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Science
| 06/08/16

Canadian prairies in for radical changes even in a low-carbon future

TCE

The Canadian prairie provinces are in for a suite of radical changes if ambitious efforts are not taken globally to mitigate carbon emissions, according to climate researchers at the University of Winnipeg.

The scientists at the university’s Prairie Climate Centre have unveiled the Prairie Climate Atlas, a publicly available, interactive website featuring climate data, geovisualizations and multimedia presentations that explain how Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will change over the course of this century under a range of scenarios.

At launch, the atlas revealed some disconcerting long-term temperature projections for the region, which has long expected to be harder hit by climate change than much of the rest of North America.

The worst-case outlook would see average global temperatures rise by just under 5°C by the end of the century, but this would mean a likely increase of 7°C for the prairies. The best-case scenario, if ambitious efforts are made to counter GHG emissions, would result in 2°C of global warming by this period, and 4.3°C in the prairies. Whether the world does nothing or it takes drastic action, the prairies are projected to warm a lot more than the world as a whole.

Most notably, the number of days per year climbing above 30°C will steadily increase, with Winnipeg experiencing nearly 50 such days up from the current 11 by the 2080s, and Medicine Hat experiencing 63, up from the current 26.

For comparison, the researchers note that Fort McMurray currently gets about three of such hot days a year. Later this century, this would jump to about 20. Beyond these well-known cities, users are able to zoom in to find the projections for where they live.

Meanwhile across the north of the prairies, by mid-century, the models project that the number of cold days below -30°C will be cut in half, while cities in the south will on average have few if any such cold days a year. Regina will only have three such days a year, down from the current average of eight.

Some cooler farming regions with currently short growing seasons will enjoy opportunities for new crops

The region is expected to experience hotter, drier summers, and is already experiencing more frequent and more intense forest fires as a result. Farming in some of the hotter areas may become impossible without expansion of irrigation. The researchers highlight southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan as potential agricultural no-go areas. Water-intensive crops such as corn in particular could suffer.

But not all areas will be badly hit. Some cooler farming regions with currently short growing seasons will enjoy opportunities for new crops, for longer-maturing crops and for crops to be planted earlier. The Grande Prairie area of Alberta in particular will benefit from a lengthened growing season. The researchers offer one caveat however: this assumes that there will be enough water to go around.

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Even with drastic climate mitigation action, the prairies will warm a lot more than the world as a whole

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