Warmer Prairie winters: sounds good, but what does it really mean?
Residents of Churchill, Manitoba know cold. On average, Churchill experiences about 44 days of extreme cold — where the minimum temperature drops below -30 °C — per year. These temperatures are potentially dangerous for those not accustomed or prepared for them; but are vital to the ecosystem and an important component of the global climate system, as these temperatures help rebuild and rejuvenate sea ice cover and permafrost.
A new animation shows what may happen to these vital colds in the future — if humanity continues to burn fossil fuels at its current ‘business-as-usual’ pace. Almost unbelievably, climate models project that Churchill will witness a ten-fold reduction in the number of cold days (from 44 to just 4) by the latter part of this century (2051-2080 time frame). By 2100, the number drops to nearly zero.
What about the rest of the Prairie region? Winnipegers will rejoice to learn that their city will experience zero cold days in an average year by 2050, according to this scenario. However, it is often underappreciated in the southern Prairie region how vital these cold winter days are to the biosphere. Cold temperatures help keep agricultural and forest pests at bay. Cold winters are needed to form winter roads, which are still relied upon by thousands of people in dozens of communities just a few hours north on Winnipeg. Our Prairie and Boreal ecosystems are well adapted to these cold temperatures, but are at risk of being overrun by invasive species that do better in more mild winter conditions.
Regardless of whether the loss of cold days is cause for celebration or concern, the change is yet another dramatic example of how profoundly different the Prairie climate system is likely to be in the future, especially if humanity continues to delay the implementation of carbon dioxide reduction strategies. We need to start anticipating the potential risks of these changes so that we are better prepared when they arrive.
Climate Change Researcher
Prairie Climate Centre