British Columbia’s Drought Historic, Deadly

October 13, 2022


In the depths of this record-breaking B.C. drought, pretty much everyone I know is tormented by two opposing sentiments: 1) Overwhelming joy at the endless summer we’re having and 2) A growing sense of anxiety about how nearly three months with no rain in much of B.C. is impacting, well, all other living things.

While much of southern B.C. smashes temperature records and wildfires run rampant in mid-October, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’re a bit like a frog in a pot of boiling water: slowly dying. 

video posted on Twitter by William Housty last week,(above) which showed a dry creek in Heiltsuk territory full of dead salmon, racked up nearly 200,000 views and inspired dozens of news articles.

“We knew that the water levels had been low because we had such a dry end of the summer,” Housty said, but still he was “shocked” to see how bad it was.

“This isn’t just about the drought. This is about long-term persistent climate change that we’ve been living with for some time,” says Scott Hinch, a professor of fisheries conservation in the University of British Columbia’s department of forest and conservation sciences. “Salmon habitats have been changing over the last 20 to 25 years.”

Those changes include both higher water temperatures and big variations to water levels.

“Salmon are suffering death by a thousand cuts. If they’re not experiencing higher temperatures, they’re experiencing areas where there’s very little water, or they’re seeing water at levels either high or low that they’re historically not normally experiencing.

While some salmon are being stranded as streams dry up, as was the case in Heiltsuk territory, in other cases salmon are waiting in the ocean or in a lake for their spawning stream to appear in the first place. All that waiting around causes its own problems. 

“These adult migrants are on a one-way ticket to death. Once they’ve initiated their migrations to leave the oceans, it’s a one-way ticket. They can’t turn around. They have to keep going,” Hinch says. “They can hold off for maybe a week or two, but their biological clocks are ticking … They are going to die, potentially unspawned, if they can’t get to their spawning streams.” 

Marine Heat Wave off Western North America

Richard Hebda, an ecologist who has studied the impacts of climate change on ecosystemspredicted 30 years ago that western red cedars would struggle in a warmer, drier climate. 

“Most trees have a way of dealing with drought in the late summer, but this is well beyond, I suspect, what many of them can handle,” he said. “I never thought it would take place this quickly … These barometers are telling us in no uncertain terms that transformation of our natural landscape is taking place — and it’s irreversible.”

Several years of dry conditions are catching up not only with red cedars but also with Douglas fir trees — which are typically seen as more adapted to the drier climate of southern Vancouver Island — Hebda said. 

“They don’t like it when it’s dry in October,” he says, looking out his window at a Douglas fir to confirm that its needles are dying. “That’s unusual.”

Over the last four to five years, Douglas firs on rocky knolls and shallow soils have been dying.

“We have to save what we have now,” Hebda said. “This whole business of old-growth logging is just totally inappropriate in terms of climate change because it’ll never be replaced. There’ll never be old-growth of the kind we have now.”

Hebda says on top of the more obvious die-off of salmon and trees, there’s the underlying biodiversity crisis that many people don’t see — the bears and the birds that rely on western red cedars, for instance.

“Everything is connected. If you take away one of the major elements of that connection system, you utterly alter it,” he said.

Hebda predicts red cedars will essentially disappear from eastern Vancouver Island by 2050. 

“Our demands on nature all over the globe are way beyond what nature can handle in terms of biological diversity, which is the basis for the diversity of life,” the 72-year-old Hebda says, trailing off as he watches a hummingbird pollinate his fuchsia. 

“It’ll be a very, very different place by 2050.”

Meanwhile, meteorologists say rain may return soon, with flooding possible.

US News and World Report:

With forecasts showing rain could return by the end of next week, the provincial government said it would monitor river conditions closely in coming weeks.

“Dry soils can increase runoff and river flows,” Emergency Management BC said in a news release.

The exceptionally long dry spell in Canada’s most biodiverse province has sparked concerns about how different species will respond. Biologists are particularly concerned about salmon, which are critical to ecosystem health and culturally significant to indigenous First Nations.

Salmon migrate from the ocean to rivers to spawn at this time of year, but this month social media pictures showed thousands of dead salmon in a dried-up stream in central British Columbia.

Jason Hwang, vice president at the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said many salmon populations were delaying their journey upstream. But warmer water increases the risk of them becoming diseased and there were questions over the knock-on effects of spawning later than usual, such as when salmon eggs hatch.

“The scale of the effects of this weather pattern and climate change effects is something that we have not seen before. This is way beyond normal,” Hwang said. “It affects their whole fresh water life history.”


3 Responses to “British Columbia’s Drought Historic, Deadly”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Lived many years in Vancouver and BC in general. Not unusual for the rainfall make 40 days and nights seem like a small shower. In short, drought in BC equals Oh Shit!

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    With the speed of this environmental change (and it’s likely to change even faster as the decades pass), I fear only the populations of organisms with the quickest reproduction cycles will be able to adapt.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: