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Climate change has been a mainstream idea for long enough that most of us are aware of its basic principles: Earth receives most of its energy from the sun. Much of that energy reflects off the planet into space, but some is absorbed as heat. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb heat that would otherwise escape and re-emit it in all directions, increasing the heat transmitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.
For Atlantic Canada, a meeting place of earth and sea, the results of that extra energy are seen on land and in our oceans. Climate change is here, and SaltWire meteorologist Cindy Day is already seeing the impacts.
“The wind has increased significantly. If you step back, everything is connected," Day says. "The wind has strengthened because the systems are more powerful, and the systems are more powerful because there’s more heat being released by the ocean.”
Global warming is not just about things being, well, warmer. The planet is a vast and complex system of energy exchange. By pumping heat into that system, you start to affect things beyond the average temperature.
In 2005, Atlantic Canada only experienced 65 hours of wind gusts over 80 kilometres per hour. In 2019, that had increased to 180 hours, and peak windspeeds are increasing as well.
“I had never seen a wind gust recorded at this level in Atlantic Canada, but on Feb. 27, we had a powerful storm blow through," she says. "There was a wind gust recorded at Grand Etang, western Cape Breton, 242 kilometres per hour. That’s a category 4 hurricane wind gust.”
When hurricane Dorian made landfall in Halifax last fall, it was the latest in a trend of increasingly powerful storms in the region. Atlantic Canadians are surprised every time, but we shouldn’t be. Climate scientists have been telling us for 40 years that this was where we were headed. And now, we’re here.
“Not only are the big tropical storms more powerful, but each system is, especially systems that fuel over the water. Here on the East Coast, we’re seeing that change more dramatically than other parts of the country,” says Day.
“The warmer water fuels the system and it becomes tightly wound. The centre pressure drops, and we have a tight pressure gradient, higher wind gusts, stronger winds that blow across Atlantic Canada.”
All in the numbers
For meteorologists like Day, who see the impact each day and the trends over decades, the numbers speak for themselves.
“There are some people that say (climate change) is a hoax,” says Day. “A lot of people take time to go back and look through weather cycles, and they say, ‘We have seen periods of cooling. We have seen periods of extreme heat, over many centuries.’ And, it is very true - there are cycles. I don’t think a scientist out there would ever deny the weather comes in a cyclical pattern. We are in an up-cycle. But human activity has made that up-cycle more pronounced. We probably will come down to a little bit of a dip in this cycle, but each time we dip down, we don’t dip down quite as low.”
Snowpack has decreased by 25 per cent across northern Atlantic Canada and 50 per cent across the southern regions over the past five decades, she says. Winters of grass instead of snow are becoming common. But we tend to have short weather memories, so dramatic events - like the powerful storm that hit Newfoundland in January 2020 - obscure the underlying trend even as they confirm it.
“We get a big snowfall, which is in keeping with climate change. The storms come, they’re powerful, we get a big dump of snow, and then it’s gone, and we’re back down to the grass,” says Day.
“We have fairly short memories. They might think back, ‘Remember that frost in June of 2018 that killed all the blueberries? Well, where was global warming then?’ But that was a weather event and not a trend. It wasn’t a climatic event - it was a weather event.”
Rising seas, sinking land
Nathan Gillett is a climate scientist who is one of the lead authors on the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, as well as a lead author on Canada’s Changing Climate Report (CCCR), released last April. He sees rising sea levels and the lack of sea ice as impacts Atlantic Canada will be feeling in coming years.
“Sea level has risen globally and is projected to continue to rise in terms of the global mean," he says. "In terms of Canada, Atlantic Canada is the area which is seeing the fastest rise in sea level and is projected to see the fastest rise in sea level.”
For Halifax, this means projected rises as much as a metre by the end of the century due to two factors: the water is rising, while the land is sinking.
Nova Scotia is one edge of a plate floating in a magma sea. The other edge of that plate is in Hudson Bay. When the great ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, the Hudson Bay side began rising, meaning the only place for Nova Scotia to go was down.
The lack of sea ice is a dramatic visual indicator of warming, but one of the impacts of clear winter seas is not so obvious. It’s one that affects Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island most: erosion.
“We’ve seen reductions in sea ice off Atlantic Canada, like we have over most of the arctic. And that contributes to increased wave height,” says Gillett.
“When the ocean’s not covered with sea ice there’s a larger fetch for the wind to blow over and the waves get bigger. That’s another factor that can contribute to coastal erosion and flooding. That’s something we expect to continue.”
Gillett emphasizes that while some carbon-dioxide based warming is inevitable, any action taken by governments or individuals to reduce carbon emissions can help mitigate the effects.
"On an individual level, driving less or buying a more fuel-efficient car or an electric car or using non-fossil fuels to heat your home, these kinds of decisions will reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. Using public transit and these kinds of things. I think it takes action on many levels, certainly action from governments but also action from individuals.”
Day hopes people like activist Greta Thunberg have helped awaken the world to the need for action.
“I really feel that Greta Thunberg has sped that up. I think one of the best things that she’s put forward is that this is a climate crisis,” says Day.
“I think that’s made a lot of individuals, as well as organizations and perhaps provincially and federally, really take note. So, I think, moving forward, that momentum is really going to continue to build, and I hope it does, because too many people for too long sat back and didn’t think that it was going to happen as quickly as it’s happening.”
March 23 marked World Meteorological Day. As part of this, SaltWire Network is bringing its readers a series of weather-related stories – check back for the next in the series tomorrow.