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Fork in the Road: Confusion reigns

People, plants, animals—all mixed up together in one disastrous climate
Unseasonable winter warmth and a roller-coaster freeze-thaw cycle is wreaking havoc on B.C.’s plants.

'Round about now, I always look forward to lovely little shrubs at my mom’s senior housing complex in White Rock. They start blooming around the end of January, with delicate pink pom-poms of blossoms that last for weeks and make me smile. At least that’s what usually happens.

This year, though, with the unseasonably warm, early winter, they bloomed in December. Then when that cold snap hit with the polar vortex dipping down out of the Arctic like a fallen dictator stumbling all the way to Texas, those lovely pink blossoms were rendered skanky, wet, brown blobs. They still cling intrepidly to their stems: Dead, but not forgotten.

Happy (brown) spring.

In Whistler, gardens have been covered, uncovered, then covered again with snow, while trees and bushes have suffered with heavy snow, then rain, then freezing conditions again. It will be a while yet to see what damage has been done, but if you’ve surfaced after the royal Royal visit and looped down to West or North Van lately, you might have noticed all kinds of landscape plants in various stages of suffering. Dead or dying after roller-coaster weather and icy temperatures that killed plant cells, turning what should be green, brown.

Brown rhododendrons. Brown laurel hedges dropping more leaves than not. Even young daffodil pups that recklessly popped up their heads up in December are now brown mush.

Of course, the miracle of life pushes on. The shrubs and trees, if the right varieties were chosen (more on that in an upcoming column), are still standing, and some wee daffies and other spring bulbs are pushing up new growth between the brown mush of too-early starts. But many of us, especially if we’ve known and loved the Wet Coast for decades, are suitably horrified as we bear witness, front and centre, to yet another extreme, disturbing climate event in our neck of the woods.

Think of this when you’re trying to scare up fresh local cherries this summer. So many trees have been killed, B.C. cherry growers, especially those in the Okanagan, call their situation a, quote, silent disaster. Grape growers and vintners face a similar catastrophe. Maybe 99 per cent of wine grapes were killed by the cold snap—and we haven’t heard yet from peach, pear or apple growers.

This January’s cold snap is the worst in a string of extremes, starting with 2020’s deep freeze, then 2021’s heat dome with temperatures hitting 47-plus C. In 2022 came what B.C. Cherry Association president Sukhpaul Bal calls the heat dome “hangover,” with more high temperatures and low rainfall. And more of the same is expected this summer. It all adds up to growing—or maybe that’s dying conditions—my great-uncles and -aunts, who were Okanagan orchardists almost 100 years ago, couldn’t have dreamt in their worst nightmares.

The Okanagan’s silent disaster tracks the same pattern as in Sea to Sky: A crazy, warm early winter followed by a cold snap so extreme some Okanagan areas saw temperatures plummet from well above freezing to as low as -30 C in a few days. Whether grape vines or spring flowers, plants can’t acclimatize that quickly.

It’s not so much we actually forget, but sometimes I fear that we contemporary, privileged, self-centred humans are so used to our instant, wired creature comforts we don’t even consider that trees, plants, insects, animals—basically, all the other living things on Earth—have few or limited resources to contend with the extremes we’ve created by disturbing our climate and the environment as radically as we have.

David Suzuki, who, BTW, has given up flying because of its grave effect on climate; hundreds, nay, thousands of other scientists; and I, your trusty local reporter who has been tracking the climate file for 35 years, all gladly remind you that scientists confirmed in the 1950s when I was, like, five, that burning fossil fuels created a warming, greenhouse effect. (Actually, scientists confirmed same in the late 1800s, but most don’t cite those reports.)

So what did the fossil fuel industry do? Same thing the tobacco industry did when smoking was linked to cancer. Put a lid on it. “Shhhh. Don’t tell the public so we can keep growing profits.”

Now all kinds of other things aren’t growing.

The UN has just released a special report from its Environment Programme on the state of the world’s migratory animals. It studied 1,127 species of migratory birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and fish, and the story ain’t pretty. One in five species is threatened with extinction, largely due to climate change and other human-caused activities. Fish are in the worst shape of all.

Maybe this year’s lousy snow conditions have meant you’ve only gotten in as much skiing or boarding so far this season as you normally would in one week during a usual year. No wonder! The provincial average for snow levels was 39 per cent below normal as of Feb. 1—doubly worse than same time last year when they were 19 per cent below normal.

Sure, it’s lousy for ski resorts—and their frustrated guests. (The Vancouver Sun reports that some models predict 50 to 75 per cent of North American ski resorts will be gone by 2060). But it’s worse for river systems fed by the melting snow pack fish, especially salmon, depend on.

Humans love to eat salmon. But we have menu choices, while bears, eagles, insects, even the trees in riparian forests fed by their nutrients don’t. (When salmon migrate upstream to areas of lower-nutrient levels, they bring welcome nutrients up from the ocean.) Likewise ocean dwellers, like sea lions, orcas and especially our Southern Resident killer whales, that depend on salmon. A perfect system for millennia, but now the wheels are falling off.

Confused plants. Confused orchardists. Confused skiers and salmon. We’ve all been thrown a nasty curve ball by the fossil fuel industry, and there’s no more hiding our heads in the sand. To pull out of the tailspin ASAP, we need to check our moral compass—and the 10 actions the UN advises us to undertake to straighten up and fly right. Otherwise only more confusing confusion looms on the horizon.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who was a kid in Alberta when oil companies started denying climate change.