Less ice, more heatwaves, no maple syrup: this is Muskoka’s future with climate change

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It’s urgent but it’s not hopeless, and inaction is not an option.

That was the message Dr. Peter Sale stressed to a packed room at the Active Living Centre on June 15 as the keynote speaker for Climate Change in Muskoka and Parry Sound—What to expect and what we can do about it. The non-partisan event was hosted by the Green Party of Ontario Parry Sound-Muskoka Constituency Association and drew a crowd of approximately 200 concerned people.

Dr. Sale is a marine ecologist, author of the book Our Dying Planet, and co-author of the Muskoka Watershed Council’s 2016 report Planning for Climate Change in Muskoka. He’s been talking about climate change for more than 15 years and in that time he’s seen a shift in how his message was received.

“In the beginning I used to spend a lot of time on the science, trying to explain how it was happening and why it was happening, trying to convince skeptics,” he said. “There were plenty of skeptics; many of them were inconvincible.”

But times have changed. Most people now get it, he said. What they don’t get is how serious it is. “People should be much more concerned about climate change than we are. We should be concerned about how rapidly it’s changing,” he said. “We should be concerned about how rapidly we need to be acting if we don’t want it to change in really bad ways.”

Muskokans need to look no further than their own region to see the changes that have already occurred. In the 1970s, lakes were ice-covered by late November. Now that often doesn’t happen until mid-December or later. Ice out is now a bit earlier, meaning that lakes are ice-free for three weeks longer each year. Severe flooding is more frequent.

“Three more weeks of open water doesn’t sound so bad does it? More fun in the sun…unless you like ice fishing,” he said. “Three more weeks of open water has all kinds of implications for the biology of our lakes, which the scientists are only beginning to appreciate. These changes are going to be profound, and some of them will be okay or good and others will be things that we don’t like.”

By mid-century, Muskoka’s climate is projected to be wetter by about 10 per cent. Although that might not sound so bad, most of that extra 10 per cent will arrive in the winter and spring, said Sale. Summer and fall, by contrast, will be drier and warmer. For sun-lovers, that seems pretty good. Until you take a closer look at the numbers.

The current average maximum temperature in July and August falls in the mid-20°C range. By mid-century that’s projected to be 30 degrees—heat wave temperatures, noted Sale. “That has all kinds of implications for our economy, for our lifestyles, and for our environment.”

So too does the rise in average winter temperatures. “At the present time we have three months of the year, January, February, December, when the average daily maximum temperatures do not exceed zero degrees, everything stays frozen. In the future climate, only January is just below zero degrees.”

Warmer lakes will be more biologically active, increasing the risk of algal blooms. Summer droughts will lead to lower lake levels and lower flow in rivers, which could be “as substantial biologically as the increased floods in the spring,” said Sale.

And then there are the forests “because the trees are suddenly going to discover they’re living in the wrong place. The climate they’re adapted to is up north. And they’re living in a climate they’re not adapted to,” said Sale. “Our forests are going to change. It will happen slowly, because trees live a long time. But there is going to be a change in the composition, the nature of our forests. If you like maple syrup, eat it now.”

Beyond nature there’s the potential impact on infrastructure. “[There will be] greater stress on our power grids because of the more violent storms, and our data grids, at the very time when our economy and our lifestyles require a stable, reliable supply of power and data,” said Sale. “We are in a climate change which is going to make the system even less reliable than it currently is. I personally think it’s time to stop putting the wires back among the trees, like so many Christmas lights again and again and again, and put them down on the ground or under the ground where they can still be safe but they won’t fall down every time the wind blows. But that will cost money, and we have to plan for it.”

Climate change is a complex problem, noted Sale, “and there are lots of simple easy to understand answers that are mostly wrong.”

So what can we do?

First, we need perspective. Sale suggests looking at the problem on the scale of the biosphere—all of Earth’s life and where that life lives, in its entirety. “It’s a finite planet and we damn well better take care of it,” said Sale. “The biosphere provides the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, all the things we use in our economy, in our lives. We are part of it. And if it changes too drastically that has serious implications for us.”

So let me recap the problem we’re faced with. First of all, it’s a problem that we created. We didn’t do it on purpose. We didn’t know we were doing it. But we did it. And it’s a problem that’s serious enough that we need to fix it. The really good news is that we understand this problem. We know how we created it. We know what we have to do, in principle, to fix it. The problem, of course, is that we haven’t got our act together yet. We have more power than any other creature has ever had to change the face of this planet. We’ve been using that power unwisely. And we’re seeing the consequences of that.
Dr. Peter Sale

And we need to act, both on an individual level, as well as at a collaborative, global level. (Read: government co-operation.)

“Individual actions are helpful, but they’re not all equally helpful,” said Sale. Upgrading your lightbulbs, for example, is a good thing to do “but don’t assume that you’ve done a great deal for climate change by doing that.” Replacing a regular car with a hybrid is more effective; ditching the car altogether is better. Switching to a vegetarian diet is a significant way to reduce your personal contribution to CO2 emissions. The biggest personal savings, though, come in the form of having one fewer child than you were planning on, although that’s “not really solving our problem of reducing emissions, that’s simply preventing them rising even higher,” said Sale.

He warned against tokenism, too. “Announcing that you are no longer going to accept plastic straws at Tim Hortons is not anything to be super, super proud about. It’s just the beginning.”

What’s essential is government action, and individuals can have an impact there, too.

We’ve got to transition our economy from a fossil fuel dependent economy to one that isn’t. It needs government. There is another reason it needs government: we already have been seeing for years now the push back which gets stronger and stronger from those who are invested in the status quo…right here in Canada, right now, we’re being taught that any government instrument, such as a tax to encourage a shift away from carbon, is somehow evil. We’re also being taught by other people that Canada’s economy is such a delicate little flower that it will collapse completely if we don’t increase the quantity of bitumen taken out of tar sands year by year by year into the future. Both of those claims are complete nonsense. They are presented in plausible ways, and lots of people believe them.
Dr. Peter Sale

To get governments cooperating and moving in the right direction, politicians need to hear from their constituents. Lots of them.

“Probably the most important thing individuals could do is not worry about how much meat you’re eating or what kind of car you drive,” said Sale. “Communicate with your politicians, between elections, telling them when they’re doing the right thing and telling them very clearly when they’re doing the wrong thing. If we don’t do that, their feet will not be held to the fire.”

Closer to home, we need to keep paying attention to—and pay more attention to—the environment.

“This is an absolutely beautiful part of the province. It’s an environmentally healthy part of the province. We’ve done a remarkably good job in recent years in keeping it that way, despite a huge increase in our pressure on the environment. But it’s going to have real challenges as this climate change comes in, and it’s going to need our help,” said Sale. “[We need to] pay far more attention to environmental needs, as opposed to human needs.”

That includes greater protection for wetlands, shallow waters and shorelines. And less tolerance for non-compliance with the rules and regulations that are in place to protect Muskoka’s natural spaces.

“And finally, I think we could do a good thing by beginning a serious conversation about the relative importance of the rights of property owners and the responsibilities of property owners,” said Sale. “It used to be when we were a rural country, or back in the day when we were a different society altogether, there was a land ethic, there was a sense that we took care of the land, that you had a responsibility to leave the land in better shape than you found it for your children and your grandchildren. And that has been largely lost as we become an urban society. It would be good to get back to that. To what extent should we be putting our personal interests ahead of the interests of the piece of land we are privileged to borrow from our grandchildren?”

Click here to download a copy of Planning for Climate Change in Muskoka from the Muskoka Watershed Council’s website.

You can listen to Dr. Sale’s presentation in its entirety here:

The climate change symposium also included thirteen different break-out sessions on topics from zero-waste living and local food production to building green and moving away from a reliance on oil and gas. Read a summary, courtesy of Arleigh Luckett, President of the Parry Sound-Muskoka Constituency Association for the Green Party of Ontario, here (PDF).

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7 Comments

  1. Congratulations to the local Green Party’s “Climate Change in Muskoka” symposium last week. It was a completely non-partisan event, which attracted an SRO-audience. I’m fairly confident in asserting that all attendees left with a takeaway of their individual ability to combat climate change to a greater or lesser degree.

  2. Hugh Holland on

    It was an excellent conference with an excellent Key-note speaker (Dr. Peter Sale) and excellent discussion leaders at 12 topic tables. I learned something from all of them.

  3. Brian Tapley on

    I would echo Hugh Holland’s comments.
    I was unfortunately on a time budget due to prior commitments and only could attend Peter Sales keynote and one individual session but everything I saw made sense.
    We need to get past the talking stage and start looking seriously at the doing stage for all this.
    Remember, if sea levels rise just a little part of what Dr. Sale is suggesting to be likely, then there are going to be about 4 billion people around the world looking for new homes and jobs. Muskoka might look pretty good! Can Huntsville handle an expansion to a million population? It may have to do this in less time than you think.

  4. I am guessing that here in CENTRAL ALBERTA we have magically created our own climate.
    I have personally compiled temps starting in 1948 and continuing through to 2019. Here in Alberta we have been cooling since about 2012.
    Our lakes are full and beautiful as well.

    • Paul Kuebler on

      Good point Dan West and additionally… When massive ice sheets break up and melt away, as has happened in both Poles, the water that was covered by ice (which reflected 90% of the sun’s energy back away from Earth) NOW absorbs that energy to the tune of 90%.
      If that is not enough for you, drive west from your place and let me know if the glaciers in the mountains are getting bigger or smaller???
      As for your lakes, what about the ones that used to be where the Tar Sands are now…?

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