After a warm winter, Canada may see more drought, wildfires in the spring

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After a warm winter, Canada may see more drought, wildfires in the spring
WATCH ABOVE: After a warm winter, Canada may see more drought, wildfires in the spring. – Feb 27, 2024

As Canada continues to experience warmer-than-usual temperatures this winter, the country must gear up for extreme weather events, including drought, wildfires and floods in the spring and summer, experts told Global News.

Global News meteorologist Anthony Farnell said this year’s high temperatures were due to El Niño, which is a phenomenon where the water in the equatorial region of the Pacific warms and weather patterns across North America change.

“This year was likely even warmer because of the effects of climate change. In the last few days, winter has returned to Western Canada but a large ridge is pumping very mild air across the eastern half of the country,” Farnell said.

Kent Moore, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said this warm weather has also meant reduced precipitation.

“We (in Toronto) typically get around 80 millimetres of precipitation, rain or snow (in February). This year, we had three millimetres of rain.”

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Moore said the impacts of low precipitation will be felt across the country in different ways throughout the spring and summer.

“The ground is very dry. There’s been no snowpack,” he said. “It’s going to impact wildfires, because really dry conditions just essentially make it easier for wildfires to get started.”

He said parts of Canada may already be facing drought-like conditions.

“If you consider precipitation last month, we are in a drought. But if it continues right into the spring then it can exacerbate any wildfire.”

The Alberta government last week declared an early start to wildfire season. The season traditionally runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen officially declared it underway — 10 days earlier than usual.

“Alberta is going into a very extreme drought,” John Richardson, professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of forest and conservation sciences, told Global News. “So that will really hit the agricultural areas hard, but also northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.”

Richardson said many parts of the country still have “zombie fires,” or fires that started last year but never really went out. These fires continue to smoulder.

“I think that we will probably have a very bad fire season. And that’s all the way from the West Coast, right through northern Ontario, northern Quebec and even into parts of the Maritimes.”

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Last year was the worst year on record in terms of area burnt by wildfires, with roughly 18.5 million hectares of Canadian land burned. It surpassed the previous record of 7.6 million hectares scorched in 1989.

Click to play video: 'Drought management workshops offered for B.C. farmers'
Drought management workshops offered for B.C. farmers

Mixed bag of conditions — and impacts

Impacts of the drought will be felt differently in different parts of the country, Richardson said, from those in the agricultural industry to city dwellers.

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“In Saskatchewan, their main water supply from Regina’s Lake Diefenbaker is metres below average already for this time of year. In other places in Canada … the groundwater is depleted, which means people have to pump water from farther down.”

Richardson said while many in Canada’s biggest cities may not notice the drought right away with tap water still flowing, they might see some other effects.

“A lot of Ontario’s power production still comes from hydroelectric power, even though there’s a lot of nuclear power in Ontario. But that can still lead to shortages of power.”

If water levels fall below normal in the Great Lakes, shipping channels could be affected, Moore said.

And as some areas grapple with drought conditions, intense rainfall and storms could pose a new set of problems, Moore notes.

“One thing that happens when you have warmer temperatures is that the air can hold more water vapour,” he said. “We can expect to see more intense thunderstorms in the summer.”

There’s also speculation that we’re already seeing prime conditions for an active hurricane season.

“There’s a concern that this hurricane season will be quite severe just because we’re in February and the ocean is already warm,” Moore said. “It tends to take on more heat as the summer progresses.”

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Canadians could also see insect habits and patterns change. Moore said some parts of Canada may see invasive species of ticks, which did not die out in the cold.

“Over time, the ecosystems will evolve to handle this new climate that we’re having now, but that takes generations. It’s going to take 100 or 200 years. The change is occurring so rapidly that, frankly, the ecosystems can’t catch up,” he said.

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