It’s a slushy, wet, late-November day in Winnipeg. I walked to work this morning missing the usual abrupt onset of the cold, dry prairie winter, and thinking that I’d been happy to leave this kind of damp and dirty fall behind when I moved here from southern Ontario. My friends and relatives are always confused when I say that I like every season in Winnipeg better than every season in Ottawa. The Manitoba winter is the main reason: I love a sunny, dry cold. It’s a long winter, but a beautiful one. You can put on a warm coat and head outside without the humid cold sinking into your bones. Moments after getting good and splashed with filthy wet muck by a passing truck, though, it occurred to me that I’m going to have to change my expectations.
Novembers in Winnipeg have averaged a respectably wintry -4.9°C over recent decades. Our average so far this year? Plus 3.2°C. That’s quite a jump. The Prairie Climate Centre predicts that, without drastic cuts in our carbon pollution, future prairie winters are going look a lot more like this one. Historically, our average warmest November temperatures have still been below zero. That’s changing. Within the next several years, average highs in November will head towards 2°C. So this strangely long, slushy onset of winter? Get ready for it to be the new normal.
The climate is changing around us, in ways that are more and more obvious. None of this is a surprise: the carbon pollution caused by industrialization began hundreds of years ago, and its global warming consequences have been understood for almost a century. But knowing how global warming works is one thing; being willing to take effective action to stop is is quite another. Sometimes it takes actually seeing and feeling its consequences to be willing to take it seriously. Days like this are an opportunity to renew our commitment to action.
Within the next several years, average warm days in November will be more like 2°C. So this strangely long, slushy onset of winter? Get ready for it to be the new normal.
The global community has a poor political record on climate change: we are apparently much better at making empty promises than we are at taking concrete steps. And yet, progress has been made. Renewable sources of energy are expanding rapidly, and in Canada annual per-capita and per-dollar-of GDP carbon emissions are dropping. But Canada and the world are still unhappily on track to emit more and more climate change pollution every year. And until that changes, we have to prepare ourselves for a world that will look different than it has in the past.
When we say that average temperatures worldwide might rise by 2°C, keep in mind that northern and inland locations are set to warm by quite a lot more than that. That has pretty serious consequences for Canada, and even more so for the prairies. It means that less of the prairie winter will be consistently below zero, and a lot more of it will be spent in the messy territory near freezing. So as you curse the slush today, take a sec to consider what climate change will mean for you, in your life, where you live. Warmer winters might sound nice in theory, but the temperature isn’t the only thing that will change: our whole experience of the seasons is likely to shift in unexpected ways.
You can take personal charge of climate change by taking action as a citizen and a consumer to push against worsening carbon pollution. And you can also plan ahead to get ready for the changes that are already happening. Remember that the fight against high carbon emissions is ongoing, and the consequences are real. We can demand more and better action from our political and commercial leaders. We can take responsibility for the carbon impacts of our lifestyles. And we can plan for the effects of climate change on our day-to-day lives.
I, for one, am going to seriously consider wearing rain gear so I can get to work with dry pants.
Steve McCullough, PhD
Research Associate, Prairie Climate Centre