What could climate change mean for Thunder Bay?

CBC Thunder Bay asked experts for their thoughts on how climate change could impact life in northwestern Ontario.
(Submitted by Eric Berglund)

Recently, experts gathered at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay to share thoughts and perspectives on how climate change could affect the city and surrounding area, and how we need to adapt.

They're pressing questions, as we face the uncertainty that comes with steadily rising temperatures, and the many possible repercussions.

CBC Thunder Bay interviewed several experts taking part in the forum, and asked them for their thoughts on how climate change might impact life in northwestern Ontario. 

Warmer and wetter

There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to climate change impacts, but one thing that's known for sure is that temperatures are rising in the Thunder Bay area, said Graham Saunders, a climate researcher and professor at Lakehead University.

To be exact, it's rising at a rate of 0.3 C per decade in Thunder Bay — faster than the global average of 0.19 C. 

"It sounds trivial … but [the temperature] is increasing quite rapidly," said Saunders, adding that points west of Thunder Bay, such as Sioux Lookout, are warming even more rapidly.
A slide used by climate researcher Graham Saunders for presentations shows how temperature is steadily rising in Thunder Bay. (Graham Saunders)

"The weather ... in southern Ontario, in southern Minnesota — what they get now — is probably likely what we get in the future," he said. "That includes bad timing of freezing rain events, tornadoes, more violent thunder storms, and so on."

"As we know from our recent past, we've had both serious, and nuisance flooding on a few occasions. It would be naive to think that trend is not going to continue, and in fact steepen." 

On the positive side, those warmer temperatures could mean a longer growing season for the region, allowing more food to be grown locally. 

More ups and downs 

More stormy weather is expected, but it's also important to remember that less dramatic changes in weather can also have big impacts, said Al Douglas, director at the Ontario Centre for Climate Impacts and Adaptation Resources, based at Laurentian University.

"I think it's great to be thinking about extreme weather," he said. "But alongside extreme weather are ... the longer term changes to temperatures and precipitation."
A tree branch is encased in ice during an ice storm in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in April 2017. (Jeff Walters/CBC )

Over the coming decades, Douglas said he thinks the area will experience more variability, more prolonged ups and downs, in the weather forecast.

"Longer periods of drought, longer periods of wet weather. And of course, those are not necessarily extreme events."

"The city, I think, knows this," he said, praising Thunder Bay's development of a Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Emotional impacts

A changing climate is already affecting day-to-day life for people in northwestern Ontario in many tiny little ways, said Kelsey Jones-Kasey, a Fullbright Scholar at Lakehead University who spent months interviewing people in the Thunder Bay area about how climate change is personally affecting them.   

"I was actually kind of personally shocked and overwhelmed by the ripple effect of changes that people are reporting," said Jones-Kasey, who is originally from Duluth, Minn.
As part of her Boreal Heartbeat project on climate change, researcher Kelsey Jones-Casey asked people in the Thunder Bay area to tell her they feel personally affected by climate change. Sean Murray said he's worried by unpredictable winters and how it will affect things like hunting, fishing and sap runs. (Kelsey Jones-Casey)

For example, hunters told her that milder falls were forcing them to do things differently, bringing coolers to store catches that, in the past, would have been preserved in the cold air.

Others reported experiencing more frequent strong winds that kept them off the water, or forced them to spend more time clearing trails of debris.

These are the types of small "creeping" changes that we can expect more of in the future, she said, and they also come with emotional impacts.

"I also had people report a pretty deep sense of grief, and despair and sadness, both at the loss of their own landscapes ... but also a sense of grief for future generations, and concern for future generations," she said.

Interviewees expressed a wide range of emotions, from helplessness and uneasiness, but also some hopefulness, she said. 

Groundwater woes?

We already know that climate change is altering the big lake, and that those changes will have ripple effects, said Robert Stewart, an associate professor and chair of the department of geography and the environment at Lakehead, who has a particular interest in climate change impact on the Lake Superior water basin. 

For example, in the past, winter ice cover on the lake has "kept temperatures relatively cooler" in spring, drawing out the melt season. But in the future, less ice cover in the winter and warmer water temperatures "could mean that you have a very rapid snow melt, even occurring in February," he said.

Sandy beaches and clear water at Kama Point, which juts out into Lake Superior near Nipigon, Ont. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

While too much water is a growing concern for the city, Stewart said there could also be another, very different impact of climate change on groundwater in the Thunder Bay area. 

It all has to do with the region's average temperature, which hovers around minus 1, said Stewart, and which dictates that water is usually held in either the form of liquid, or ice, instead of in the air. 

"I often think of, around here we have such thin soils on top of the bedrock" with streams of water flowing over the surface, he said. Water which "allows soils to be moist, hold organics and hold vegetation that then clings to rock and holds soils.

"And as a more extreme case I could see in a warmer climate, more of that terrestrial water, surface water, evaporating and being held in air masses ... so more water in the air versus on the land. And that would radically alter the quality of soil, the ability for vegetation to grow, and the ability for vegetation to hold that soil on the bedrock."

Just a small change in overall temperature could, in theory, change parts of our landscape.