Holistic resilience: At the nexus of climate change and COVID-19

As a global pandemic stretches our emergency resources and response capacity, “resilience” has shifted from a boardroom strategy to a daily activity. As we enter the seasons of flood, heat, and wildfire, how will we weather simultaneous storms in our own backyards? Explore how we can prepare for climate shocks and extreme weather events in the context of COVID-19.

In a world that’s in the grip of a global pandemic, every day brings a swirl of new “what ifs.” What will the next impacts be? What will our world will look like tomorrow, next week, and next month? The pandemic has disrupted operations and services at every level of government as decision-makers focus on response and recovery. Yet when it comes to climate change, there is a big question looming as we move into spring and summer — notoriously wild weather seasons in Canada. What if there’s an extreme weather event at the height of COVID-19?

When we look back at the last few years, some notable extreme weather events come to mind: the summer 2013 flooding events in Calgary and Toronto; the July 2018 North American heat wave that devastated Quebec, the wildfires that commonly last for weeks in forested zones across Canada. If observation isn’t enough, climate change projections tell us that these types of extreme weather events are going to become frequent and more intense. At the same time, health experts suggest that the impact of COVID-19 may last several months. When we look forward, a collision between these two global crises seems increasingly likely.

How can we better understand the impacts of extreme weather this spring, this summer, and beyond? How can we plan for those what if scenarios and take proactive measures to adapt?

Planning for new risks this flood season

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Flooding is already a top concern for many municipalities in Canada. This year, preparedness and response plans must be re-thought given the added health risks and restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Flooding presents a whole new realm of risk when health-care systems are already under pressure, public facilities are closed, community services are rolled back, and those most exposed to flooding impacts are isolated at home. Many of the hubs that provide resources and refuge during flooding may not be open this season, or may be unable to support the same capacity of people while abiding by the rules of social distancing. In the event of injuries, an additional influx of patients may further overwhelm a strained health-care system.

Our community ability to prepare and respond to flooding will also be hampered by the impacts of COVID-19. Collective, volunteer-based efforts such as sandbagging and neighbourhood check-in programs are a vital piece of flood resilience – in 2019, nearly 15,000 volunteers in Ottawa helped fill and remove 1.5 million sandbags. Such efforts may be stopped due to restrictions on large gatherings, and in-person support will be challenged by our simultaneous effort to flatten the curve.

Monitoring flood risk and planning COVID-friendly ways to protect flood zones will be paramount this flood season.

Watching the warning signs of flooding

Snowpack levels and the rate of snowmelt are strong indicators of seasonal flood risk, as are warmer temperatures that cause earlier spring thaw and snowmelt in many regions. Observations in Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec have found that snow is melting less rapidly than other years thus far, an encouraging sign that reduces the risk of an early flood season. However, depending on precipitation and water levels, flooding is still possible even with lower snowpack. This was the case in 2019, where snow melt and high inflows combined with heavy rainfall and caused a total of $208 million of insured damage in Quebec and New Brunswick.

Past floods hold important lessons for COVID-19

Municipal, regional and provincial governments, particularly those in flood-prone areas, are closely monitoring snow melt conditions and adjusting their responses. The municipality of Pontiac, Quebec is urging residents to find alternative evacuation plans, since the province will not be able to open emergency shelters as it did in the 2019 floods. The Canadian Armed Forces are reportedly preparing to bolster extreme weather response in northern, remote, Indigenous, and geographically vulnerable communities.

Governments will need to think beyond typical emergency tactics, tapping into community partnerships and crowdsourced solutions. We have already seen innovative, collaborative responses to COVID-19 which are transferrable to flooding, like cities providing shelter in unused hotel rooms, and resident-led support networks. Key to resilience will be collaboration among all levels of government, and harnessing the power of the community to supplement flood resilience measures.

Intersecting vulnerabilities

Moving into the summer months, many regions will start to experience hot days and heat waves (three consecutive days with temperatures above 30°C). Weather data show that the last five years have been the hottest on record. Across Canada, temperatures are expected to continue increasing, with more frequent and longer heat waves, possibly lasting over a week. This is already a reality for some cities such as Montréal, where the 2018 heat wave lasted for eight days and saw over 65 heat-related deaths.

This summer, we may see direct overlap between vulnerability to extreme heat, poor air quality, and COVID-19.

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Elderly individuals and those with existing respiratory or cardiovascular issues will be more susceptible to both climate and COVID-related health risks. Equity is also major determinant, as socioeconomically marginalized groups, people living in poverty and polluted areas, and those without access to housing tend to be more vulnerable. And while air pollution is temporarily supressed, health experts have expressed concern that chronic lung and heart diseases have already been worsened by long-term exposure, making sufferers less able to fight off lung infections such as COVID-19.

Monitoring vulnerability to extreme heat

Climate projections help us forecast how heat events will increase in the years to come. However, predicting this summer’s heat risks is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Beyond just temperature, it will be important to monitor vulnerable individuals who may need assistance during heat events. Some cities have used urban heat island maps layered with sociodemographic data to identify where neighbourhood check-ins, resources, and community programs should be targeted. Locating the most vulnerable pockets, responders can use mapping to direct support to those whose climate vulnerability is now being exacerbated by COVID-19. Communities will need to be resourceful and creative about how to help people access cooling when places like pools, parks, malls, and libraries are closed.

Scenario planning for forest fires during COVID-19

As summer progresses, many regions anticipate the impact of forest fires as well. Wildland fires have been on the rise in Canada and are projected to become more frequent and widespread due to climate change. The 2014 fire season in the Northwest Territories saw 385 fires burn through 3.4 million hectares of forest land, causing hundreds of evacuations from northern communities. Wildfire smoke traveled south, and led to air quality advisories in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In both 2017 and 2018, British Columbia declared a state of emergency with two record-setting fire seasons. This summer, emergency managers and governments will be looking at how the impact of wildfire and COVID-19 could interact.

In the event of an evacuation, finding the space to safely relocate displaced people will be harder than before. Similar to flooding, emergency operations centres, facilities, and college/university campuses may not be available to accommodate evacuees. The dangerous conditions for first responders and volunteers will be amplified by the health risks of COVID-19. For those not directly impacted by the fires, smoke can still dramatically affect air quality. Wildfire smoke, particularly when combined with heat, will exacerbate respiratory conditions and make matters worse for those coping with COVID-19 or other health conditions.

Collaborative approaches to fire risk mapping

There are multiple tools available to help monitor and anticipate wildfire severity for the upcoming season. The Fire Weather Index system includes components such as daily temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and 24-hour rainfall that provides a relative rating for wildfire potential. Monthly drought factors measure the moisture content of deep soil layers using temperature and precipitation data, and has been an effective metric for simulating wildfire severity.

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Mapping has been vital for tracking both wildfire risk and COVID-19, and there may be opportunities combine the two.

Monitoring fire risk in conjunction with public health data and current government policies can form the basis for understanding which areas are most at risk from wildfire, and in addition, how COVID-19 has changed our capacity to prepare and stay safe. While demographics and health-related data can inform our vulnerabilities, fire weather forecasting and mapping can help responders prioritize high-risk areas that need tailored support to protect public safety.

To prepare for wildfire risk this season, we will again need to pursue a collaborative response that unlocks resources from different levels of government, built upon the experience and knowledge of wildfire experts and public health authorities. With more onus on individual preparedness, communities and existing local networks will have to find new ways to foster personal resilience. Most importantly, we need new forms of partnerships with businesses like hotels, telecommunications, and manufacturers that go beyond their typical business models to help people impacted by wildfire, COVID-19, or both.

 

What we do know can help us

Measuring and communicating extreme weather risks during a pandemic is a challenging and complex task — but unfortunately, a likely possibility. Amidst this rapidly changing landscape, WSP is continuing to support decision-makers by bringing together our expertise in modelling climate change projections, identifying extreme weather hazards, assessing vulnerabilities and risks, and resilience planning. Our unique breadth of knowledge can help governments understand the ways climate change and extreme weather can affect infrastructure, communities, and investments, particularly given the added pressure of COVID-19. Using this information, governments can make more informed decisions that consider climate resilience within their unique operations, services, and community context.

A lesson on resilience

Some of the most effective ways that people have come together to help in previous floods, fires, and heat waves may not be possible in the current pandemic. But inherent in the definition of resilience is the ability to adapt to change. Measuring risk helps focus our attention on the people and places most vulnerable, and illuminates some of the root problems that made us vulnerable in the first place. Working with the information we have, and exploring what’s possible through data and collaboration, we can improve the way we plan for crises, ultimately becoming more disaster-resilient. On the other side of crisis, we will find ourselves better equipped to rebuild, adapt, and prepare for the what ifs of the future.