Skip to main content

Weather and climate extremes call for everyone’s strengths: Zhang

November 16, 2023

Xuebin Zhang

With degrees in engineering hydrology and a physics doctorate with a specialization in meteorology, Xuebin Zhang’s route to the leadership of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC) might have been linear, if not a straight shot.

But no.

Like the climate patterns he’s studied for almost three decades, his journey has taken a more circular, albeit rising, path.

Arguably it started when, as a post-doctoral fellow himself, he scooped some desk space in a corner of the office of his wife’s post-doctoral supervisor at the University of Victoria. That was the late ’90s; the supervisor was Francis Zwiers.

Over the years, Zwiers worked mostly at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) before taking the tiller at PCIC in 2010. Meanwhile, Zhang worked at ECCC for 25 years, converting data into knowledge for practitioners’ applications and collaborating globally on innovative research.

Some of that research, in fact, included several ground-breaking studies with Zwiers.

“The west coast historical data showed a warming trend,” Zhang says. “But data from the east coast showed it was cooling a bit. I wondered why.”

Zwiers helped Zhang get data from Canada and the UK and, in 2003, they produced the first paper showing that climate change can be seen on a regional scale. That can be a game-changer, Zhang says: Policy-makers are much more likely to act when they know that global climate change (warming) can actually be seen in their backyards and that it affects them.

Years after those earlier encounters, Zhang is now at the helm of PCIC.

A regional climate service centre at UVic, PCIC provides practical information on the physical impacts of climate variability and change in our region and also produces climate information products that are used across Canada. The 25-strong staff includes regional climate impacts specialists, an expert team of hydrologists, training and engagement specialists, a climate mapper, climate data specialists, programmers and IT experts. They collaborate with climate researchers and regional stakeholders to produce knowledge and tools that support long-term planning and risk management. PCIC focuses on data and tools that are publicly accessible to all users, and its scientists also produce and publish a substantial amount of innovative climate research. 

Zhang says, “As an engineer, I was trained to solve problems. There’s no longer any question that climate change is real and that it’s due to greenhouse gas emissions. The question is: what am I going to do about it?

“Given the size of the country and the scale of the problem and relatively limited human and financial resources we have, we can’t think in isolation. We have to apply the strength of every group, make use of the best everyone has to offer in order to address impacts of climate change.”

He also points out that we can’t stop climate change on a dime, so we must find ways to adapt to a new climate and a warmer world. Extreme storms and heatwaves cause more problems than gradual change, so it is ever more important to have modelling that can reproduce such events. The November, 2021 floods in British Columbia, for example, would not have been so extreme if climate had not changed.

Zhang expects that PCIC will continue to collect and share data, to create new tools so people are better informed to use that data properly. As well, he anticipates that PCIC will provide more communications and training, and increasingly engage the users to inform the development of new climate knowledge and information that suits their needs.

“PCIC’s success has been built on evolution. It started with an endowment [from the BC government], added user-funded projects and other research funding that supported post-doctoral fellowships. PCIC is more agile and more proactively addressing user needs through our co-design approach.”

And because some floods lead not to fortune, but to disaster (with apologies to Shakespeare), Zhang intends that “PCIC will continue to adapt to meet the evolving needs of our stakeholders — so we are all better prepared.”

Rachel Goldsworthy