Researchers to map health effects of climate change across Alberta

Seniors, children and refugees are at higher risk of chronic illness linked to extreme weather and air pollution.


Epidemiologist Shelby Yamamoto is leading a project to create interactive maps that will help Albertans see whether they may be at risk of health problems related to climate change. (Photo: School of Public Health)

Albertans will get a clearer picture of how climate change affects their health thanks to a set of interactive maps being developed by a University of Alberta research team.

The maps will depict experiences of vulnerability and risk by region related to chronic health conditions known to be caused or exacerbated by climate hazards, such as extreme weather and air pollution, including respiratory illnesses, mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, even dementia.

“There are a lot of things that go into a person's heightened or lowered risk of adverse health effects related to climate change,” explains principal investigator Shelby Yamamoto, an epidemiologist with the School of Public Health.

The project builds on a pilot map Yamamoto’s team built for the City of Edmonton that layers population-level sensitivity, exposure and adaptive capacity by neighbourhood. Each layer can be viewed on its own, or combined to get a view of how effects compound to create overall experiences of vulnerability.

Some are at higher risk than others

In Edmonton, the team found that seniors and refugees experience more vulnerability to climate change health effects than the general population. The new provincewide study will also examine vulnerability and risk as experienced by rural residents, pregnant women and children.

Vulnerability is a key concept in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, founded in 1988 by the United Nations to investigate human-caused climate change. Indices are a way to operationalize and map vulnerability and risk, which can include data such as age, demographics, geography, green space, industrial development, activities related to adaptation such as cooling centres, and health system access, among others.

As part of the Edmonton pilot study, the team tracked the per capita rate of health services used by neighbourhood for climate-sensitive conditions between 2015 and 2018. These included cardiovascular health (such as atrial fibrillation and stroke), injuries (including falls and brain injuries), mental health (including depression and anxiety), and respiratory health (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). They included measures of extreme weather and air pollution, as well as other area level measures such as material and social deprivation and green space.

They found that seniors are among the highest risk, which fits with the findings of the British Columbia coroner following the 2021 heat dome in that province. The coroner determined that 619 deaths were caused by the extreme heat. “Most of the deceased were older adults with compromised health due to multiple chronic diseases and who lived alone,” the report concluded.

“A specific subgroup of our elderly population which we are concerned about are those with cognitive impairment and dementia,” Yamamoto says. “Do they have the capacity to seek out help if they need it? Do they recognize the physiological indicators of things like heat or thirst? Are they mobile enough to be relocated, in the case of wildfire, for example? Are they more prone to falls because of ice and precipitation changes?”

Children and infants are also more susceptible because they are still developing, breathe at a faster rate and have smaller lung capacity, says Yamamoto, who is a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Yamamoto says that while new immigrants to Canada tend to be healthier than the average Canadian when they arrive, some newcomers who are refugees are more likely to face higher risks.

“If you're fleeing some sort of conflict, and you're literally leaving with the clothes on your back, and you don't really have any sort of support or resources, maybe you've been living in a camp, you're displaced, perhaps you are not at your healthiest,” she says.

A model for the country

Yamamoto states the maps could be useful as a policy planning tool for all levels of government, including municipalities like Edmonton and Calgary — both of which have declared climate emergencies — as well as for industry, community groups and individuals, especially as the models evolve. For example, legislation could be passed requiring air conditioning for long-term care facilities or more parks to be built in higher risk areas.

“What we have for Edmonton is very much a snapshot of what is happening right now. In scaling this work up, we will actually be looking at historical data that goes back 20 years. And in future work, we hope we'll be able to build in projections that will help tell us see what the future might look like,” Yamamoto says.

The team has started to build relationships with the B.C. Ministry of Health and others, so the approach could potentially be expanded and harmonized with others for the rest of the country.

The Alberta vulnerability project is funded to 2024 by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The team also has another grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to validate the pilot study index. The pilot study was supported by the City of Edmonton, Alberta EcoTrust Foundation and North American Partnership for Environmental Community Action.