Preparing for a Chaotic Climate

December 7, 2021

By: Lindsay Austrom

Our changing climate poses a significant threat to infrastructure within our communities. Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity along with an unpredictable temperature, both in extreme heat and cold. Climate change is disrupting typical weather patterns, including increased rainfall and snowfall in locations that are sometimes inexperienced and ill-equipped to handle these conditions. While mitigation and energy reduction become increasingly essential to reach national net-zero targets, developers and building owners must also consider climate resilience and adaptation measures in preparation for an evolving climate. Proper preparation and planning for these conditions empower the businesses, services, and programs within our communities to manage and accurately assess the risk of climate change and control cost and maintain the integrity of the facilities they operate. In addition, a proactive approach creates more sustainable spaces for end-users who use these same structures to work, live and play.

Change & Impact

What was once considered a one in 100-year storm event may now occur every 50 or 25 years; this can be misleading when designing buildings to comply with current risk factors and calculations. As we adapt to an unpredictable climate, we must consider how the existing risks can evolve and which new threats may surface throughout the lifecycle of a building or system. Unfortunately, many buildings are designed within parameters that meteorologists now realize are outdated due to climate change. Storm events with increased frequency and intensity create conditions favourable to flooding, which can create a significant risk to a wide range of infrastructure, directly or by damaging supporting infrastructure such as energy distribution networks. Drought and forest fires also create environments that are more susceptible to flooding and mudslides and may be less resilient to future events and changes.

The Northern region of Canada is impacted differently by a warming climate. Many areas of the North rely on a cold climate to continue operating as a Northern ecosystem. A Northern warming climate is already resulting in melting permafrost, decreased ice thickness, changing sea levels, precipitation changes and extreme weather events occurring more often. These changes have the ability to damage essential infrastructure and networks, such as roadways and hospitals that provide access to basic needs and medical care and are very expensive to rehabilitate.

In addition to infrastructure damage, environmental and cultural impacts due to climate change in the North have occurred. Communities built in particular locations for valid reasons may no longer be viable. As a result, traditional economic drivers are no longer viable due to changes in wildlife habitat and numbers or changing transportation and mobility limitations such as reduced ice roads and unsound road foundations.

Mitigating & Managing Risk

The impact of climate change on a building varies by location and local climate factors. In order to identify risks, Climate Change Risk Assessments and various other studies such as overheating studies can be provided by engineering consultants or agencies. FireSmart Canada can also help further the discussions around which adaptation measures may be required for specific buildings. The first consideration is the location of a building – whether the building is currently located in or is proposed to be located in a flood plain or an area at risk of a forest fire. The best way to manage these risks is by planning ahead in both design and operations, especially if a development project is vulnerable to a sudden weather event. An example of this could be a heatwave. Adaptation measures to mitigate this risk may include upgrading a ventilation system and cooling capacity.

Preparation for these intense conditions and events is key to reducing downtime and controlling the cost of repairs and replacements. For new construction projects, designs should reflect the exposure to climate risks, anticipated changes in climatic zone design parameters over the lifespan of the building and incorporate measures that are appropriate for the building’s occupants, operations and location. Often, this is practiced during the selection of construction materials for a building. This selection can vary based on the climate a structure is exposed to and include waterproof or fire-resistant materials.

As we continue to see the impacts climate change has on our communities and buildings, incorporating valuable new knowledge and technology into a customized design solution that includes these important considerations becomes increasingly essential. Each project brings its risk factors and requires a detailed and comprehensive approach to deliver resiliency for every building. As we continue to push towards a sustainable future, Williams Engineering Canada continues to lead in environmental responsibility and adaptation to the ever-changing environment of the world today.