SASKATOON – As a five-year study of the climate and hydrology of Western Canada comes to an end, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) say they have diagnosed the water-borne effects of recent climate change and are now predicting future impacts including floods, droughts, and extreme weather events that could save lives and prevent billions of dollars in damages.
These findings from the U of S-led Changing Cold Regions Network (CCRN) are presented in the documentary, The Changing Climate and Environment of Western Canada, where researchers have measured unprecedented changes that include rising temperatures, rapidly melting glaciers, more severe extreme weather events, and changes to the timing and volume of river flows.
“We are undergoing the most rapid warming of the planet’s cold regions in the history of humanity,” said Howard Wheater, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Water Security and director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the U of S. “Monitoring and diagnosing these unprecedented changes and trying to understand what the future holds in Western Canada’s interior is key to the future security of this country and the world.”
Wheater says that these rapid changes have put tremendous pressure on the land, water and vegetation, posing important challenges for society.
“How do we manage water security in the face of rapid change and uncertain water futures? Thanks to everyone involved with CCRN, we are in a much better position.”
CCRN research uses historical information and novel computer models to predict changes in everything from weather patterns and overall climate, to the potential for floods, droughts, and wildfires.
Scientist now say there is greater warming and wetting occurring in northwestern Canada – large areas of the Yukon and Northwest Territories – that is causing rapid permafrost thaw and summers that are longer and rainier. The data shows that winter minimum temperatures in the region have gone up by as much as eight degrees and average temperatures by as much as four to five degrees over the past 50 years.
In the last five years, the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, have experienced the most extreme floods and droughts in recorded history, and shifts in the timing and location of floods, fires and droughts are now evident. The research also shows that winter minimum temperatures have gone up four to five degrees, with average temperatures up two to three degrees.
Across all of Western Canada, winters are as much as two months shorter since the 1970’s, with reduced snow cover and depth.
“This warming has had tremendous impacts on the environment, including the added stresses on our mountain glaciers,” said John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the U of S and director of the recently created Global Water Futures program.
Pomeroy says the source waters for both the Mackenzie and the Saskatchewan River Basins come from the Rocky Mountains, but climate warming is reducing some snowpacks and melting the glaciers that feed and maintain the river flows. Some, like the Athabasca Glacier, are retreating at a rate of five to six metres per year.
“This rapid melt means that in the Canadian Rockies, it will eventually be difficult to see any glaciers from the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, where only greatly reduced remnants of the major icefields will persist by the end of this century.”
Pomeroy says these findings are a call to action and a chance to keep from repeating the mistakes of the past.
“We can look to mitigate damages and get people out of flood plains before the waters rise. We can identify areas that are likely to experience extreme fires or droughts before they happen. We can help manage our crop and food production across the prairies,” says Pomeroy.
“Our water future is precarious and we are doing everything we can to look after it.”
About the documentary: