In August, Victoria got only one millimeter of precipitation. In September, it was the same story: a single millimeter of rain, compared to a historical September average of 31mm.
This was the second driest September on record for the region, and the hottest September ever.
In a typical year, Victoria would have seen a rainstorm, or at least a rainfall warning, by this point in the fall. But this is not a typical year.
“Normally we would have seen some kind of organized rainstorm that would have graced the Island to bring in precipitation,” said Derek Lee, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “But this year, I don’t think we have seen any significant storms pass by the Island.”
In contrast, the 2mm of rain that we’ve had since July 8 was surpassed in two minutes in Florida when Category 4 storm Hurricane Ian hit the state last week, according to the Weather Network.
Lee explains that the current high pressure weather system—that’s also been responsible for the unseasonably warm temperatures—has been diverting any storms away from the Island to the northwest coast of BC.
“So until that ridge of high pressure moves off… we are going to see this prolonged period of warm and third conditions.”
According to the forecast, we won’t have any relief from the dry weather and summer temperatures for at least another week. And while above average temperatures will possibly continue into November, daytime highs are expected to gradually drop and rain will come near the end of the month.
The extended dry and warm weather, however, has far-reaching implications for our environment. Vancouver Island is currently under Drought Level 4, the province announced last week; level 4, out of five possible levels, means that negative impacts to ecosystems are likely. These conditions could have long-term effects on the largest of trees to the salmon headed to freshwater to spawn.
This year hasn’t been as bad of a wildfire season as previous years, but the dry weather has created the perfect kindling for flames to catch.
In the early morning hours on Tuesday, fire crews were called to a forest fire that had started on a steep, tree-heavy slope just south of Gowlland Todd Park in the Finlayson Arm. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire had grown to approximately one hectare in size, and was classified by the BC Wildfire Service as Out of Control. According to the BC Wildfire Service, it was suspected to be human-caused.
A helicopter responds to the Finlayson Arm wildfire on Tuesday. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Carly Phillips, a researcher in residence with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, said that the dry weather has created the perfect fuel for a fire.
“Obviously, for a fire you need both fuel and an ignition source,” she said. “And so having those very dry fuels, that very dry vegetation, raises the risk that if you have an ignition source that that will turn into a wildfire.”
Currently, there are 13 wildfires burning on the Island, four of which are out of control. Most of those fires are in the central and northern regions of the Iceland.
The biggest, located north of Gold River, has grown to more than 350 hectares since it was started by lightning about a month ago.
Across the province in the past week, there have been 48 new fires.
“What we do know about climate change is that it’s increasing the risk of some of these extreme events, so increasing the risk of wildfire years like we saw in 2017, 2018, and 2020,” Phillips said. “But increasing it in a non-linear way. Years like 2021, where we had fewer fires, are also likely to occur, but there’s just a greater likelihood of some of those extreme wildfire seasons.”
For the forests that aren’t imminently threatened by flames, the trees have another source of stress: lack of water.
Big trees, like cedars, are sensitive to drought, and long stretches without rain can be detrimental.
“They can tolerate it for short spans of time,” said Nancy Shackelford, the director of Restoration of Natural Systems and assistant professor at UVic. “And historically, here, we’ve had a couple of months worth of summer drought, but as climate change has continued, that summer drought is going to get longer and longer, and it’s gonna really stress most of the cedars here. In some areas, cedars probably won’t really be able to survive anymore. We’ll still have them in the landscape, but they won’t be as frequent.”
Western red cedars, in particular, have been dying off across the southwest region of the province during long stretches of drought. This has been happening for decades, but the trees have been dying at a concerning rate in recent years.
“[Western red cedar] is the canary in the coal mine at this point,” Stefan Zeglen, a forest pathologist based in Nanaimo, told CBC in 2019. “It’s the first well-known species that’s likely to disappear from areas that it’s traditionally established in because of a lack of moisture.”
Other plants and flowers aren’t as affected by the dry weather as the big trees. This unusually late dry spell follows an unusually cool and wet spring that delayed the growing season for many plants on the Island. Shackelford doesn’t expect that we’ll see many long-term impacts
Many native grasses and flowers are already drought tolerant—such as the plants that are found in Garry oak ecosystems. Many of these plants are already dormant for the winter, and therefore not affected by the lack of water and the heat.
“I’d actually say this drought is probably much more severe in its impacts on the trees that have these longer periods in which they’re growing and going through their lifecycle.”
Even still, to protect native species from the effects of climate change, Shackelford says removing invasive species can make a large difference.
“The core concept behind pulling those weeds out is really to make space for that diversity, to make sure that you have higher representation of native species, because if you give them more space, they might be able to find that little area that’s a little weather whenever there’s a drought, or find that little area that’s a little higher when there’s a flood.”
Usually at this point in the year, the central coast of BC would have enjoyed precipitation ahead of the return of salmon in the fall. But this year, with no rain in weeks and none in the forecast, the returning fish have been greeted with dried out creek beds and near stagnant water.
The salmon, unable to travel upstream to their spawning grounds, have been dying by the thousands. In the Neekas Creek within Heiltstuk territory, William Housty witnessed piles of pink and chum salmon lying in the creek bed, dead.
“We had a very dry August and September, and the writing’s kind of been on the wall that we’d see this pre-spawn mortality,” Housty said. “But we never ever thought that it would be in the numbers that we’re seeing right now.”
This is Neekas, Heiltsuk Territory. All of these salmon went into the creek, the creek dried up b/c of no rain so far this fall, and just died, and this is just one reach! Global warming is killing everything. This is such a sad scene. Video credit, Sarah Mund pic.twitter.com/vYhEKwD5mN
— William Housty (@WilliamHousty) October 4, 2022
Housty is the conservation manager for the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. He says though this was an extreme case, this kind of mortality has been seen by crews throughout all watersheds in the territory.
In Heiltsuk territory, there are no large rivers. Instead, there is a network of thousands of small creeks that sustain small populations of salmon. There have been dry years, but Housty has never seen it this dry.
The creeks are running extremely low and the salmon have nowhere to go. “They run out of oxygen and they’re dying in mass numbers,” he said. The temperature in the shallow waters is also rising—in some cases above 20 C: temperatures that salmon cannot withstand.
“It’s devastating because they’re already at an all-time low, and we’re not actually going to feel the effects of what’s happening here until 2026 when the offspring from the salmon… would return.”
The death of thousands of salmon has wide-reaching effects across the ecosystem and food chain. Bears, wolves, and eagles that rely on the fall salmon return are also losing out on this food source.
Not all of the salmon in the system have died, however. Small numbers of salmon are still holding out in the ocean and waiting to enter the creeks. But the fish out there are degrading; they’re coming to the end of their lives. And if they have to wait much longer, they won’t be able to make it to their spawning grounds.
If the rains come and the creeks fill up, Housty says these salmon might have a chance. But with no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future, the outcome for the remaining salmon is bleak.