'Hotter hot spells and colder cold spells': climate change already making mark on Manitoba

The dreary, cold fall the province has been experiencing? It's not a coincidence, says one scientist.

Dreary fall a result of melting sea ice, scientist says

Heavy snow falls on a pedestrian carrying a purse, walking alongside a road where cars are driving.
The unusually cold, damp fall Manitoba has been having is tied to melting polar ice caps, one climate change scientists says. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

If you think Manitoba will be sheltered from the dire consequences of global warming, or that a few extra degrees might actually be good for this frozen province, think again, say climate change experts.

We may even be feeling them now in the form of the dreary, cold fall the province has been experiencing, says one scientist.

The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a gloomy report last week, saying that the world is only a couple decades away from facing significant food shortages, extreme weather, and mass migration if we can't prevent global temperatures from reaching a critical threshold.

For Manitoba, that means more extreme weather patterns, like this summer's scorching hot temperatures — but also colder, more extreme winters, said David Barber, a University of Manitoba scientist and Canada research chair in arctic system science.

"The probability is that we're going to get hotter hot spells, and colder cold spells, wetter wet spells and dryer dry spells because we're changing the probability distribution of those types of climate systems," he said.

"That's a problem for us, because we evolved on this planet because of the stable climate system that we're in right now."

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The cold fall in Manitoba and record high temperatures to the east and west aren't just coincidence, he said, tying them to melting sea ice.

He says air from the polar jet will come faster and be more persistent, holding cold, snowy, rainy weather in our area.

"This is one of the manifestations of climate change, in that sea ice changes are changing the way the polar vortex works," he said.  

How the polar vortex works:

The graphic shows the polar vortex, how cold air spills out of the weakened whirlpool above the Arctic. The cold air then travels south across North America. (CBC)

Global impacts felt locally 

The global impacts of climate change, such as droughts and mass migration, will be felt here in the prairies as well, said Curtis Hull, project manager for Climate Change Connection, a non-profit that helps educate Manitobans about climate change.

"When the rest of the world is in turmoil because of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and mass migrations because of climate, the economic consequences are really quite severe. That's what we're likely to feel in Manitoba," he said.

Disasters like the flood of 2011 could also become a more common occurrence, created further economic consequences, he said. 

This latest report highlights the urgency for governments to act quickly, Hull said.

"This problem is so big now, that it really is requiring concerted policy effort to enable us to shift away from this fossil fuel dependence — and profound shift is what we're talking about here."

In the 728-page document, the UN organization detailed how Earth's weather, health and ecosystems would be in better shape if the world's leaders could somehow limit future human-caused warming to just a half degree Celsius from now, instead of the globally agreed-upon goal of one degree. Among other things:

  • Half as many people would suffer from lack of water.
  • There would be fewer deaths and illnesses from heat, smog and infectious diseases.
  • Seas would rise nearly 10 centimetres less.
  • Half as many animals with backbones and plants would lose the majority of their habitats.
  • There would be substantially fewer heat waves, downpours and droughts.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet might not kick into irreversible melting.
  • And it just may be enough to save most of the world's coral reefs from dying.

"For some people this is a life-or-death situation, without a doubt," said Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, a lead author on the report.

Limiting warming to 0.5 degrees from now means the world can keep "a semblance" of the ecosystems we have. Adding another 0.5 degrees on top of that — the looser global goal — essentially means a different and more challenging Earth for people and species, said another of the report's lead authors, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia.

With files from the Associated Press

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