For the past nine weeks, the Star’s Undeniable project has brought readers to the frontlines of climate change in Canada. In every region chronicled in the 16-part series, climate change is already affecting people, infrastructure, wildlife and the natural environment. The effects of a warmer climate are, and will continue to be, felt in every facet of Canadian society, from farms, fisheries, schools and hospitals, to municipal, provincial and federal governments, local businesses and the largest corporations.
Canada is getting hotter.
Between 1948 and 2016, Canada’s annual average temperature over land increased by 1.7 degrees, about double the global warming rate. Most of this warming is due to human influences. This trend is expected to continue, with annual average temperature increases projected to increase as much as 6.3 degrees between 2081-2100 under a high-emission scenario, compared to 1986-2005. Heat waves will likely increase in frequency and intensity. Extreme heat, currently occurring once every 20 years, on average, could occur as often as every two years by 2050 under a high greenhouse gas emission scenario. The warming climate is causing glaciers to lose volume, sea levels to rise and permafrost to thaw.
Cities and towns aren’t ready.
Across Canada, municipalities are struggling to deal with aging infrastructure built for a different time as temperatures rise and precipitation becomes more intense. In Toronto, stormwater and sewage explode from old pipes during heavy rainfalls. Last summer, Montreal saw 66 heat-related deaths during the hottest July recorded in the city in 97 years. Landslides and floods triggered by ribbons of moist air known as atmospheric rivers have hit North Vancouver, Pemberton, Burnaby and Maple Ridge in British Columbia in recent years. In Iqaluit, Nunavut, sewer and water pipes are cracking and breaking as thawing permafrost causes the ground to shift.
Bad news for the Arctic.
Northern Canada is warming faster than the rest of the country. The annual mean temperature in Canada’s north increased by 2.3 degrees between 1948 and 2016, about three times the global rate. This warming trend will continue, even if global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, with average winter temperatures rising by as much as 4 degrees in the Arctic by 2050. If emissions continue to rise, average winter temperatures in the Arctic could rise by as much as 7 degrees. Warming is already negatively impacting traditional Indigenous travel routes, which are being disrupted by the disappearance of multi-year sea ice and longer periods of open water.
The way we farm and fish is changing.
Climate change is presenting both challenges and opportunities to those who make their living from the land and sea. Warming in the northwest Atlantic Ocean has helped shift lobster biomass — the species’ geographical area — toward waters off Nova Scotia, resulting in a boom for fishermen. At the same time, however, the warming waters could soon start to endanger the crustaceans. Temperatures at the surface and in deep waters are rising above the global average here, according to a recent Fisheries and Oceans Canada report. On the prairies, farmers will likely have to adapt to more frequent and intense droughts in the summer months and periods of wet weather in the winter. Such climate variation is expected to intensify with global warming.
Land is disappearing into the sea.
While erosion is a natural process, rising ocean temperatures can contribute to increased storminess, resulting in larger and more powerful waves that eat into coastlines. In P.E.I., powerful storm surges that are occurring with greater frequency are ripping away the soft sandstone coastlines. The island is losing, on average, 28 centimetres per year to erosion. Important historical artifacts in the western Arctic, Labrador and Cape Breton are at risk of eroding away. Several homes in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, are at risk of being consumed by the Beaufort Sea from more intense wave action due to disappearing sea ice.
Indigenous peoples of Canada are being hit hard.
Climate change is profoundly affecting Canada’s Indigenous peoples, whose cultures and livelihoods are closely linked to the land, water, snow and ice. Thawing permafrost and melting sea ice are hindering travel, while hunting is being disrupted as animal migration and breeding patterns change with food and habitat availability. A sense of hopelessness or anxiety can set in as the world people have known their whole lives is altered or disappears as the climate changes.
Wildfire seasons are becoming longer and the flames are getting bigger.
While no individual event can be fully linked to climate change, wildfires have increased in frequency, intensity, size and duration as the climate has warmed. According to Natural Resources Canada, wildland fire management expenditures across the country have been rising by $120 million per decade since 1970, and such expenditures are expected to double by 2040. The western prairies are expected to be among the areas hardest hit with extreme fire conditions, thanks in part to more frequent and intense droughts.
Floods will get bigger and more frequent.
Climate models are predicting that floods across the country will get larger, more frequent and more destructive. In New Brunswick, floods have hit municipalities in the lower Saint John River basin for the past three years, while three of the four worst floods on record in the province have occurred since 2008. In major cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, deforestation and aging infrastructure have reduced the ability of urban landscapes to deal with more rainfall, further increasing the risk of flooding. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are expected to cause increased flooding along most of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. And with more flooding comes more property damage, which translates into increasingly expensive insurance claims.
It’s going to rain a lot more.
Climate models predict that precipitation will increase, on average, across Canada. In many areas, precipitation has already increased, with a shift towards more rainfall and less snowfall. Atmospheric rivers, which can dump intense rainfall in short periods of time, are expected to get a lot bigger, and make landfall on the west coast more often. In Vancouver, total annual rainfall is projected to increase 11 per cent by the 2080s. An increased likelihood of extreme rainfall in Alberta is believed to have contributed to floods there in 2013. Snow accumulation in Manitoba’s Red River Basin is projected to decrease, with rainfall during the snowmelt period expected to increase. Across Canada, rain-on-snow events are expected to increase between November and March by mid-century.
Balancing business interests with climate change mitigation will be a challenge.
There is an irony of climate change in that while it brings with it a host of negative consequences, it could also present great economic opportunities. Governments and their constituents will have to wrestle with the competing interests of businesses seeking to take advantage of warming temperatures and the need for mitigating a changing climate. For example, billions of barrels of oil beneath the Beaufort Sea off the coast of the Northwest Territories have become more accessible thanks to reduced sea ice coverage. Warmer winters in the Canadian prairies could see a longer growing season, meaning higher yields and incomes for farmers. In Ontario’s Far North, scientists are concerned that a proposed mining development known as the Ring of Fire could change the water table, which in turn could result in greater carbon dioxide and methane emissions from peat, a large repository of greenhouse gas.
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org