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Climate Resilience in Canada’s North: Q&A with Kala Pendakur

April 13, 2021

Climate Resilience in Canada’s North: Q&A with Kala Pendakur

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Interview
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Kala Pendakur is a Sector Specialist at the Standards Council of Canada working on the Northern Infrastructure Standardization Initiative (NISI).

 

Q.

In what ways are northern communities being impacted by climate change?

 

A.

Northern Canada is on the front lines of climate change. The north is warming faster than the rest of Canada.  As temperatures in the north increase, the area is seeing more severe storms, precipitation, melting sea ice, coastal erosion, and permafrost thaw. In some extreme cases, permafrost is thawing so quickly that several meters of soil can now destabilize in days, whereas in the past, only a few centimeters would thaw in a year.

Warming temperatures and extreme weather can have real impacts on northerners. For example, in 2008, high winds, heavy rains and flash flooding caused two bridges to collapse in Pangnirtung, Nunavut. The small community on Baffin Island was forced to call a state of emergency after the closure of the bridges cut off access to the local water reservoir and sewage treatment facility.

One of the greatest challenges comes from buildings being impacted by changing permafrost (or frozen ground) conditions. The north has tailored their engineering around frozen grounds for decades. Because of this, older facilities which did not consider climate change or changing permafrost conditions are more vulnerable to sinking and cracking. In fact, the Northwest Territories estimates that permafrost thaw could cause $51 million in damages to infrastructure annually in the territory alone.

 

Q.

What is SCC’s role in helping northern communities manage the impacts of a changing climate?

 

A.

Since 2011, SCC has been working with communities, standards development organizations, and experts from across northern Canada to support the development of standards that consider climate change in northern infrastructure design, planning and management. These standards – developed under the Northern Infrastructure Standardization Initiative (NISI) – help building owners and operators, as well as those responsible for public and community infrastructure, build and maintain infrastructure in a changing climate.

Our work strives to be by-the-north and for-the-north. That’s why all standards developed under NISI have been chosen and shaped by our Northern Advisory Committee, which is made up of representatives from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavik. Further, every time a new standard is being written, SCC works with standards development organizations to make sure that the standard is written by experts with northern experience and/or by those living in the north. This way, we help to guarantee that once produced, the standards truly meet the needs of northerners.

Once the standards are completed, we partner with northern representatives, and Canadian standard development organizations to provide training on these standards to decision makers and engineers working in the north to make sure they are known, understood, and ultimately used.

 

Q.

What role does standardization play in this space?

 

A.

Given the high costs and the challenges of building in remote regions of the north, it is important that buildings are made to be resilient. Northern communities need mechanisms to reduce their vulnerability to climate change impacts — and this is where standards can make a real difference.

New northern standards, developed under SCC’s NISI are helping to set guidelines for building and maintaining resilient infrastructure in Canada’s north. And, because these standards are frequently updated with evolving best practices, they will remain relevant because they will evolve as our understanding of climate change, and how to deal with it, evolves.

To date, standards have been developed to help communities build in permafrost, deal with extreme weather (like high winds and heavy snow), plan community systems (like wastewater sites), and take a long term view to design with climate change and risk in mind.

Having these standard means that projects carried out by different groups at different sites – often separated by great distances – will all follow the same requirements and best practices. Because of this, SCC is helping give communities greater peace of mind that they are doing everything they can to protect their communities and infrastructure from the threat of climate change.

 

Q.

What do you see as next steps for NISI? Exciting projects on the horizon?

 

A.

The good news is that work completed so far has helped to significantly close the gap in northern standardization needs. That said, there is much more left to be done, and SCC is geared up to continue to support the north develop new standards and related tools to address the changing climate.

In the short term, our Northern Advisory Committee has highlighted the need for new standards that will help define material and design guidance for greater building performance in northern regions, standards to support efficient energy management, and standards that will help communities manage their road surfaces.  Over the longer term, the committee would like to look at standards that will support northern health infrastructure, the design and operation of water systems, and geotechnical site investigations for non-vertical infrastructure (like roads).

We are also working with Transport Canada now to explore potential standardization priorities to increase the climate resilience of transportation infrastructure. Once this work is completed, Transport Canada and SCC should have a good understanding of what needs to be done next to help adapt the region’s transportation systems to coming challenges.

 

Q.

What are you most proud of when it comes to your work at SCC?

 

A.

Standards provide a strong blueprint for the design, maintenance, and rehabilitation of infrastructure. More than that, they can go a long way to help communities adapt to climate change and protect the infrastructure that is vitally important to quality of life. However, for those who come from a non-technical background, they can sometimes be hard to digest. For this reason, one of the things I am most proud of at SCC is the work we are doing with northern communities to help make NISI standards accessible to all audiences.

While we have always supported training (both in-class and virtually), we are now also making great strides in developing plain language tools that help users understand the basics of the standards. By working with northern artists, literacy groups, and communication experts, we are developing short guides that anyone can read and understand. And, because we want to make these as accessible as possible, we have had many of our tools translated into Inuktitut (and soon they will be available in Inuinnaqtun).

Finding ways to make the great resources we have developed more accessible has been a highlight of my work here at SCC.

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