Ian Mauro and Danny Blair are climate researchers and co-directors of the Prairie Climate Centre, an initiative of the University of Winnipeg and International Institute for Sustainable Development. Check out the Prairie Climate Atlas at www.climateatlas.ca
With a swath of Alberta on fire and the associated human tragedy still unfolding, many suggest it's too soon to talk about the connections with climate change. But is it?
Obviously we can't link any one fire – including "the beast" in Fort McMurray or any other – with climate change. But the larger trends suggest these types of extreme events will increasingly become the new normal and that's worth talking about.
We're not suggesting climate change dialogue should detract from the pressing issues facing Alberta and the need for an adequate response to this enormous crisis.
However, we must not let the fires in Alberta act as a smoke screen that prevent us from seeing the future clearly. This is a critical moment for Canadians to recognize the reality that we are rapidly moving toward a different climate. This shift will see more forest fires, drought, flooding and extreme weather events that will have enormous consequences, for the children of today and those of tomorrow.
To help see this future, we have launched the Prairie Climate Atlas, which is an interactive online platform that allows anyone to geovisualize how the Prairies will be affected over the coming century. The more local, visual and relevant we make climate change for people's lives, the more likely they are to engage in seeking solutions.
Perhaps most shockingly, our Atlas shows the number of hot days – 30 C or above – are projected to increase substantially if we fail to mitigate greenhouse gases. On average, a place like Winnipeg currently gets about 11 hot days a year, but nearing the 2080s, if we fail to curb emissions, this will jump to nearly 50. That's almost two months with 30 C temperatures. Fort McMurray, in an average year, currently gets about three of these hot days, but later this century under a "business as usual" carbon scenario this would increase to about 20 days. The implications of this are profound and far-reaching.
We also use spatial analogues to show how the projected summer climate for Winnipeg in the 2080s will actually resemble that of present day North Texas. While a profound example of how extreme our climate will change in only a matter of decades, this visualization also helps us identify communities we should look to for inspiration on how to cope with living in the Prairies at the end of the century.
The Atlas also helps you to observe changes in extreme cold, seasonal precipitation and growing days, and the maps can provide data on individual communities and ecological and municipal zones. It is our hope that this combination of science, visual storytelling and tools for both adaptation and mitigation planning will help get our country on track.
To be prepared, we have to talk about the extremes we are currently seeing, and how they connect with the larger trends that are expected in the future. By taking this approach, we will increase our knowledge and capacity in a manner that will help us to protect places like Fort McMurray and many other communities that will undoubtedly be facing extreme circumstances of their own.
Tough questions need to be asked: can our environments, economies, governments and disaster management systems handle this rapid and intense change in climate? Where will our food and water come from? Is our infrastructure adequate and will it keep us safe? What will happen to our communities? These are the questions of our time, relevant to Fort McMurray today, and our entire country and the rest of the world on a continuing basis as we grapple with the lived realities of climate change.