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This article was published 6/6/2014 (717 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ask Danny Blair what really keeps Prairie climate experts such as himself up at night and watch him run through a long list of looming calamities to settle on one.
"If you thought the Dirty Thirties were bad," he said, "get ready for some really long, intense droughts."
After a terrible winter and four massive floods in a decade, Manitoba is already starting to get a taste of the extreme weather that's a hallmark of climate change. But in the absence of any global commitment to shrink greenhouse gas emissions, the provincial government and local scientists have begun to study just how weird the weather will get in Manitoba over the next couple of generations and what to do about it.
It doesn't look good. Manitoba is "climate change central," says Blair.
Already, average winter temperatures in the southern Prairies, including Manitoba, have warmed three degrees over the last 40 years. In the distant-horizon world of climate science, that's massive. The shorter, warmer winters have added nearly a month onto the Prairie growing season. If the trend continues, and there is little hope it won't, we'll see winters that are seven degrees warmer by mid-century.
Summer temperatures have not changed as fast, but Blair says they likely will, especially if global emissions continue apace. In one worst-case-scenario model, Winnipeg could see the number of extreme-heat days, where the mercury tops 30 C, triple by mid-century. We have about 13 super-hot days now. Some models predict as many as 60.
Those data, and much more, are embedded in a new climate atlas Blair, his team from the University of Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) are creating for the provincial government. So far, the team's study of historic temperature and precipitation figures and its future models have produced some eye-popping results, especially in the north.
"For some, we wondered, can this be real?" said Blair, a geographer who specializes in climatology. "They're really quite shocking and worrisome and fascinating."
Manitoba, say local climate experts, is about to feel very different. As the climate warms, we can expect more bugs, such as the beetles that kill elm trees, the mosquitos that transmit West Nile and the ticks responsible for Lyme disease. Forest fires will likely become more common, damaging a key industry in the province and altering air quality. Bad roads, including pothole epidemics such as the one Winnipeg suffered this spring, will become more common as the freeze-thaw cycle and extreme heat harms every bit of transportation infrastructure from railroad ties to winter ice roads. There could be more algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg, more seniors who die of heatstroke and less tourism as polar bears and whales relocate or disappear.
Farming, still the backbone of Manitoba's economy, is likely to be hit hardest, which is partly why the ag sector is arguably the furthest ahead in Manitoba is getting ready for what's to come.
"One bad drought or one really wet year isn't so bad, but year after year?" said Blair. "Can you recover from that?"
Worried about doom-and-gloom talk, experts also point to the opportunities that come with climate change -- new jobs, new technology and an expanded summer growing season that could help farming and forestry.
The trouble is, no one know just how hot it's going to get, and where. Climate change is now inevitable, but how much depends almost entirely on forces outside the province's control.
Manitoba's emissions, while on the rise, are miniscule, equal to just three of Alberta's big power plants and dwarfed completely by the oilsands. Shrinking Manitoba's greenhouse gases will do virtually nothing to stop the slow slide into global warming unless dramatic action is taken elsewhere. Despite another dire report released in April by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a crackdown on coal-fired power-plant pollution announced by U.S. President Barack Obama this week, no significant progress has been made to curb global emissions.
That doesn't mean we should give up trying to reduce emissions, and many scientists fear the new policy shift toward adaptation means the world will do just that.
"The best way to reduce our vulnerability to climate change is through mitigation," said Jo-Ellen Parry, the deputy director for climate change and energy at the IISD. "The more we mitigate now pushes us into a low level of change versus a high level of change."
Parry and Blair say the hallmark of climate change is uncertainty and extremes. We can't really predict what an "average" year will look like, and things need to built to withstand the worst weather -- floods of the century that happen every decade, long droughts that sabotage food security, intense freeze-thaw cycles that do a number on roads, pipes and foundations.
The good news, says Parry, is Manitoba is already pretty good at dealing with those extremes. We just need to figure out what more is needed, and when, especially at the local level where a lot of decisions are made.
Provincial climate change boss Neil Cunningham and Randall Shymko, who's in charge of the new adaptation project, say work has begun on an adaptation strategy for the province that will lay out where the worst effects will be, what needs to be built over the coming decades and how much it might cost. The work is expected to take at least two years.
As a first step, each provincial department has been tasked with putting together a climate change risk assessment. For example, public health staff have already begun working on ways to handle higher rates of some diseases and the spinoff effects of many more extreme-heat days on seniors and the homeless.
And the province is part of a series of national working groups focused only on adaptation -- mini-think-tanks sharing ideas and research across provinces.
Scientists say the need to get ready for global warming has placed a new urgency on green stuff we should have been doing all along, such as better water management to conserve wetlands and slow runoff. Despite some relatively small floods, and an extreme winter, most Manitobans aren't yet thinking about the cost of what's to come.
"We haven't really been poked in the eye yet," said Blair.