Canmore author and researcher hopes people choose to act before seeing more floods and droughts firsthand

After years of work in the Rocky Mountains helping people get over their differences on environmental issues, Bob Sandford should have been a natural to tackle the issue of climate change. But before he could start convincing others, he had to convince himself that the warming showing up in temperature records could explain the frightening amount of glacial melting he saw with his own eyes.

Sandford began his career as a park naturalist, and then struck out on his own doing contract research – writing and programming for national parks throughout Western and Northern Canada.

In his work, Sandford noticed that a wide range of organizations shared his interest in parks, but he found that many of these groups saw each other as adversaries fighting over natural areas. They overlooked what they had in common, and missed chances to work together.

So he worked with the Alpine Club of Canada to organize non-confrontational events where these rifts might begin to heal. They started simply, with mountaineering centennials that celebrated significant moments of shared history, such as the discovery of the Columbia Icefield.

But the friendship-first, issues-later approach was moving too slowly for Sandford. He decided to go straight to work on what was then a very contentious issue: grizzly bears.

“People wanted them shot, they wanted them removed, they didn’t want them in the park, and of course then there were the extreme leftist environmental groups who said that the people shouldn’t be in the parks,” he said.

Although he works for the United Nations University Institute of Water, Environment and Health in Hamilton, Ont., Bob Sandford still makes his home in Canmore, close to the glaciers he studies.
Photo by Laura Stewart
Between these extremes, Sandford organized a program of scientific presentations, interpretive events, and exhibitions to share all the best information available about bears.

Sandford said the Year of the Great Bear initiative grew to 7,000 events, held mainly in mountain parks in Canada, but also as far away as the Yukon and Yellowstone.

People learned to share the mountain landscape with bears. They also learned to work together.

“I think it really showed that if you can break the deadlock in the way people think about one another, then you can change attitudes and actually change circumstances,” said Sandford.

Breaking that deadlock led Parks Canada to choose him to chair the Canadian Partnership Initiative for the UN International Year of Mountains in 2002. Next came appointments to lead Canada’s work in the UN International Year of Freshwater the following year, and the Water for Life Decade between 2005 and 2015.

“It’s a strange thing,” Sandford said. “Like many Canadians, I didn’t know how much I knew about water.”

For example, Sandford had spent a season on the Pacific Coast, recording the phenomenal reworking of beaches by winter storms. He also wrote a book about the Columbia Icefield, which feeds both the Athabasca and the North Saskatchewan Rivers, and famously survived being swept underneath a glacier by a meltwater stream, giving him a firsthand look at what was happening in the headwaters.

All that work with water and glaciers showed Sandford evidence that the climate is changing.

“I saw glaciers receding at horrendous rates, but I couldn’t honestly say that I could distinguish a recession trend from an anthropogenic fingerprint,” Sandford said.

In other words, even though the melting trend was obvious to him, its connection to human causes wasn’t.

That changed on a January night in Canmore, when Sandford got up and sensed that the howling wind was unusually warm.

“And I realized what was happening, hidden in plain sight right before me, was the warming was happening when I was least able to measure it: at night, in winter. And then when I went and checked the science, it was at night, and in winter.”

The Athabasca Glacier carries centuries-old ice downhill from the Columbia Icefield, the study of which feeds much of Sandford’s life’s work.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA
Even a small amount of warming can make a big difference when it crosses the freezing point. For example, in the winter of 2014 to 2015, warm temperatures caused much of the moisture to fall as rain instead of snow, thinning the winter snowpack, said Sandford.

But when he tried to convince others about climate change, Sandford faced stiff opposition.

Myron Thompson, a Reform Party MP at the time, agreed to meet with him, but as Sandford recalled, started the meeting by declaring, “‘Well son, my constituents tell me there’s no such thing as climate change.’”

But when Sandford mentioned drought, Thompson – who, in a separate interview, said he doesn’t remember the conversation, but remains skeptical that humans are causing climate change – was eager to talk. Water, and the increasing lack of it, was a common concern that brought them together, and is a topic the former MP remains enthusiastic to discuss.

That’s one of the reasons why Sandford believes that the best way to get to a discussion of climate change is through water.

He pointed out that, of the three most recent hard hits to Alberta’s economy, two were related to water: the 2013 floods and the 2015 drought.

He said, “We’re getting more and more people who see firsthand these extreme weather events and are impacted by them … and then you’ve got twice as many people who know people who have had that [experience], and sooner or later they’re going to form a constituency.”

When asked what keeps him in Canmore, Sandford simply responded by showing a photo of a glacier. While hiking on a weekend off from his first job as a park naturalist, Sandford survived being swept down a crevasse by meltwater on the Saskatchewan Glacier, shown here.
Photo courtesy of Bruno Menetrie
Firsthand experience may help to build public support for action, but while we wait for serious measures to be taken, Sandford sees people getting hurt.

He is most frightened by the catastrophic events that have begun to cause de-development: entire regions being so badly damaged that people will not rebuild.

For example, flooding in Pakistan in 2010 and 2011 displaced approximately 27 million people, or as Sandford put it, “almost the population of Canada.” Meanwhile, he explained, a six-year drought in Syria drove roughly one million people off their small farms into the cities, feeding the instability that led to civil war and the current refugee crisis.

Now, Sandford said, experts are warning that similar de-development is coming to parts of North America. He believes it is already underway in southern Manitoba, where a disrupted water cycle is causing widespread and prolonged flooding, as well as contributing to devastating algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg.

Though Sandford knows these are frightful circumstances, he remains optimistic in the face of our society’s stark reality by continuing to look for solutions.

“You really become powerless when you lose hope,” he said, “and you lose hope when you stop acting, when you stop working on the problem and feeling that you’re trying, and trying to fit everything together in new ways to make it work.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA

lstewart@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca