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A Robin In The Arctic?


By Martin Mittelstaedt

Globe and Mail


The glaciers are melting. The growing season is getting longer. Creatures are turning up in places where they really don't belong. It's time to stop doubting that global warming is the culprit. Happy Earth Day.


In the summer of 1993, federal fisheries scientist John Babaluk was on Banks Island, the most westerly of the big islands that stretch across Canada's Far North, when some people showed him what had come up in the nets they had set for Arctic char.


No one in the tiny Inuvialuit community of Sachs Harbor had ever seen such a fish, which wasn't such a surprise, considering that it was 1,500 kilometers away from home. They had caught sockeye salmon, normally found on the Pacific coast of British Columbia and Alaska.


"We actually saw, recorded, took pictures and did some measurements on some sockeye salmon that had shown up in Sachs Harbor. That was the first time that any of the locals that we talked to had seen them," Mr. Babaluk says.


The itinerant salmon is just one of many strange sightings across the country


The Far North is being introduced to the Robin, the South's harbinger of spring and a bird so rarely seen above the tree line that the Inuvialuit don't even have a name for it.


In Southern Ontario, the Virginia opossum now thrives as far north as Georgian Bay. A few decades ago, it was unknown because the climate was too cold.


Wildlife biologists in Manitoba have noted that migratory butterflies are returning earlier in the spring and that polar bears along the province's Hudson Bay coastline are getting thinner because the sea ice is melting earlier, giving the animals less time to fatten up on seals, their main prey.


Why is all this happening? There could be many explanations, but the common thread through all the occurrences is that Canada's climate has been getting warmer.


That climate change might happen some day is hardly controversial. Humans are adding more carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases to the atmosphere every year. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, concentrations of CO{-2}, the main greenhouse gas, have risen by about 30 per cent, but they will double by the end of this century if usage trends for fossil fuels continue.


Scientific models suggest that human-induced changes to the composition of the atmosphere will almost certainly cause temperatures to rise substantially over the next 50 to 100 years.


But on the eve of another Earth Day, Canadians might want to consider something more radical on the subject of global warming -- directly from their own backyards. Warming should not be considered an abstraction due to occur at some vague point in the country's future. It has already arrived, and has been under way for the past few decades.


A group of federal and provincial scientists have concluded that global warming has had a profound influence on Canada after completing the most exhaustive review ever undertaken of the hundreds of studies on the country's climate trends. They looked at reports of unusual wildlife sightings, such as Mr. Babaluk's salmon, the extent of glaciers on the Rockies and data from weather stations going back more than a century.


Except for small parts of the Northeast that have actually become cooler of late, the warming is almost universal -- and not necessarily just a momentary blip. "There are really strong indicators that the climate is changing," says Environment Canada's Linda Mortsch, the scientist coordinating the effort, "and I think Canadians should be aware of that."


That is why the researchers summarized their findings in a 45-page report, published by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment and made public recently.


The publication has not prompted the interest normally associated with a major environmental review because the Winnipeg-based council, which includes the federal, provincial and territorial environment ministers, is little known outside environmental-policy circles. (It normally works on such technical issues as the question of whether Canada should regulate mercury emissions from power-plant smokestacks.)


The climate change has been most dramatic in the North. The Mackenzie Basin is now an average of two degrees warmer than it was in the early 1950s, even though parts of Labrador, northern Quebec and Baffin Island have grown cooler.


But the best long-term temperature data are for the South, and the report reveals that all of Canada below the line formed by the northern boundaries of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba has become warmer over the past 100 years.


In fact, the average increase of 0.9 degrees in Southern Canada is about 50 per cent larger than the rise that has occurred elsewhere on the planet, making this country a global-warming hot spot.


This has played out in some major temperature shifts.


In Whitehorse, for instance, Environment Canada figures show that the Yukon community used to have an average of 63 bone-chilling days a year during the 1950s and 1960s when the mercury plunged to minus 20 or lower. By the 1980s and 1990s, that number had fallen to 49. The same trend occurred in Yellowknife, where the number of extremely cold days has fallen to an average of 108 a year from 121.


And even though 0.9 degrees of warming may appear small -- it's below the amount humans can feel through our senses -- it has had some staggering environmental consequences.


There has been a huge increase in frost-free periods each year, as many gardeners probably suspect. In some areas, such as central B.C., the span between the last frost in spring and the first freeze has grown by a stunning 50 days over the past century, with healthy increases also recorded on the Prairies and in Southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.


The growing season is increasing mainly because the last spring frosts are happening a little earlier each year -- a direct result of nighttime temperatures that aren't falling as much as they used to.


But gardeners shouldn't expect to plant tropical varieties any time soon because the trend is unlikely to go on forever, says Joan Klaassen, a climatologist at Environment Canada who has researched the subject.


"Eventually, we would have no winter," she says, plus the length of the frost-free period is volatile. As recently as 1980, for instance, Ottawa had its shortest growing season on record -- a mere 110 days, compared with the maximum of 182 days posted in 1990.


However, if the fluctuations are smoothed out, the frost-free period has expanded by about 30 days since 1939.


The trembling aspen, one of Canada's most common trees, grows in all forested regions, and when springtime temperatures rise enough, it goes into bloom. Aspens don't produce pretty flowers, but their date of first bloom is like a weathervane pointing to dramatic global warming.


In Edmonton, researchers at the University of Alberta have been reviewing observations on the first flowering dates for the trees from 1901 to 1997, and have found a huge change.


While the trees went into bloom in early May at the beginning of the last century, by its end, the average date had advanced by nearly a month -- 26 days -- to early April.

In the list of planetary threats, warming comes at the top, or close to the top, of any motivating factors for Earth Day.


Working to preserve endangered species, cleaning up parks, and planting trees -- typical April 22 activities embraced by thousands of Canadians -- won't mean much if the climate changes so dramatically that it plays havoc with the planet.


On paper, Canada has a good position on global warming. It has endorsed the Kyoto Protocol and Prime Minister Paul Martin said in February's Speech from the Throne that his government has unequivocal support for the international pact to cut emissions of planet-warming gases.


But the glaring weakness in the government's commitment is that it hasn't fully explained how the country will meet the mind-boggling 240 million tons of emission cuts required to comply with the treaty.


(To put the challenge of this abstract tonnage figure in perspective, a typical car produces about four tons of CO{-2} a year.)


One of the big worries about global warming is that melting Antarctic and Arctic ice will cause sea levels to rise, inundating low-lying coastal areas.


Canada has the world's longest coastline, making it especially vulnerable to flooding.


For example, much of Charlottetown lies only a few meters above sea level, and over the past century, the ocean has been slowly rising up against the picturesque city.


The total increase -- 30 centimeters -- means that now even small storms maybe able to produce enough of a surge at high tide to cause extensive damage.


Researchers believe that about one-third of the rise at Charlottetown has been caused by global warming and the rest from land subsiding since the last ice age.


Other areas at risk include parts of the Gaspé and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine in Quebec, along with parts of the Beaufort Sea coastline in the Arctic.


Most of British Columbia will be less affected by higher sea levels because of its steep and rocky coastline, although low-lying areas, such as the highly populated Fraser Delta, are vulnerable.


Another dramatic sign of global warming is in Canada's extensive glaciers and ice fields. Although not well known, this country has more glacial ice coverage -- 200,000 square kilometers -- than any place in the world, other than Antarctica and Greenland.


The area of the most rapid warming in Canada in the past 50 years has been the West, and this heat has been cutting a swath through glaciers. There are about 1,300 glaciers on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, and they are 25 to 75 per cent smaller than in 1850.


Elsewhere, alpine ice patches -- in reality, mini-glaciers -- have been melting so rapidly from Yukon mountain ridges that archeologists are having trouble keeping up with all the ancient artifacts being exposed before these materials, such as carvings, wooden darts and leather pouches, succumb to rot.


A much bigger problem is that many major Prairie rivers are fed by glaciers, so cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon may face a thirsty future. Recent surveys have found that the amount of glacier water feeding the Saskatchewan, the largest prairie river, has already begun to drop.


The arrival of salmon in the Arctic prompted a lot of head scratching at the federal Fisheries Department, and led to an investigation. Was the sighting a result of global warming or just wanderlust?


The salmon have kept coming since 1993 -- several were found last year -- but researchers also have gone through historical records and found sporadic visitations in the past.


Federal fisheries scientist Sam Stephenson has studied the situation and says he still isn't sure whether the salmon are just looking for new territory to conquer or have been pushed north by warmer water temperatures in the south. "I would be hesitant to say global warming at this stage," he says, adding that "certainly, this is something that bears watching."


However, something happening on neighboring Victoria Island is even more difficult to explain. Mark Ekootak, a wildlife officer for the Northwest Territories government, was surprised by the recent arrival of something "I've never seen growing up" on the barren tundra.


Only by consulting a field guide did he finally figure out that he had a tree swallow on his hands -- a bit odd considering that the tree line lies 750 kilometers to the south.


Martin Mittelstaedt is The Globe and Mail's environment reporter