ?



Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Understanding environmental complexity: when initial impressions are wrong – wrapped banana edition

I have spent my week on twitter in a series of quite interesting discussions about, of all things, bananas. This started thanks to a tweet from a local journalist showing a pile of individually wrapped bananas with the comment: “you gotta be kidding me”. On the surface it seemed like a fair concern. We all know about over-packaging and so it is a reasonable reflex to assume that this was just another case of unnecessary packaging. The problem is that in this case (like many in the environmental field) initial impressions can often end up being wrong. Sometimes when you dig deeper into an issue you discover unexpected truths. This banana case provides a useful example of how looking deeper into a story can show our initial impressions to be wrong on complex environmental topics.

So why might wrapping a banana be a good idea from an environmental perspective? As we all know, bananas can be extremely perishable. In warm weather a banana seldom lasts more than a week in my house. Refrigerating bananas doesn’t help a lot either. So why is this the case and how do they ship these perishable fruit from the orchard to market? Like many of my posts we need to start with a quick chemistry lesson.

The secret to banana ripening is a chemical called ethylene (ethene for chemists). Like many fruits, bananas emit ethylene as they ripen and the more ethylene a banana is exposed to, the faster that banana will ripen. A rotten banana emits large (relatively speaking) amounts of ethylene and can thus increase the rate of ripening of any bananas nearby. This is common in fruit and explains the old expression “one rotten apple ruins the barrel”. So to defer ripening you need to keep your bananas from being exposed to or emitting ethylene. In the shipping industry they do this by shipping bananas green, cold and in a controlled atmosphere with low oxygen levels and elevated carbon dioxide concentrations.

When the preserved bananas reach their destination they are sent to a local ripening facility At the ripening facility they are gently warmed (really they are allowed to return to ambient temperatures in a controlled manner) and they are exposed to a precise amount of ethylene (it is injected into a sealed exposure room). Once exposed to ethylene the race is on to get the bananas to the store to be sold and eaten before they go bad. Unpackaged bananas have a shelf life of about 15 days.

This brings us to why a banana company might want to package bananas. To answer this question let’s go to a useful article on the topic: Effect of packaging materials on shelf life and quality of banana cultivars which explains:

 Banana remained marketable for 36 days in the high density polyethylene and low density polyethylene bags, and for 18 days in banana leaf and teff straw packaging treatments. Unpackaged fruits remained marketable for 15 days only…. It can, thus, be concluded that packaging of banana fruits in high density and low density polyethylene bags resulted in longer shelf life and improved quality of the produce followed by packaging in dried banana leaf and teff straw.

So by packaging bananas (and protecting them from additional ethylene exposure) a distributor can more than double a banana’s shelf life from 15 days to 36 days. This is a very significant improvement. As Nick Eagland pointed out to me, outside of the distribution channels there is an entire literature on life-hacks which describes how individual consumers use cling wrap to get the same effect.

I am not the first person to address this issue and a previous writer, interested in the topic, went to Del Monte (the distributors of the bananas in question) to ask them why they do it. In an interview on the topic Del Monte explained that beyond extending lifespans the packaging had another use:

the product serves another important role, namely the ability to now offer healthy alternative snacks to consumers in locations when they were previously not available due to the highly perishable nature of bananas.

Everyone knows that there is an obesity epidemic and healthy eating could be an important step forward to address the health and economic consequences on society. A great example of the positive contribution that the Del Monte CRT [“Controlled Ripening Technology”] single finger bananas is the fact that now school children, when they go to their school vending machine, can choose a banana instead of, let’s say, a chocolate bar or potato chips (which coincidentally also use plastic wrappers).

So here we have an example of a business decision, that both extends the shelf life of a banana and contributes to improving nutritional opportunities for kids…seems like a no-brainer right? But we are not finished because besides being good for kids this may also be good for the global environment?  How you ask? Well for that we have to remember that each banana is the result of a long production chain and each step in that chain has a large fossil fuel (carbon) footprint. Thus every banana that goes into the trash is wasted fossil fuels and thus wasted carbon emissions.

Here is a link to a discussion of the carbon footprint of your average banana. The most recent research indicates that the carbon footprint for bananas are in the 1.27 kilogram to 1.37 kilogram CO2 per kilogram of bananas. You read that right, each banana results in the generation of more than a banana’s weight in CO2 emissions. Pretty terrifying right? Actually this isn’t bad by food standards. Consider that grass-fed beef can have a carbon footprint of over 25 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of beef. That doesn’t mean we aren’t getting better according to Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada:

in Canada the mean carbon footprint of beef cattle at the exit gate of the farm decreased from 18.2 kg CO2 per kg LW [live weight] in 1981 to 9.5 kg CO2 per kg LW in 2006 mainly because of improved genetics, better diets, and more sustainable land management practices.

As for the other fruits? The lowest CO2 fruit are likely apples. Local apples can have a carbon footprint as low as 0.108 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of apples. Want organic apples? That will increase it to  0.176 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of apples.

What is even worse is food waste. In retail stores wastage of fruits and vegetables represents a huge environmental cost. One study identified that the fruit & vegetable department of a grocery store contributed 85% of the wasted mass and 46% of the total carbon footprint of wastage from the store. So if the use of a few milligrams of plastic wrap can save kilograms of wasted CO2 emissions, that seems like a pretty good deal for the environment.

Now it is clear that packaging is not the ideal solution for most retail outlets. Most consumers are going to want to (and should) buy unwrapped bananas and avoid throwing out old bananas by making banana bread. But for convenience stores and locations where people will buy and consume individual bananas, the individual wrapping of bananas seems to be an environmentally sound practice. It reduces wastage, extends shelf-life and can have a net effect of reducing overall carbon emissions. So an example of a counter-intuitive result that is ultimately true. So the next time someone gives you a quick and easy answer to a complex question consider that the real answer might be a lot more complicated and your knee-jerk response may be the wrong one.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Looking at the science linking BC forest fires to climate change

A State of Emergency has been declared in British Columbia because of all the forest fires, and the usual suspects have started their usual game of blaming the forest fires on climate change. The problem is, as I will demonstrate in this blog post, the science is pretty clear that climate change cannot be blamed for this two-year uptick in fire activity. This is not to belittle climate change as a long-term threat to our forests. I cannot make this clear enough, climate change will eventually increase our fire danger. But we can’t blame climate change for everything, all the time. There are lots of moving parts in nature and this fire season is likely due to some other natural or anthropogenic feature, one we have to correctly identify if we are to avoid a repeat next year.

Now I can already hear my detractors saying: “but Blair climate change is an existential threat to our nation. We have to take advantage of the public interest to help us fight climate change”. My response is simple:

The argument being made is inconsistent with the state of the science. When you argue against the science you undermine your credibility.

But let’s think of it in a scientific manner: if climate change is not to blame for the two-year increase in forest fire activity then blaming it on climate change will mean we are missing some important other factor. Think of this as the wrongfully convicted murderer theory of environmental policy. When you wrongfully convict someone of murder you may feel better that someone is in jail but since it is the wrong person that means the real murderer is still out there running free. So identifying the actual cause of the forest fires becomes a really important topic. Why is this true? Because when climate change eventually increases our fire risk having it build on whatever is actually causing our current fires would make a bad situation even worse. So let’s look at what the science says about this topic.

The first misconception we have to clear up is the belief that climate change means everywhere in the world will get hotter and drier. This cannot be farther from the truth. Climate change is predicted to affect different areas differently. Most dry areas will get drier and many wet areas are going to get wetter. In B.C. the global climate models (GCMs) indicate that in the early years of climate change we will have wetter winters AND wetter summers. This will have the effect of initially reducing our risk of forest fires. Consider the most highly regarded of the papers on the topic of climate change and wildfires: Climate-induced variations in global wildfire danger from 1979 to 2013. The paper’s abstract reads like it should provide overwhelming support for the premise that climate change will increase our risk of fire. But a careful read of the paper shows that global trends will not always be seen regionally.

Since I want to make it easy just look at Figures 3 and 4 in the paper. Figure 3 displays “Global patterns of fire weather season length changes from 1979 to 2013“. Looking at B.C. on Figure 3a you see that the length of the fire season has significantly shortened between 1979 and 2013. Figure 3b “shows regions that have experienced changes in the frequency of long fire weather seasons (>1σ above historical mean) during the second half of the study period (1996–2013) compared with the number of events observed during the first half (1979–1996)”. Looking at Figure 3b we see that B.C. has experienced a shortening of the fire season between the start and end of the study period. Figure 4, meanwhile, reinforces the fact that the fire season has decreased in British Columbia over time.

The other thing I have heard is: “the paper says that globally fire incidence is expected to increase”. Well that can be true without it meaning that B.C. will get more fires. Rather the GCMs indicate that B.C. will initially have shorter fire seasons. Why is this the case? Well the simple answer is that as we have warmed B.C. has become wetter. Let’s look at a graph of long-term change in precipitation in BC. Virtually every part of B.C. has seen significantly increasing amounts of precipitation in the last 113 years. Moreover, that precipitation has increased across every season. Winter, spring, summer and fall have all been getting wetter. Now I have already had several people on Twitter argue that the time-window ends in 2013? Considering it is a 113 year time-frame this is an incredible minor quibble, but just to satisfy the pedants let’s look at what has happened in the last 5 years. The data shows that the last five years were even wetter than the 5 years before. The data makes it clear, the wet trend continues. So that argument is simply wrong.

The next argument I have repeatedly heard is that because it is warmer (even though it is wetter) we will still get more fires. Well here is a paper that considers that issue: Fuel moisture sensitivity to temperature and precipitation: climate change implications. What does the paper conclude? That the argument will eventually be true but that it is not true right now. Given the current increase in precipitation compared to the current amount of heating, the precipitation exceeds the values necessary to avoid the increase in fire risk associated with warming. This is why Natural Resources Canada (NRC) has concluded:

This complex combination of influences makes it difficult to identify clearly whether any measurable changes in the patterns of wildland fire over the last few decades can be linked directly to climate change. Nevertheless, pattern changes do appear to be underway.

In Canada’s northwestern boreal regions, for example, the annual amount of forest area burned by wildland fires rose steadily over the second half of the 20th century. Some of this increase has been attributed to climate change.

By contrast, in Canada’s southern boreal forest, the annual amount of area burned seems to have decreased during the 20th century. This trend might be the result of climate change causing greater amounts of precipitation over time in these regions.

However, analyses of fire history suggest that it is the effect of climate variability on precipitation regimes that is the primary reason for the decreasing fire activity in southern regions.

In reading the NRC conclusion recognize that none of B.C. is in the “northwestern boreal region”. We are in the part of the country where we have seen decreasing fire activity.  What the NRC and the Flannigan et al. paper make clear: in the long-term (by the 2091-2100 fire regimes) climate change, if it continues unabated, should result in increased number and severity of fires. However, what the data says is that right now this signal is not yet evident.

So to conclude this post lets sum the story up: the science is pretty clear, climate change will increase our forest fire danger, but it is NOT responsible for this year’s forest fires. Why is it so important to make this clear? Because in the last two years we have had a significant jump in forest fires and figuring out what is actually causing the increase in area burned is pretty darned important. We need to determine what changes in forest condition, forest management or whatever has resulted in the last two years of fire behaviour. Understanding that the last two years’ fire seasons are due to something other than global warming frees us to figure out what actually has caused the increase. Most importantly, we need to figure this out before the effects of global warming actually start influencing our fire seasons.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 25 Comments