Snowy Canada Endures Drought, Heat, Fires as Planet Gets Warmer

Canada Wildfires

A member of the Canadian Forces puts out hotspots from wildfires near Montreal Lake, Saskatoon, on July 9.

Photographer: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP Photo
  • Temperatures 5 degrees Celsius higher than norm in some areas
  • River volumes low after thaw came too early in Rocky Mountains

Canada is maybe one of the last places that come to mind when you think about heat waves and drought. Think again.

With 2015 on pace to break last year’s record for the planet’s hottest year, the snowy Great White North has learned it’s not immune to global warming.

Wildfires in Canada are on the rise, triggered by high temperatures and drought.
Wildfires in Canada are on the rise, triggered by high temperatures and drought.

Western Canada, home to glaciers and source of some of the world’s longest rivers, has been hit by wildfires and dry spells from British Columbia’s Pacific Coast to the prairies in Saskatchewan. The thaw in the Rocky Mountains came too early, before enough snow accumulated to feed streams in the summer. Vancouver, known for its rainy weather, has had to restrict water use much like drought-struck California.

“This is what Canada looks like without the cold,” John Pomeroy, a University of Saskatchewan researcher, said in an interview from Canmore, Alberta, where he studies water basins in the Rockies. “We’ve really built our western Canadian society around the water from the snowpack.”

Rising Temperatures

Droughts in Canada are less severe than in balmier climes because the long, cold winters suppress evaporation from the soil. Yet with temperatures as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 Fahrenheit) above normal this year, the dryness has been anything but mild, affecting industries from the oil sands to wine makers.
 
Crude producers have less water from the Athabasca River in northern Alberta to mine bitumen after declining flows led the province to impose restrictions. Forest fires halted production in some areas in June.
 
Canadian wheat and canola yields probably will drop to eight-year lows because of the dryness, grain-marketer CWB said in July. Freshwater fishing on Vancouver Island was banned last month as higher water temperatures in salmon streams threaten a C$1 billion ($750 million)-a-year sport-fishing industry.

Agricultural Disaster

Parts of Alberta are experiencing the lowest levels of rain in 50 years, according to the agriculture ministry. The province declared the situation an agricultural disaster.
 
Further west, Church & State Wines near the British Columbia town of Oliver narrowly missed being engulfed in flames as wildfires swept near the property, according to the company’s Twitter feed.
 
Hydropower across the region will also be affected as far east as Manitoba’s Nelson River, which is fed by water from the Rockies via the Saskatchewan River system, Pomeroy said. Water volumes at the mouth of the Bow River that flows through Calgary was just 10 percent of normal in early July.

Shared Misery

In British Columbia’s case, misery may love company: Its neighbors to the south, Washington state and Idaho, as well as Oregon, Nevada and California, all are similarly suffering drought-induced water stress.
 
Residents of Vancouver, more accustomed to regular rainfall than dryness, now face fines of C$300 to C$500 for illegal watering. They may need to get used to it in years to come if drought issues become the new norm even in Canada.
 
“It’s surprising how many communities are unprepared for climate change,” said Kevin Hanna, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “We’re setting ourselves up for more interesting weather.”
 

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