ENVIRONMENTAL IDEAS – Planning for climate change

Summary: Climate change is already affecting the mining sector in Canada and presents serious risks to future opera...
Summary: Climate change is already affecting the mining sector in Canada and presents serious risks to future operations. Proactive planning can help reduce the negative impacts of climate change, take advantage of emerging opportunities, and address investor concern. Assessing climate vulnerability is the first step in planning for climate change and this article outlines a framework for assessing vulnerability, identifying how climate change can be built into short and long term planning.


It is widely accepted that climate change is occurring in Canada with impacts on the mining sector. Changing ice and snow regimes have caused havoc for companies relying on frozen ground to access their operations in winter. An increase in the magnitude and frequency of natural hazards has forced many to invest in new protection measures and has affected delivery and maintenance schedules. Climate change has even forced some companies to re-evaluate the sustainability of operations in current locations.

The latest scientific assessments indicate that continued and accelerated climate change can be expected in the future. Mines across the nation will be exposed to altered precipitation and temperature regimes, and it is expected that there will be an increase in the magnitude and frequency of natural hazards. Investors are increasingly concerned about these risks, and the likelihood of adverse impacts has created interest for the development of measures to reduce or moderate the expected negative effects of climate change, and take advantage of new opportunities.

Identifying climate vulnerability is the first step in climate change planning, helping to locate weaknesses and identify strengths in management regimes. This paper outlines how to assess vulnerability and plan for climate change, and is targeted at companies developing climate change plans.


Stage 1 Current vulnerability

Climate change vulnerability assessment begins by assessing current climate vulnerability. The starting point is the present day, characterizing how climatic conditions affect local operations, and identifying entry points to reduce risks on a short term planning horizon.

1.1 Identify sensitivity to climatic conditions

Characterization of current vulnerability begins by identifying sensitivity to climatic conditions. Temperatures, precipitation, and wind have direct impacts on mining: strong winds can knock out power lines, high temperatures can force the early closure of ice roads, extreme cold can shut down operations, and low precipitation can reduce access to water. These climatic conditions also influence the magnitude and frequency of natural hazards affecting operations and the safety of employees, including flooding, landslides, and forest fires. Questions of importance when identifying climate sensitivity include:

- What is the physical nature of climatic conditions that pose risks? What time of the year do they occur and how frequent are they? At what thresholds do they become a problem? For example: at what temperatures do operations have to shut down due to extreme cold; what characteristics of temperature in winter/spring cause ice roads to become unusable?

- What areas/operations are affected? How do climatic conditions affect various aspects of production? Are certain activities more sensitive than others? How is the impact determined by the severity of the climatic conditions?

At this stage it is also important to identify why sensitivity to climatic conditions exists. Understanding causal mechanisms can help identify entry points for planning to reduce current sensitivity, which in turn will help reduce sensitivity to future climate change impacts. For example:

- Operations may be sensitive due to their dependence upon a limited number of access roads that are susceptible to flooding, landslide, or ice melt. Planning can target resources to protect roads or develop contingency plans to manage having limited outside access if access is cut off.

- Mines located in remote locations or on small sideroads may be adversely affected by heavy snowfall as these roads are the last to be cleared, limiting employee, delivery, and maintenance access. Planning can establish emergency funds to employ private snow removal if heavy snowfall is forecast, develop procedures where key workers work remotely when there is limited access, and stockpile maintenance inventory during winter months when risk of heavy snow is high.

1.2 Evaluate the effectiveness of current management practices

Many industries have experience in developing and implementing plans to cope and deal with climate-related stresses. Learning from current successes and failures, and building these lessons into current contingency planning, decision-making processes, and policy goals is central to climate change planning.

A characterization of current vulnerability is finished by making an inventory of plans currently in place that are used to manage climatic stresses before, during, and after they occur. Plans may directly relate to climatic conditions. For example, mines that rely on ice roads for access have measures and resources in place to manage early ice melt. Many companies have emergency funds in place to cover the impact of natural hazards. Other plans may be more indirect. Contingency planning, for instance, may not relate directly to climate risks, but the general procedures contained in these plans can help maintain operations during a flood or climate-related power outage.

Once inventoried, assessment then examines the effectiveness of existing climate management strategies. This may involve looking at current and past experience of managing climatic stresses, which allows strengths and weaknesses to be identified on the basis of actual experience, and develops a greater understanding of factors that constrained or enabled management ability. For some climate stresses, however, there may be no past experience. In such instances, assessment can involve the creation of hypothetical scenarios during which response procedures are assessed.

The outcomes of the assessment of current management practices can feed directly into improved planning to cope with climatic stresses. Common weaknesses revealed by such analysis include: lack of guidance and misunderstanding on how to respond among employees; conflicting emergency response guidelines; absence of contingency plans for worst case scenarios; poor communication within and across organizations; and limited knowledge of sensitivity to climatic stresses. Once identified, addressing these weaknesses can often be achieved within existing budgets, human resources, and decision-making structures. In winter 2006, for instance, diamond mining companies in the Northwest Territories were forced to use air transport when the ice roads became unusable early in the season. A shortage of aircraft severely stressed the ability to get machinery to the mines at a critical time. Future operations will see companies maximizing the use of the ice roads early in the season; mine planners are beginning to build earlier deterioration of roads into their transportation plans.

From a climate change planning perspective the benefits of systematically assessing climate management plans are well-recognized: enhancing capacity to deal with present climatic risks strengthens resilience to longer-term climate change. More importantly, such planning can bring immediate benefits in the form of reduced sensitivity and increased capacity to manage current climatic stresses.

Stage 2 Future vulnerability

Analysis of current vulnerability feeds directly into assessing vulnerability to future climate change. This stage forms the basis for longer term strategic planning.

2.1 Characterizing future climate sensitivity

Characterizing future climate sensitivity firstly involves identifying how clim ate change will affect climatic conditions to which sensitivity already exists. Questions of importance include: How will the magnitude, frequency, and timing of climatic stresses be affected by climate change? Will climate change make current problems more widespread? Will new problems emerge? Agencies including the OURANOS Consortium specialize in developing climate change scenarios on a regional scale to answer these questions. Information on climate predictions, and implications for climate stresses, can also be obtained from the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and from federal government departments including NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA and ENVIRONMENT CANADA.

Once the impacts of climate change have been specified, it is then necessary to evaluate sensitivity of local operations and activities to projected changes. This may involve examining if current stresses such as warm winter temperatures will increase in the future, identification of infrastructure that is at risk, and evaluation of the sustainability of current operations in given locations. The output from this analysis can provide context for long-term planning to reduce climate sensitivity. For example:

- Climate change projections can be built into infrastructure development. For example, new access roads may be considered if existing routes are predicted to be affected by increased flooding, or bridges on existing routes maybe strengthened. If new facilities are needed, siting should take into account climate projections, e.g., avoid areas that may be affected by flooding.
- Industry can diversity their operations to manage future climatic stress, and consider re-location if necessary.
- Projections of change can help identify strategic investment priorities.

2.2 Examine future management challenges

The vulnerability assessment is completed by evaluating the extent to which current management practices will enable future climate change impacts to be dealt with. This involves hypothetical simulations examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing plans to manage sensitivities that will emerge with climate change. It can also involve looking at how management systems have coped with similar climatic events to those projected, using this experience to guide the development of long term management plans.
For example, if the ice road season is to be significantly reduced in the future, as projections show, analysis can focus on how past events were managed and examine what plans are in place to cope with late freeze up and early break up. Weaknesses and strengths of existing plans, and capacity to cope with future changes, can also be evaluated in hypothetical simulations of response to a shorter ice season, of the nature predicted with climate change. This analysis in turn can feed into improved planning.

As new management plans are developed, continued evaluation of their effectiveness in light of current and projected future climatic hazards is essential.


Climate change is no longer an abstract concept in Canadait is an observable phenomenon with wide-ranging implications for mining. We can expect climate change to continue into the future. It is therefore imperative that companies plan for climate change. Assessing current and future vulnerability is essential in this regard, identifying entry points for short- and long-term planning. By strengthening existing contingency plans, climate change planning will bring immediate benefits in the form of improved capacity to manage current climatic stresses, reduced vulnerability to future climate change, and enhanced business security.

About the authors: Dr. James Ford and Tristan Pearce are partners in ARCTICNORTH CONSULTING. They specialize in vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning, with a focus on climate change, natural hazards, and resource development. They work mainly with small to medium size communities and industry in northern Canada, and currently have projects in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and British Columbia. They can be reached at [email protected], ArcticNorth Consulting, 233 Curzon Av., St Lambert, QC, J4P 2V3; or [email protected], ArcticNorth Consulting, 6 Gryphon Place, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 4L7.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *