Meet The Preppers

Four recent University of Alberta graduates share their experiences in the Adaptation Resilience Training

Profiles by Olivia DeBourcier

Are you wondering if extreme weather is becoming more frequent or intense? You may know people who fled 2020’s California wildfires, or maybe you donated to help out after 2019’s big floods in Eastern Canada—or maybe you experienced extreme weather personally in Calgary or Fort McMurray.

While floods and fires are part of normal cycles, climate change is making some extreme weather worse. And even in the best case, Canada’s climate will continue to warm for at least the next two decades.

So while it’s crucial we continue to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, it’s clear that we also need to adapt: we must protect people and communities from the negative impacts of a changing climate.

The Adaptation Resilience Training (ART) program aims to match recent graduates and students with organizations across Alberta, to work to strengthen our collective response to the consequences of climate change. These 21 ART project assistants are not only working on unique projects within their partner organizations but are also working together in small teams developing training materials for professionals across a variety of fields who are looking to incorporate climate resilience into their practices.

University of Alberta student Olivia DeBourcier spoke with four project assistants to get to know their projects and find out what they’ve learned about community resilience in Alberta.

The Adaptation Resilience Training is a cost-shared initiative supported by Natural Resources Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks.

Partner Organization: QUEST Canada

Project: Climate Vulnerability and Resilience in Power Systems

About Mackenzie: Mackenzie Mackay did her Bachelor of Arts Honours at Queen’s University  in geography and environmental studies. She recently completed her master’s at the University of Alberta, focusing on an energy security project in Tuktoyaktuk and working with Indigenous youth to figure out how climate action can be a mechanism for capacity development.

What got her interested in sustainability? “My grandfather was a really big outdoorsman. And we'd go for walks when I was little and he’d point out all the birds and stuff. And in high school, I had an awesome science teacher who exposed me to environmental science and sustainability, and sort of how to take that love for the environment and turn it into a career.”

About the Project: She’s been collaborating with four municipalities to understand how climate change is impacting them and threatening their energy systems.

Mackay’s partner organization, QUEST Canada, works from a largely socio-political perspective to accelerate the adoption of community-scale energy systems. For this project, they conducted workshops in four municipalities, with Mackay leading two of them. Within Big Lake County, Black Diamond, Raymond, and Ponoka, they worked with municipal staff, elected officials, and utility representatives to determine the municipalities’ energy challenges and vulnerabilities.

“If there was a massive ice storm or something, and a bunch of power lines were cut off, does your hospital have backup power to provide those essential services? Do the senior citizens homes have backup power in the winter? And if they don't, what plans do you have in place to make sure those people are safe? So it's both the technical infrastructure as well as the social and the planning lens.”

Mackay’s next step will be identifying ways to improve the municipalities’ resilience by doing a climate risk assessment. She will then recommend ways to build on the capacities and resources different communities already possess to reduce their risk.

According to Mackay, a strength of small municipalities is their ability to provide support for other members of their community when disastrous events occur. Some are also well equipped with emergency preparedness plans and emergency response drills. “But up to this point, there hasn't been a huge focus on things from a climate change lens or resilience lens,” said Mackay. “It's an emergency kind of lens that they're looking at these things.”

Partner Organization: City of Calgary

Project: Climate Adaptation in Infrastructure

About John Paul: John Paul Lelis graduated from the University of Alberta with a BSc in Civil Engineering and is now completing a masters in Structural Engineering.

What got him interested in sustainability: “I grew up in a place where you could see people just throwing their trash anywhere. Without any regard for Mother Nature. And with climate change, in the Philippines we also experienced strong storms more often. I wanted to make a change. As cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to have a career where I could make a positive change.”

About his project: Adapting to climate change not only involves being aware of the likelihood of more extreme weather events, but also making sure that our buildings are built in a way that anticipates climate change’s effects.

John Paul Lelis is passionate about sustainable building design and is working with the City of Calgary to review their building codes to see if they can stand up to the test of climate change.

“We're really designing for historical conditions right now,” said Lelis. “And we are looking to see how climate change would affect how we should be designing our infrastructure.”

Lelis’ project will determine best practices and standards considering what our future built environments might look like.

While the practice is helpful to see what components go into building design, Lelis says that what would benefit municipal infrastructure most in the long run would be to consider sustainable and resilient design on a systems level.

“I think it's really important for everyone to think about adapting to potentially new normals in the future,” said Lelis. “ And the job that I'm doing is adapting infrastructure. Whether it's homes or transportation, infrastructure or buildings.”

Lelis hopes to bring his passion for sustainable buildings into the field of building design.

“I want to make our buildings more resilient and more environmentally friendly.”

Partner Organization: Battle River Watershed Alliance

Project: Climate Change and Watershed Health

About Amanda: Amanda Rooney did her BA in Environmental Studies with a Certificate in Community Service-Learning at the University of Alberta.

What got her interested in sustainability? “I think the first kick into sustainability was my Community Service-Learning placement with Sustainable Food Edmonton and my agriculture and resource economics course AREC 173 with Brent Swallow. And then I think the second kick was going to study in the Netherlands. I was like, ‘Oh, boy, they've got a lot of really good ideas’.”

About the Project: For Amanda Rooney, examining the health of the Battle River Watershed and how it might be affected by climate change requires a holistic approach.

“What I've realized from doing this work is that there are huge benefits to looking at health from a watershed perspective,” said Rooney.

Rooney and her organization are grading the health of the watershed using indicators ranging from biodiversity to personal well-being to community health. They take into account the economy and land management as aspects of community health.

“We're pretty familiar with Alberta’s boom and bust cycles,” said Rooney. “Health is really tied to that. Whether it be mental health or even food security. If you don't have enough money to put food on the table, then that can impact your health. Or it can impact the way that you're able to manage the land.”

Taking an integrated approach to watershed health allows for the consideration of many factors in environmental health, but the approach also requires rigorous research.

“I think we take our water for granted,” said Rooney. “It seems like we could be doing quite a bit better, but I think there's just maybe not the pressure here as in like the United States or like places in Europe.”

Rooney notes that one of the things she’s realized through her project is that we don’t really know how much groundwater exists in Alberta’s reserves. Given that the Battle River’s headwaters are ground-fed, it’s hard to know how climate–change-related precipitation changes could impact the availability of water.

The end goal of the project is to create resources for stakeholders like farmers, municipal governments, and community groups that explain what watershed impacts they might expect from the effects of climate change.

Partner Organization: Alberta Land Institute

Project: Resilience and Environmental Risk Program

About Hana: Hana Ambury graduated from the University of Alberta’s  BSc Environmental and Conservation Science program with a major in the Human Dimensions of Environmental Management.

What got her interested in sustainability? “I was always interested in the human aspect of environmental issues. I volunteered for the Sustainable Food Working Group throughout my undergrad and I also did a research project looking at environmental policy.”

About the project: When disasters hit, like the floods in Canmore or the fire in Fort McMurray, cities must rebuild. But how do those disasters influence the way cities adapt as they rebuild ?

As a project assistant to Sandeep Agrawal, Ambury is helping to research how communities approach this issue. A big part of the work involves looking at whether communities are communicating risk management plans and adaptation strategies to current and prospective residents.

The Alberta Land Institute is a research institute at the University of Alberta that works to inform public debate and decision making about land use topics.

“The project is exciting because planning is something that I'm interested in doing in the future,” said Ambury. “It's kind of just interesting to be exposed to something that's totally different than what we did in undergrad.”

Ambury says that despite the seemingly increasing number of natural disasters impacting cities, there is little recent research on how that impacts people’s decisions to buy homes.

According to her, this work will ultimately be a part of The Alberta Land Institute knowledge mobilization webinars and materials for policymakers. She hopes the information will guide how future policy makers communicate risks and adaptation strategies to their community residents.

“I think the next step is that I want to do a master's in community planning, kind of focused on climate change planning or food systems planning,” said Ambury.