In 2016, the effects of climate change could be seen across Ontario, from the vegetable fields of the Holland Marsh to the streets of Windsor. And around the world, it was a year of records, from low Arctic sea ice to unseasonable warmth.
The consequences of climate change that we’ve observed in 2016 — higher temperatures, shorter and more intense storms, and longer droughts — will continue to affect the livelihoods of people in this province and beyond.
Here’s a look back at some of the most compelling climate stories of this year.
Farmers pray for rain
Farmers in the Holland Marsh and elsewhere in Ontario faced hot, dry conditions this summer, meaning they had to do more watering than usual. When rain did fall, it fell in short, intense bursts that were not easily absorbed by the hard soil. Such storms are just one upshot of climate change, and they can lead to flash flooding. Despite a handful of severe rainstorms, drought conditions persisted for months.
This led to tremendous variation in yields. When it comes to corn, the numbers can differ from one county to the next, the London Free Press reported: “The lows and highs are dramatic: some fields in Norfolk will yield 32 bushels an acre, while others that experienced more rain will harvest at 213, the assessment suggests.” Corn and soybean production fell 10 per cent in Ontario compared with last year, according to a Statistics Canada report.
Read more: Farming in the face of climate change
Forests turned tinderboxes
The fire that caused more than 80,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray was sparked in the context of a changed climate — which some pointed out less than tactfully. It’s nigh impossible to say that global warming caused a given fire, as doing so would suggest that in a different climate, the same blaze would not have occurred. But longer, hotter summers are leading to drier forests, which create the ideal conditions for forest fires.
Whether the Fort Mac example was the direct result of climate change cannot be determined, but at least the possibility brought discussion of global warming to the fore. In Ontario this year, wildfires consumed twice as much forest as they did in 2015, with 83,009 hectares destroyed by 636 fires. A report from Natural Resources Canada says climate change will contribute to a 50 per cent rise in forest fires, diseases, and insect infestations.
Windsor under water
Floods and droughts may seem like opposing forces, but they are connected by climate change. Dry conditions make the ground hard, which causes water to run off instead of soak in. This effect, combined with shorter and more intense rainstorms, will result in more disasters like the flooding that took place in Windsor this past September.
The city declared a state of emergency as rain pummelled the area. Restoration companies were overwhelmed with calls, local hardware stores sold out of sump pumps, and the province declared the area would qualify for disaster-relief financing. “It seems as though this is becoming more the norm than abnormal,” municipal affairs minister Bill Mauro told the CBC.
Read more: How Ontario cities battle climate change
Hottest. Year. Ever.
Preliminary results suggest 2016 will go down as the hottest year on record. (The previous record was set last year.) The average global temperature rose 1.2 degrees above preindustrial levels; meanwhile, the first six months of 2016 comprised the warmest half-year ever recorded. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year was also the most anomalous on record — month after month, temperatures exceeded the average by a higher degree than ever before.
The year’s high temperatures were partially the result of a strong El Niño effect, but that doesn’t discount the impact of global warming: in fact, research suggests climate change may be making strong El Niño events more likely.
But at least we have a plan — kind of
The government released its climate change action plan — an ambitious strategy in a year when the Liberals tried to stanch the bleeding from hydro price increases. The introduction of the plan was not without controversy: Kathleen Wynne had to battle reports that her government had contemplated banning natural gas. But in the end, Wynne’s plan was well received, although the Liberals have had a rocky time implementing it.
Far from banning natural gas, the government is now supporting a $100-million fund to promote the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure to remote and rural communities. The province also cancelled the procurement of 1,000 megawatts of renewable wind and solar power.
Central to the Liberals’ plan is the cap-and-trade market that Ontario will join along with California and Quebec. The carbon-pricing system will launch Jan. 1, but there's still little information available on how it will work and where the money will go.
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