11.5 C
Niagara Falls
Friday, April 19, 2024
Keeping it Green: Stacked effects of climate change could hit NOTL hard
A large ice shelf on the shore of Lake Ontario at Niagara Shores Park on Family Day, 2021. ANN MARIE SIMONE

Kyra Simone
Special to The Lake Report

Minimal snowfall and balmy temperatures have caused confusion this winter.

A symptom of both the climate crisis and El Niño, mild weather may have lasting effects for wildlife, farmers and greenspaces in 2024.

As scientific knowledge has evolved, the term “global warming” has become outdated.

Climate change is much more complex than areas across the globe gradually warming: it’s better described as climate “weirding,” where historically consistent patterns in local weather and temperature go off the rails and become sporadic and severe.

Climate scientists determine long-term trends from hundreds to millions of years ago by studying paleoclimate records: ice cores, tree rings and layers of sediments formed over long periods of time.

Trends on shorter timescales, even decades, vary greatly and must be compared to a long historical record before statements can be made about changes taking place.

Together, this mild winter is likely a result of a regular global event, El Niño, exacerbated by ongoing anthropogenic climate change (caused by human activities).

El Niño leads to high surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, when surface winds that normally blow east-to-west along the equator weaken or reverse direction.

This can raise global temperatures by a few tenths of a degree Celsius, for up to a year, with a peak during winter. It occurs between every two to 10 years, on an irregular basis.

A warmer winter could mean a difficult start to the growing season. Without much snow cover, there will not be large volumes of spring snowmelt to recharge soil moisture and groundwater. All that is a potential problem in Niagara

Farmers and gardeners alike could need supplemental irrigation to give spring growth a boost. Warmer, drier conditions continuing into mid-2024 could increase the risk of drought.

For gardeners planning spring plantings, native species are more resilient to changing conditions than ornamental varieties.

Rain barrels can capture and make good use of rainfall, especially at the start of the growing season when gardens may need extra watering this year.

Another symptom of climate change “weirding” is increased speed and magnitude of swings between high and low temperatures.

The effects on Niagara vineyards and tender fruit will depend on conditions for the next few months: rapid cold snaps after mild winter conditions are particularly devastating.

Plants can be lulled into a false sense of security by warm weather; “false spring” encourages them to come out of dormancy and bud early. However, if temperatures subsequently drop below -20 C, buds freeze and could die.

In extreme cases the plant may not survive and large swaths of the crop may need to be replanted. In Niagara, peach and nectarine trees are most vulnerable, followed by plums and cherries. But  apples and pears are resilient.

In mid-January, temperatures fell below this critical level in interior British Columbia, causing bud freezing that could reduce the 2024 grape yield more than 97 per cent.

Wildlife may find this winter especially difficult due to weather whiplash. Too little snowpack might make it hard to stay warm, lowering the likelihood of survival for some animals, like reptiles and amphibians.

Drier spring conditions could make it difficult for wildlife to find food. We may be more likely to see animals from all levels of the food chain, including deer and coyotes, providing for their young when meals are scarce.

Consistently cold temperatures act as an ecosystem reset button. Populations of some invasive species, and those that are a nuisance from a human perspective, can be reduced by sustained cold. Included among those are ticks, mosquitoes, woody adelgids, stink bugs and buckthorn.

With prolonged cold, a longer period of ice cover on lakes is also beneficial. Less of an ice “lid” leads to increased evaporation and lower lake levels, which allows water to warm up more quickly.

Warmer water temperatures may facilitate algae growth, which can deplete oxygen and affect other aquatic species, as well as produce toxins that affect water quality for drinking and recreation.

For decades, climate experts have been clear about the need to prevent warming of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. While society drags its feet on divestment from fossil fuels, this threshold looms closer than ever before: 2023 was the first year that temperatures consistently shattered this ceiling.

At this point, we will not avoid climate change completely; the effects of extreme heat and weather are evident in our gardens, lakes and vineyards.

And as temperatures continue to rise, urgent measures are required to curb emissions and transition to sustainable practices.

NOTL native Kyra Simone is a PhD candidate in environmental science, with master’s degrees in biology and science communication. She studies climate change-induced wildfire and species-at-risk habitat in eastern Georgian Bay.

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