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Climate atlas combines science with storytelling to address climate change

Interactive website features videos, maps and plain-language explanations to bring home the reality of climate change to Canadian communities.

By SHARON OOSTHOEK | MAY 04 2018

Most Canadians aren’t used to worrying about dangerously hot temperatures, but heat waves are becoming increasingly common. In 2009, over 150 people in British Columbia died due to a heat wave, and in 2010 more than 280 people died because of extreme heat in Quebec.

So begins an entry on the urban heat island effect in the Climate Atlas of Canada, an interactive website featuring videos, maps and plain-language explanations about climate change in communities across the country. The atlas, launched on April 4 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is the brainchild of the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre.

Its interactive maps show climate change data for about 2,000 towns, cities and regions, under both high and low greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Click on Ottawa, for example, and you will learn the city is expected to swelter through an average of 78 days a year of temperatures above 30C by 2021 under a high emissions scenario. That compares to an average of about 10 such days a year between 1976 and 2005. Vancouver, known for its temperate climate, could see 48 hot days a year by 2021, compared to an average of one per year between 1976 and 2005.

While the atlas is based on solid science – data extrapolated from 12 global climate models – it strives to be much more than a repository of information. “Climate change data is not enough to change behaviour,” says the centre’s co-director, Ian Mauro. “We are starting to realize there is a whole social process around how people act on information.”

That process involves storytelling to help bring home the fact that climate change is happening here and now. In one video, a winter roads truck driver in Northern Manitoba talks of how warmer temperatures have melted ice bridges over creeks along his route, at one point forcing him to chop down trees to fill the gully so he could get out.

“It’s not about some far-off people in a far-off future,” says Dr. Mauro, who filmed many of the website’s videos over the course of a decade while making documentaries about climate change. Dr. Mauro is both a geography professor at U of Winnipeg and a filmmaker. He co-directed the influential Inuktitut language documentary Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change with acclaimed Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk.

Funded in part by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the province of Manitoba, the atlas is designed as a planning tool for governments and businesses. Dr. Mauro says he is already fielding calls from municipalities and groups, such as landscape architects, about using it for that purpose.

But he and his colleagues aren’t done. The atlas is a work-in-progress and they plan to add virtual reality segments, along with new specialty topics, such as Indigenous knowledge and forests.

“I believe storytelling can change the world,” says Dr. Mauro. “If we acknowledge the story of climate change could lead us to a very dangerous place as a species, we can open the door to the story that we can change that.”

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