On April 2, 2019, the federal government released Canada’s Changing Climate Report, the first in a series of reports outlining the impacts of climate change in Canada. It immediately generated national news for reporting “temperature in Canada has increased at roughly double the global mean rate” with northern Canada warming “roughly three times” faster than the average global temperature increase.
The speed of Canada’s warming climate was the dominant media frame of the report. That’s not a surprise; it was the headline of the government’s own press release. “Report on climate change shows Canada warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world,” said the Globe and Mail. “Canada warming faster than the rest of the world, says Environment Canada,” was the headline in the Toronto Star.
The speed and intensity of warming in Canada is without question a significant issue deserving of media attention. However, the report is 442 pages long. The information about Canada warming faster than the average global temperature increase is on the first page of the very first section of the report.
Which raises the question: what’s in the other 400+ pages that Canadians should pay attention to?
A more in-depth examination reveals a number of disturbing climate change scenarios. Part of the challenge is the report is about climate science. Forecasts are described in technical language and have qualifiers like “moderate confidence” to indicate probability based on the strength of the data.
To truly recognize the threat climate change poses to Canada, we need to move beyond the numbers and interpret the forecasts to spell out what they could mean for people in their daily lives.
Water shortages for BC?
The report has a large section on how a warming climate will lead to a decrease in the amount of ground covered by snow and glaciers in British Columbia. It uses terms such as “snow cover fraction” and “SWEmax“ to outline projected changes in the amount of water stored by snow. While the language is technical, the concept is simple enough: snow is important because when it melts, it provides water for drinking and other uses, like agriculture. The same is true for glaciers, which provide meltwater runoff that provides summer streamflow for river systems.
Based on a warming climate, what does the report say about snow and glaciers in British Columbia?
- For snow: “Projected changes in SWEmax indicate that reductions will be extensive (5% to 10% per decade through 2050, or a cumulative loss of 15% to 30% over the entire 2020–2050 period).”
- For glaciers: “Glaciers in the coastal ranges of western Canada are predicted to lose 75% (90% uncertainty range 65% to 85%) of their 2005 ice area.” And: “Glacier mass loss…will have important consequences for stream and river water quality and temperature, and for the availability of water for human uses such as hydro-electricity generation and agriculture.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. It is easy to skim over without recognizing the consequences of what these forecasts could mean. Essentially, it can be summarized as:
- Over the next thirty years, BC can expect a decrease of roughly one-fifth to one-third of the amount of water stored in snow that is available for melt in the spring, much of which is the source of drinking water;
- This decline is compounded by a significant reduction in the size of glaciers in BC; and
- These declines are significant enough that they could impact the water available for agriculture and generating electricity.
These are scenarios that people in BC – and across Canada – need to be aware of.
If snowmelt decreases enough to threaten hydropower production, BC could face potential blackouts and rising electricity bills.
“The availability of water for human uses such as hydro-electricity generation and agriculture” is particularly ominous. If snowmelt decreases enough to threaten hydropower production, BC could face potential blackouts and rising electricity bills. When energy production relies on water, and it becomes scarce, impacts ranging from serious to catastrophic have hit Malawi, Kenya, and India.
Prairies drying up
In Canada’s Changing Climate Report, several future scenarios will have significant impact on Canada’s economy and Canadians’ quality of life. The challenge is taking the technical forecasts and making them tangible.
Multi-year droughts of ten or more years will become more probable.
The report details how a warming climate will increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, due to extended periods of dry weather and evaporation of soil moisture from increased temperatures. Multi-year droughts of ten or more years will become more probable.
How does that translate into an economic impact? A drought in 2014 – a single year – cost California’s agriculture industry an estimated $2.2 billion in losses and 17,100 jobs.
More heat waves and rising waters
An increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat days – days with a temperature of 30 degrees or higher – are forecasted to increase in Ontario and southern Quebec. Last year, more than 90 deaths were linked to a week-long period of extended heat in Quebec.
Extreme heat events – those currently experienced once every 50 years – will likely occur every five years, a ten-fold increase.
In every GHG emission scenario, Toronto and Montreal will see at a minimum an additional 15 hot days, with the possibility of upwards of 50. Extreme heat events – those currently experienced once every 50 years – will likely occur every five years, a ten-fold increase.
Atlantic Canada will experience the largest relative sea level rise in Canada, with a 20 cm increase forecasted for the next 20-30 years. That may not sound serious until you realize it will increase the frequency of flooding in Halifax by a factor of four. 50-year water level events may occur as frequently as once every two years. This has significant implications for coastal communities and the cost and resiliency of infrastructure.
Are we ready to make the hard choices?
These are just some of the scenarios Canada is facing due to a warming climate. While discussions about temperature increases and carbon emissions are important for ensuring a science-based approach to climate change, it is important that we dig deeper and identify the potential outcomes these scenarios can lead to.
The team that wrote Canada’s Changing Climate Report – scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Natural Resources Canada, as well as university experts from across the country – have done the important work of pulling together the data and laying out an unfiltered, fact-based assessment of how Canada’s climate will change.
Are we prepared for this potential future in Canada? No. Our adaptation plans are patchwork of policies that change once we are hit by extreme events. We have not analyzed the risks and responded accordingly.
We need to take the next step and move beyond the headlines to identify what exactly those changes could mean for Canadians and make some hard choices as we prepare for a warmer climate.