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LATE FROSTS, SUMMER DROUGHTS, WETTER WINTERS, SPRING FLOODS — THE INCREASED VARIABILITY OF OUR WEATHER IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST CLIMATE CHANGES TO HIT ATLANTIC CANADA SO FAR. AND FOR MANY OF YOU, WHERE YOU LIVE WILL ALSO AFFECT HOW THE WEATHER AFFECTS YOU.
THE FORECAST CALLS FOR CHANGE
Increasing year-to-year variability in the environment is one of the biggest changes we have been seeing in Atlantic Canada, according to a senior oceanographer with DFO.
This includes not only the temperatures, but things like variability in the freshwater outflow, and the amount and timing of ice coming out of the Arctic, says Dr. Pierre Pepin, who has studied climate change and population dynamics for most of his career.
Pepin stresses the difference between climate and the weather when discussing climate change.
He feels often people have a tendency to assign whatever is happening in a particular weather system to climate change, but advises that it is probably a combination of climate change and weather.
Variability, Pepin explains, refers to how much the weather can vary from a designated period of time to the next. Increasing variability means it has become more difficult to predict the weather based on precedent, as well as an increase in the occurrence of extreme temperatures and weather events.
“Generally, in the past, you could say if last winter was harsh, you could say this winter was going to be not that different,” he explained. “Well, now, it’s becoming much more difficult to say how similar or different the winter from one year to the next will be.”
Dr. Pierre Pepin is senior oceanographer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
For example, winter surveys in recent years have found a fair bit of cold water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence but nothing unusual, Pepin says.
However, this year, they have found the greatest amount of cold water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 24 years.
According to Pepin, what has made the moderate-term forecast more unpredictable is an increase of energy, created by global warming, in the system.
“Those kinds of moderate-term forecasts are a lot harder to come by because there’s more energy in the system, because the planet is warming there’s more energy in the system,” he explained. “And when you have more energy in the system, your ability to predict how what happens in one part of the world will influence what happens in your part of the world becomes more difficult.”
GLOBAL GDP DECLINE
A 2.5-degree increase in temperature is likely to result in a 0.5 to two per cent decrease in gross domestic product globally, with higher losses in most developing countries.
Source: United Nations
Dr. Norm Catto, head of geography at Memorial University in St. John’s, agrees.
Catto said the increasing weather variability that Atlantic Canada faces is going to be harder for the public to deal with than climate change itself.
For example, he explains that if you knew every year was going to feature less snow than the last, then you can prepare accordingly for that.
But that’s not how climate change works.
Instead, the amount of snow we receive each year may fluctuate: one winter may feature heavy snowfall while the next there may be none.
It’s entirely unpredictable.
That’s going to make adapting more difficult for businesses who depend on the snow, for example, or towns who are trying to budget how much to spend on snow clearing.
HIGHER PROJECT COSTS
Making development projects more resilient to climate impacts is expected to increase project costs anywhere between five and 20 per cent.
Source: United Nations
A tour boat approaches an iceberg in 2018 off Newfoundland's Northern Penisula.
PESTS, PATHOGENS AND NEWCOMERS
With generally warming trends, Atlantic Canada is likely going to see some new faces in future — some welcome, some not so much.
While the Island of Newfoundland tends to be more isolated, to an extent, from pest and pathogens emerging from the south, the same is not true for the Maritimes.
In places like New Brunswick, which has a direct land connection to the south, Memorial University’s Norm Catto says you’re more likely to see these sorts of species appear.
The true cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could reach up to $300 billion per year in 2030 and climb to $500 billion per year in 2050.
Source: United Nations
In the Maritimes, Catto says Lyme disease and West Nile virus are perhaps most significant in terms of potential hazards for the future.
Cases of Lyme disease have been reported in those provinces while West Nile virus has been found within the bird population.
The virus being in the bird population does not mean humans will get it, he explains, but it does mean the potential is there.
In Newfoundland, cases of birds carrying Lyme disease and West Nile virus have been reported on the Avalon Peninsula; however, no humans have contracted it yet.
Catto adds that while this is not endemic to Newfoundland at the moment, if the summer continues to warm, the province may start to see it more frequently.
New arrivals aren’t constrained to just the land, either. Off the shores of Newfoundland, invasive species have also emerged in the ocean.
Catto says in Placentia Bay, the European green crab has made an appearance, making its way farther north with the warming Gulf Stream. Per the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website, the “European green crab is one of the 10 most unwanted species in the world. This small coastal crab, which is highly resilient, competes for prey and has the potential to upset the overall balance of the marine ecosystem.” If the Gulf of St. Lawrence continues to get warmer, Catto says the crab has the potential to make its way farther north, up to the Northern Peninsula.
Changing ocean temperatures could mean you’ll see new warm water species farther north and fewer cold water species.
99% REEF BLEACHING
Recent estimates suggest that climate change may result in 99 per cent of the world's reefs experiencing annual bleaching in 2043.
Source: International Association of Insurance Supervisors
“You could see an increase in the northern range of something like tuna, if it’s able to come further up the Gulf Stream and if there are more warm rings that are produced, you could see increases in the number of that species,” Catto said.
In contrast, he says you may see a decrease in the southern range of caplin as they dislike warmer waters.
“You could see a displacement there away from the more northerly parts of the Maritimes and then perhaps extend the range north into Labrador,” he said.
Ocean resources have experienced some of the most pronounced impacts of climate change so far, according to DFO senior oceanographer Pierre Pepin.
And these impacts can vary depending on the species and its location.
On the one hand, the stocks of cold-water species such as crab and shrimp, are suffering as the ocean warms. But Atlantic Canada is also seeing a shift in the distribution of species that like more moderate temperatures, particularly in areas such as the Scotian Shelf, the Grand Banks, the south coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
These areas are now seeing a greater occurrence of more southerly aquatic species, such as lobster, who benefit from warmer ocean temperatures.
Climate change is exacerbating negative trends on terrestrial and marine biodiversity. Under current trends, climate change could threaten up to one in six species with extinction.
Source: International Association of Insurance Supervisors
But, although we’re seeing a boom in lobster, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in particular, Pepin stresses that farther south, the impact is not the same.
In the Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine (located between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia), the conditions are such that the lobster is, in fact, suffering because the ocean has gotten too warm.
Therefore, Pepin calls the changes a “double-edged sword.”
Meanwhile, in northern Newfoundland, he says they are seeing southern species in the summer but those have always been common during that time of year.
“We’ve always had the occurrence of some things like sunfish in the summertime,” he said.
He again notes that Newfoundland has been at the margins when it comes to climate change impact; although, the southern Grand Banks is seeing some groundfish, such as silver hake, that it hasn’t seen before.
Pepin also stresses that climate change is not occurring in a vacuum and there are other changes occurring in the system, making it harder to identify just what is the result of climate change.
“How much of that is due to climate change and how much of that is due to the ecosystem’s dynamics in itself — because one species may be coming up while the other species may be coming down — that’s still unclear,” he said.
In 2012, the Scotian Shelf, St. Pierre Bank, and the Grand Bank had their warmest sea-surface temperatures since 1985, when satellite records first became available. The St. Lawrence Estuary had its warmest sea-surface temperatures in 2016.
Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Water rushes through a culvert in rural Newfoundland, causing erosion and compromising the integrity of the roadway that runs above.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
A lot of what Atlantic Canadians can expect from climate change in the coming years is going to depend on where they are.
Live inland? The weather/climate change symptoms are likely going to be different than if you’re on the coast.
Memorial University's Catto studies natural hazards and risk assessment; coastal landforms, erosion, and sea level change; and the impacts of climate and weather events on marine communities, transportation, infrastructure, fisheries, agriculture, and tourism.
Catto stresses that climate change is a long-term proposition and there are individual years and seasons that do not fit into the overall pattern.
When scientists discuss the climate, they’re talking about at least a 30-year average. Catto compares it to taking out a 30-year mortgage on a home.
“As the 30 years go by, some big things happen to your house, you make some improvements to your house and, after 30 years, you can look back and say your house has changed from the way it was 30 years go,” he said. “But there have been ups and downs within that period of time.”
SEA ICE DISAPPEARING
For the period between 2010-2016, three years were among the seven lowest average sea ice volumes ever observed on the Newfoundland and Labrador Shelves. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, five years were among the seven lowest average sea ice volumes ever observed.
Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
In the same way, he emphasizes the importance of separating individual weather events from an overall climate pattern. This is especially true in parts of Atlantic Canada, where the climate is governed more by the oceans.
Therefore, he says, the impacts can be more moderate in places like the island of Newfoundland than in areas farther inland such as New Brunswick or western Labrador.
In Newfoundland, summers have gotten slightly warmer but, more importantly, the season has gotten longer.
Traditionally, Catto says, Newfoundlanders have thought of the May 24 weekend as the last time they get snow and, then, by mid-September, they’re starting to think about winter.
But, in recent years, the province has seen an increase in the length of those shoulder seasons, where summer conditions have persisted as late as Thanksgiving.
Catto stresses that each region is going to be different in this respect. So, for the Avalon, the season can be a bit longer than on the Northern Peninsula. But trends do show longer summers all over the province.
Meanwhile, the winter has seen more variable wind directions. On the west coast of the Northern Peninsula, that has a novel effect this winter as southwest winds have pushed unusually heavy ice into the Strait of Belle Isle.
“We’re getting more southwest winds this year, but ... that means more ice, especially if you’re on the western side of the Northern Peninsula,” he said.
While that is a manifestation of a changing climate, Catto says it’s not something we can expect to see consistently.
“This is a rather anomalous ice year compared to the past few,” he said.
In the Maritimes, the impacts are much more pronounced. Nova Scotia, in contrast to Newfoundland, is influenced more by the warm Gulf Stream, while New Brunswick, compared to the other Atlantic provinces, is influenced more by the land than the water.
The moderating effects of the coastline are lost in these interior areas.
“If we have conditions where, for example, we have more southwest winds coming in, that has much more of an influence in the Maritimes than it does, say, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, because there the winds are blowing from land to water,” he said. “So a change in the amount of southwest wind activity may be marked by more storm action, might be marked by more rainfall.”
The same is true for the Labrador West. In these areas, Catto says you may expect an increase in forest fires, or more lightning strikes.
“And because you got dryer conditions, it’s possible you would get not only more fires but they burn larger areas,” he added.
Connecting the dots: What can Atlantic Canadians do about climate change? What can we do to help prevent it? What can we do to adapt to live with it?
Get the complete series here.