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Eyes on the weather
The latest scientific information shows Canada’s climate is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. And while international calls continue for action now to prevent catastrophe in the coming decades, the simple fact is climate change is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of Atlantic Canadians. Over the next four Fridays, we’re diving deeper into how our climate is changing, how it’s affecting our frontline farmers, fish harvesters, our communities and what our options are to adapt to survive.
Warmer, wetter, wilder
More rain. Less rain. Higher winds, tides and temperatures. More storms, more pests and more fires. Fewer cool nights. Less land mass.
Scientists say the effects of climate change are wide-ranging, related and bad for the planet. They effect coastlines, forests, people and the economy.
The global temperature has gone up about one degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era in the mid 1700s. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is, says Aldona Wiacek, an assistant professor in Saint Mary’s University’s department of environmental science.
“I always make a huge fuss about ‘why does one degree matter?’ Wouldn’t we all like it to be one degree warmer,” she said. “But that is the global mean surface temperature, averaging over everywhere in the world.”
And Canada faces, perhaps, even more significant impacts due to what the rising thermometer will do to the North.
The Arctic has been warming two to three times faster, she said, which increases the impact on Canada.
When the planet emerged from the last Ice Age, there was a rise of five to six degrees in the global mean temperature. That’s why the word “catastrophic” gets used sometimes when discussing a three-degree rise, Wiacek said.
Atlantic Canadian average temperature increase since 1948
- Winter: 0.6 C
- Spring: 0.8 C
- Summer: 1.3 C
- Autumn: 1.1 C
- Year-round 0.8
“There’s every indication that a warming of three degrees in the past has melted all the ice sheets when sustained for hundreds of years,” she said.
Warming weather means more evaporation of surface water, which then means more precipitation. And that could mean more extreme weather events and wet extreme weather events for the Atlantic provinces.
She said heat absorbed at the equator gets moved north, primarily by ocean currents, which can then push cold air south.
With the melting ice caps and increased rain comes rising sea levels, which Wiacek said can be expected to increase by two to three feet by the end of the century. She said a city like Halifax, which has had problems with waterfront businesses flooding during storm surges with high tides, will see more of that.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a special report in October saying world governments need to work to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 C, but to do that greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and there has to be net zero emissions by 2050.
Very hot days (those above 30C) can cause heat stress in crops and livestock affecting yields, reproduction and meat, milk and egg production.
— Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
“Given the current level of action, it’s for sure that this won’t happen, and temperatures will rise by more than 1.5 degrees. Five to six degrees gives us a completely different world,” Wiacek said.
David Phillips, the chief climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that temperature trends in the Atlantic provinces show that average winter temperatures since 1948 are up 0.6 C.
“It won’t seem like much, but it’s profound,” he said. “You clearly see the thermometer has changed in Atlantic Canada. It’s much warmer now, it’s not the same weather as our grandparents saw,” Phillips said. “Old-timers are right when they say the winters aren’t what they used to be. The years have warmed up.”
Spring in Atlantic Canada is up 0.8 C, summer 1.3 C, and autumn 1.1 C. The 0.8 C annual increase is about half the rest of Canada, which Phillips said is only because the waters off our coasts warmed up before the land did. And while our temperature increase is close to the global average, over the past 130 years, here it only took 70.
Canadian average increase since 1948
- Winter: (dominated by the north, but averaged across the country) 3.3 C
- Spring: 1.6 C
- Summer: 1.5 C
- Autumn: 1.6 C
— Source : Environment Canada
“When you look at the trend ... from 1948 to 1972 the trend was -0.3 C, so there was actually some cooling going on in those early years. Since then, the warming has been 1.5 degrees,” Phillips said.
He said that in the past 25 years, only one was cooler than the long-term average. Five were about normal, but 19 were warmer.
“Those are pretty convincing numbers... when you look at it based on yearly temperatures. Stick a thermometer in Atlantic Canada and it’s clearly showing a fever.”
He said while all models agree on how temperatures will rise, precipitation models generally are showing a 10 per cent increase in precipitation in Canada.
That probably means less in the summer and more in the winter, Phillips said, but in the winter it will be more rain, not snow.
He said that has implications for flood forecasting and spring water flow, and an increase in the annual number of days with heavy rain to 16 or 17 means urban flooding will be more of an issue in the future.
And, days where the temperature stays below freezing around the clock will be halved to 30.
Fall may be drier than average, but spring and summer are likely to be wetter than average with a projected increase of up to 15 per cent in spring and summer precipitation between 2041 and 2070, with greatest impacts in New Brunswick.
— Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
“We’re not going to be the Miami of the north; we’re still going to have snow and ice and cold, but the season will be shorter and it won’t be as intense,” Phillips said.
While balmier conditions can seem enticing, “it’s a package deal. You can’t get the warming without the other consequences,” Phillips said.That includes an increased prevalence of diseases like Lyme disease, the possibility of the West Nile virus, invasive species, the risk of drought, and earlier and more intense wildfires. Storms could last longer, and infrastructure and building construction aren’t designed for more intense storms, and rising sea levels that are expected to come.
“We’re all geared to handle the normal ... but what doesn’t seem to occurring anymore is ‘normal,’” Phillips said. “Everything seems to be from one extreme to the other. If you average the hell out of it you get normal, but it doesn’t happen in normal quantities.”
Across Atlantic Canada, scientists in a wide variety of fields are studying the myriad ways that climate change is affecting us: from changes in our oceans, to temperature and weather trends, to how the very species we farm and fish are being affected. Their work not only adds to the growing call for global action now to prevent catastrophe in the future, it raises the alarm that climate change is already having a dramatic impact on our lives, right now in Atlantic Canada.
Time is not our friend
Aldona Wiacek is an assistant professor in the department of environmental science at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where she teaches about climate change, energy, resources and pollution, and ecosystems. Her research includes atmospheric and environmental physics, air pollution and climate change, and aerosol-cloud interactions. She helped establish the Toronto Atmospheric Observatory as part of her PhD studies at the University of Toronto.
One of the challenges when comes to educating people about climate change — and the fact that it is very much an issue for today, not just for the future — is the time scale.
“This is one of these really tricky things, where you say hundreds of years, and politicians turn off right away because they don’t work on those time scales,” Wiacek said.
The variability of the effects of climate change — warmer temperatures, late frosts, abnormal cold snaps, more extreme weather — can also be challenging when trying to paint a picture of the impacts of a changing climate.
“One of the things that is also consistent with the world warming is these freaky cold snaps. That’s a very counter-intuitive thing,” Wiacek said. “There are some world leaders that have a very hard time understanding how this works, and they tweet about it.”
Hotter days, hotter nights
David Phillips is an icon of Canadian meteorology. The senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, Phillips has been with the agency for five decades.
He is a weather historian and author, and has collected and catalogued more than 35,000 weather stories. He is a much-sought-after commentator on all things weather and climate.
And he’s been studying the warming temperature trends — a lot — in recent years.
He said the best bet is that in the next 50 years (“I’ve averaged the hell out of it”), compared to the past 30 years, the number of days the actual temperature will rise above 30 C will go from two to 17. And tropical nights — those in which the temperature stays above 20 C — will go to seven.
“Those are the ones that kill people,” Phillips said. “When people die in heat waves, it’s because of the nights being warm.”
Warming a double-edged sword for farmers
Lucy Clearwater is a scientist and acting sector analyst with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada based in Fredericton.
She spends a lot of her time working on climate change adaptation, among other things. She recently completed an internal government report examining climate change’s impact on the agricultural industry.
Atlantic Canadian farmers are already seeing the effects of climate change, from water shortages in summer to killer late frosts that nailed growers across the region — to the point provincial governments have stepped in to help farmers cope with the loss.
From her view the warmer temperature trends are a double-edged sword for Atlantic farmers.
“Anticipated higher temperatures and longer growing seasons could benefit agriculture, but increased storm frequency and water variability, as well as increased pests and diseases, pose risks,” she says. “If we can manage water variability and increase the resiliency of farmland through technologies and practices to help farmers manage risks, then Atlantic Canada’s farming sector can continue to be productive and competitive. And given that climate impacts may affect farming in other regions, including our southern neighbours, we may even have a competitive advantage. But we have to help our farmers in making the transition to adaptat to new climate realities.”
Since the late 1990s, six oceanographers with federal Fisheries and Oceans based in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Quebec have been taking the pulse of the North Atlantic through the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program (AZMP), studying ocean conditions and the ecosystem in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Scotian Shelf and Gulf of Maine.
“The idea was to look at conditions of the ocean and the ecosystem in order to get a long-time series of data, so we go out and sample every six months or so,” said Dave Herbert, PhD, one of the oceanographers involved in the program.
Water temperature is mainly what Herbert studies, while other oceanographers do other parameters, such as acidification and oxygen. “We do a scorecard as a way to look at the variability. Everything has a different scoreboard with different parameters.”
Across the board, “in 2010 the scorecard is almost all red,” said Herbert, and record highs have been recorded every year since.
In 2018, “the new record” for water temperatures at a depth of 200 metres was Georges Basin, where conditions registered 2.5 degrees C above normal.
“Normal is eight degrees and it was over 10.5 degrees deep down. That was basically the highest value we’ve ever seen at 200 metres,” said Herbert.
There will likely be an increase in the intensity and magnitude of storms and extreme weather events. The type of disastrous storms that typically occur 1-in-100 years could become 1-in-50 or even 1-in-25 year events by mid-century, and a 1-in-25 years storm could become 1-in-5 year events.
— Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Next week we explore how climate change is already affecting the daily lives of Atlantic Canadians who till the land and harvest the waters.