Dawson Climate Change Adaptation Project (DCAP)

In response to an increasing concern from residents about the impacts of a rapidly warming northern climate on their community and livelihoods, Dawson City completed the first adaptation plan in Yukon, titled the Dawson Climate Change Adaptation plan, in 2010. Dawson City, Yukon is built mostly on a narrow floodplain near the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The town site – located just below the Arctic Circle at 64° north latitude – is situated in a region characterized by discontinuous permafrost, rolling hills and deeply incised river valleys. Dawson residents are becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of a rapidly warming northern climate on their community and livelihoods. For example, permafrost thaw, forest fires, flooding, and changing precipitation patterns, as well as the ensuing consequences, both positive and negative, for the community and the natural environment. Potential consequences include compromised access, degradation of community utilities, damage to buildings, an increased growing season for local farmers, changes in land use, economic impacts and pressures on traditional harvesting.

In 2007, the Northern Climate ExChange, a Yukon-based non-profit organization, began working with three Yukon communities on climate change adaptation planning. Dawson was the first community in Yukon to complete an adaptation plan. The final adaptation plan includes a list of 43 high priority actions, 21 for immediate implementation and 22 for consideration by 2020. Many of the proposed actions respond to more than one community consequence. Actions range from, “investigate flood proofing of the proposed sewage facility”, to “implement preparedness education to respond to potential climate change related emergencies.” Development of Dawson’s adaptation plan has created a community resource to support ongoing local adaptation planning and decision-making.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The Dawson Climate Change Adaptation Project (DCAP) was proposed to help Dawson residents prepare for any adverse conditions or opportunities climate change may present. Dawson was selected by the Northern Climate ExChange in 2008 to pilot a climate change adaptation strategy because of their prior community interest in climate change, existing infrastructure (i.e. a sustainability plan), existence of relevant research partners, and interest from First Nations.
At the project onset, a local advisory committee (LAC) was established to steer the project. One key goal of the local advisory committee was to engage the community in discussions of climate-related risks, vulnerabilities and values. To understand climate change projections, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium was commissioned to identify future projected climate change (i.e. changes in temperature and precipitation for 2041 to 2070) specific to the Dawson region. By 2050, the Canadian Regional Climate Model (CRCM) projects that annual temperature in Dawson will increase by 2.5-3.5°C. Winter is expected to exhibit the greatest extent of warming, 4-6°C – some of the largest winter time temperature excursions out of anywhere in the Western North America region. Summer temperatures are expected to increase by 1.5-2.5°C, and precipitation is expected to increase by 10-40% but there is a high degree of uncertainty with these estimations.

Dawson then held a community input week to develop a regional climate change impacts scenario, analyze vulnerabilities, and develop adaptation strategies. Community vulnerabilities were prioritized based on the anticipated level of the impact, the likelihood of the impact, and the adaptive capacity of the community. Participants identified a series of impacts, including: permafrost thaw, forest fires, flooding, and changing precipitation patterns, as well as the ensuing consequences, both positive and negative, for the community and the natural environment. Potential consequences included compromised access, degradation of community utilities, damage to buildings, an increased growing season for local farmers, changes in land use, economic impacts and pressures on traditional harvesting.

Implementation

For each of the 78 community consequences identified, risk evaluation tables were completed jointly by the project team and Local Advisory Committee, and then vetted by the Technical Advisory Committee. Each community consequence included information on the level of impact, likelihood, adaptive capacity, overall priority level, suggested adaptation action, and lead partner(s). As an example, the community consequence “Permafrost decline forces re-engineering of the town site”, has an estimated impact level of ‘high’, and suggests a ‘detailed permafrost assessment’ as the adaptation action. The Yukon Government, Government of Canada, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and the City of Dawson are listed as potential lead partners. The Northern Climate ExChange allocated $120,000 to help implement the plan: $30,000 was used to hire a local project coordinator, and the remaining money was awarded to four local adaptation projects chosen through a competitive process. All four funded projects were completed in an eight-month period ending June 2010. In addition, 15 recommendations from the final plan were implemented by various government and non-government organizations. The projects include an emergency response plan by the Dawson fire department, an assessment of food security along the Dawson River (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in), a compilation by the Yukon government of a publicly accessible inventory of permafrost conditions and an assessment of the vulnerability of Yukon government buildings to permafrost degradation. The projects focused on food and energy security as well as climate change education. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government, for example, obtained funding to construct a community greenhouse to increase local food security by extending the growing season and producing more locally produced food.

One important objective of the plan was to integrate adaptation decision making into standard government planning and operational practices in the Dawson region. For the purposes of mainstreaming climate change, the adaptation plan included recommendations organized by the following standard operational practices: land use, emergency response, fire management and infrastructure planning. Although the planning process helped raise awareness, there remains considerable work to be done before climate change considerations are fully integrated into day-to-day decision making in the community

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

In 2018, a particularly severe wildfire season demonstrated the community’s continued vulnerability to climate change and prompted questions around preparedness and resilience to climate change in general and wildfire specifically. In response, researchers from the University of Alberta conducted research which involved discussions with local decision-makers (e.g. elected officials, city planners and engineers, emergency management) about their views on wildfire risk, lessons learned from the recent wildfire seasons, and how this knowledge will be incorporated into strategic adaptation policy and planning for the 2019 wildfire season. Interviews with local decision-makers revealed a number of adaptation actions that are currently underway in Dawson. For example, Dawson City participates in the Yukon Government’s FireSmart® program; the town works with the territory to educate the community on how to reduce the risk of wildfire; and the town regularly conducts emergency scenario planning activities involving variety of different stakeholders.

The Dawson Climate Change Adaptation plan provides a comprehensive analysis of climate change related impacts to Dawson, community vulnerabilities, adaptation strategies, and community opportunities. The project success was due to the large number of volunteers, a high level of community participation, strong support from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in council and the work of the local project coordinator. Many of the best practices and lessons learned are being applied to adaptation planning initiatives in other Yukon communities, including Whitehorse and Mayo. However, there were many challenges when creating the climate change adaptation plan including climatic variability, lack of communication amongst existing climate related networks, socio-political constraints, lack of capacity, desire to mitigate rather than adapt, lack of measurable goals and desired outcomes, and a general lack of high-resolution, good quality, downscaled climate change science. Some facilitating factors of the project include the high adaptability of historically resource dependent communities, local climate knowledge, community concern about climate change, strong community engagement, and an increasing body of knowledge to draw from.

Next Steps

Results of research conducted in 2019 by the University of Alberta, Dawson City has a council that is environmentally aware, and accepting of the need for climate change adaptation. Results of interviews with local decision-makers indicate that while climate change thinking is moving in the right direction, interviewees believe that greater priority is necessary. With respect to wildfire specifically, the more immediate needs associated with permafrost thaw are taking priority. The town is also working to improve local food security. Self-sufficiency is a necessity in such an isolated community. Under a component of the Dawson Adaptation Project with funding provided by the Northern Strategy Trust, a selection of adaptations will be implemented.