Climate Atlas of Canada: A resource for environmental public health

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Prairie Climate Centre

Overview of the Climate Atlas of Canada

Climate determines almost everything about how we live. With our climate changing, many systems that we rely on (ecological, economic, social) will be affected.  Notably, health is one area that is closely connected with climate. Increasing summer temperatures, more frequent heat waves, and poor air quality from more wildfires and urban pollution are just some of the climate change impacts that are linked to increased health risks, some of which are already being felt across Canada. Evidently, climate change is a serious public health concern and health professionals have a key role to play in climate resilience, as they are recognized as one of the most trusted voices in public messaging.

Climate data and information can help public health professionals to understand the public health risks of a changing climate and develop strategies to adapt to these risks. It is with the desire to translate scientific knowledge in an engaging manner that The Climate Atlas of Canada (https://climateatlas.ca) was developed by our team at the Prairie Climate Centre. The Climate Atlas of Canada is a unique climate information website as it combines climate science, mapping and storytelling to bring the global issue of climate change closer to home for Canadians. It is designed to inspire local, regional, and national action that will let us move from risk to resilience.

The Climate Atlas provides easy to access climate data, information, and other useful resources to support a range of users, including public health professionals, teachers, planners, and climate scientists, as well as the general public. Allowing users to explore the various aspects of climate change, the Climate Atlas uses maps, graphs and climate data for provinces, local regions and cities across the country. Plain-language descriptions and analysis make climate science understandable and meaningful. Documentary videos, collaboratively developed with local and Indigenous knowledge holders as well as other experts, help make local sense of the global issue of climate change.

The Climate Atlas is part of a continuum of Canadian climate information platforms, along with ClimateData.ca. These tools intend to support the needs of diverse audiences, including the general public, the media, policy analysts, and decision-makers, as well as researchers and climate scientists.

Climate Projection Data

The Climate Atlas displays climate data from 24 statistically downscaled climate models (https://climateatlas.ca/data-sources-and-methods). Data is available for a “Low Carbon” (RCP 4.5) and a “High Carbon” (RCP 8.5) future scenario, allowing users to compare how climate projections differ if global action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or if the rate of global emissions continue business-as-usual. Climate information is available for a number of indices, including the number and duration of heat waves, tropical nights, very hot days, and very cold days.

Using Climate Data for Adaptation Planning

Climate information is an essential piece in conducting regional impact and vulnerability assessments and developing plans to prepare for and respond to new or heightened risks posed by climate change. Municipalities and institutions across Canada have developed climate change adaptation plans which identify responsive actions to the new risks posed by climate change. Climate information provides insights into the first stage of this adaptation planning process by enabling stakeholders to assess the climatic changes which will have the greatest impact in their region. The data portion of the Climate Atlas provides information on projected changes for the climate variables underpinning these assessments. The videos and articles on the site provide examples of how across Canada are undertaking this task, e.g., the video that features Quebec & Climate Change. https://climateatlas.ca/video/quebec-climate-change

Public health professionals can use the climate information found on the Climate Atlas to better plan a public health response to the impacts of climate change. The Climate Atlas can be used to investigate climate variables that are important health indicators, such as the number of days with extreme heat. Understanding how climate change might affect this variable is the first step in developing strategies to mitigate the public health risks.

 As an example, for the time period of 2051-2080, the number of days per year where temperatures reach or exceed 30°C is projected to increase by 38 days, from 14 days per year to 52 days per year, in Winnipeg under the high (RCP 8.5) emissions scenario. These projections indicate that an average year in the somewhat near future will have many more of those hot summer days that can be unbearable for vulnerable portions of the population. Therefore, it would be important to consider interventions that mitigate the risks associated with high temperatures over prolonged periods of time.

Climate atlas screenshot 

Planning and preparing for climate change involves having the best available information that is both easy to access and understand. The Climate Atlas provides information that is readily accessible and can help inform decision making around health.

The Climate Atlas Content and Resources

The Climate Atlas features a variety of content related to the diverse impacts of climate change, including health impacts. Over the past several years, the Prairie Climate Centre has worked with Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and other partners across the country to capture some of the diverse ways that climate change is already impacting the public health of Canadians, and what’s expected in the future. The goal is to share information to support community-based resiliency and health adaptation and planning.

Some of the content featured on the Climate Atlas includes:

Heat Waves and Health - This is a special report published last year which explains the risks and health adaptation options facing Canadians regarding climate change and extreme heat. To accompany this report, new heat wave data was published on the Atlas, which can be used in planning and adapting health systems and infrastructure for future heat events. Based on these new data, the special report and Climate Atlas show how numerous cities across Canada will likely see an increase in the number of heat waves in the future, especially if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectories. The full report is available at: https://climateatlas.ca/heat-health-report.pdf

Canadian Cities and Climate Change - The climate determines almost everything about how we design, build, and live in our cities. The streets and sidewalks, businesses and homes, parking lots and public transit that we use every day have been created to suit our climate. Now, with our climate changing, we need to re-think important aspects of how we live our urban lives. This article provides an overview of how Canadian cities have started thinking about and preparing for a changing climate. https://climateatlas.ca/canadian-cities-and-climate-change

Lyme Disease under Climate Change - Longer, hotter summers and milder winters are increasing suitable habitat for Lyme-carrying blacklegged ticks in Canada. We collaborated with public health experts to produce an article, a video, and a series of maps showing the changing disease risk: https://climateatlas.ca/lyme-disease-under-climate-change

These materials were empirically evaluated with rural and urban participants in Manitoba in the fall of 2019 and modified accordingly.

Building a Climate-Resilient City - Today, over 80% of Canada’s population lives in cities. We know that cities will soon face increased climate change impacts, such as more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

The research series (https://climateatlas.ca/building-climate-resilient-city) Building a Climate-Resilient City by the Prairie Climate Centre outlines policy steps that cities can take to engage in climate risk management in a range of areas, including transportation, agriculture, electricity infrastructure, disaster preparedness and emergency management.

Climate Change and Canada’s Cities Reports - Four out of five people in Canada live in urban areas, which means the vast majority of Canadians face the growing risks that climate change is bringing to our cities and towns.

In this series of city reports, we offer a summary of projected climate changes for Canada’s major cities, an overview of some important national, regional and local impacts, and ideas and approaches that can be used today to take meaningful climate action across the country.

Cities are a powerful source of resilience and resourcefulness when it comes to taking action on climate change. Learn more about what climate change means where you live.

More resources on climate change and various topics can be found on the Climate Atlas (https://climateatlas.ca/topics) along with a detailed guidebook to help understand and navigate the Climate Atlas (https://climateatlas.ca/atlas-guidebook).

Considering the close relationship between climate change and health, we are committed to developing and adding more health content on the Atlas (e.g. actionable items for health professionals), as well as working with health professionals in Canada to better understand the needs and experiences of these users, and adapting the Climate Atlas accordingly. We are also in the process of empirically evaluating the content of the Climate Atlas to provide evidenced-based communication materials.

About the author

his article was written by staff at the Prairie Climate Centre. The PCC team is made up of climate scientists, social science researchers, filmmakers, and communication specialists. Our transdisciplinary, community-based approach connects rigorous climate science with human stories grounded in local experience on the landscape.