Summers in Winnipeg in 2080 will be as hot and dry as they are today in the Texas Panhandle if worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions continue unabated, according to the first detailed climate-change projections conducted for the Canadian Prairies.
If atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to rise at the current rate, Winnipeg in 2080 would experience daily highs of 30 C or more about 46 times a year, up from an average of 11 over the past three decades, University of Winnipeg climate scientists project.
Under this unfavourable scenario, the city would experience nighttime lows below -30 C only once a year, down from an average of eight annually over the past three decades. And the frost-free period in the Red River Valley would increase to 160 days a year from the current 128, which would be a boon for agriculture if it wasn’t for the prospect of less summer rain conspiring with higher temperatures to render existing crops unviable.
“We’re heading toward a future that we’re not ready for, socially, environmentally and economically. This is not hyperbole,” said Ian Mauro, an associate professor of geography and filmmaker at the University of Winnipeg and a co-director of the Prairie Climate Centre, also based in the Manitoba capital. “Our kids’ future is not only going to be radically different, but it will be a challenging future. This will be a very difficult place to live, in that kind of heat.”
The projected changes for Winnipeg’s climate are the result of a statistical analysis conducted over the past year by University of Winnipeg researcher Ryan Smith and climatologist Danny Blair, who serves as the school’s associate dean of science as well as another co-director of the Prairie Climate Institute.
Blair and Smith started with 12 global climate-change models, encompassing terabytes of data, compiled by the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria. These wide-scale-resolution models are based on geographic locations no closer than 120 kilometres apart.
In research slated to be published, the U of W researchers used statistical analysis to fill in the gaps between the data points and downscale the projections to a finer resolution. Using computer programs that took two to three days to crunch a set of numbers, they wound up with climate projections for every point in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta at a distance of 10 kilometres apart.
“Nobody has done this for the Prairies,” said Blair, explaining that the raw data has only been used before to create detailed projections for other regions of the world. “This is cutting-edge stuff and it’s blowing people’s minds.”
The analysis builds upon earlier assumptions that suggested the climate on the Canadian Prairies, already among the most variable on the planet, will become even more extreme if atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to grow. It also suggests the effects of climate change would be more pronounced on the Prairies than around the world as a whole.
Under a lower-carbon emissions scenario, where atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases only rise for a few more decades and then level out, the world’s average temperature in 2080 is projected to become 2.2 C warmer than the average for 1951-1980. On the Prairies, however, the average temperature rise would be 3.7 C, according to the analysis.
Under a less favourable scenario, where greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to rise, the worldwide average temperature would increase 3.6 C around 2080 while the hike on the Prairies would be 5.9 C, according to the analysis.
The latter scenario would result in drastic changes for every municipality on the Prairies, Blair said. Winnipeg, for example, would receive significantly more precipitation during the fall, winter and spring — but less rain during summers that will be significantly warmer.
“The summers are going to get a lot hotter and a lot a little bit drier and that spells the word drought,” said Blair. “The risk of drought is going to increase: the frequency of drought, the intensity of drought and the impact of drought.”
The statistical modelling suggests that under this unfavourable scenario, Winnipeg’s summer climate would resemble that of modern-day Amarillo, Texas, which sits in the semi-arid Texas Panhandle. Winnipeg winters would change less drastically and become like those in modern-day Des Moines, Iowa.
The projected changes have implications for everything from the construction of winter roads to the frequency of forest fires and the sustainability of agriculture across the Prairies, Mauro said.
“When you look at those above 30 C days, the dominant crops that we grow on this landscape cannot survive, for the most part, in those conditions. The flowering periods are very particular,” Mauro said.
He said the value in making this data widely known is not to scare people, but to allow municipalities, government departments and industries to engage in planning efforts years ahead of time.
“These are diagnostic tools for us to figure out how to find solutions,” he said. The projection, he said, “reinforces the severity of the problem, but it also encourages the need for immediate action.”