Responding and adapting to climate change
~In the near future, climate warming, via its effects on glaciers, snow packs and evaporation, will combine with cyclic drought and rapidly increasing human activity in the western Prairie Provinces to cause a crisis in water quantity and quality with far-reaching implications. ~ Schindler and Donahue62
The jury is in on global climate change. Evidence of increasing air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels and widespread melting of snow and ice packs has led the scientific community to conclude that, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”63 This conclusion has profound implications for sustainable water management. The climate system and the hydrologic cycle are intimately linked. Changes in climate have profound impacts on water quality and availability and on ecosystem health – impacts that Prairie residents are already experiencing. Further, certain residents, specifically Aboriginal Peoples, are often the first and hardest hit by impacts, since many of their livelihoods and rights are dependent upon and interconnected with the environment.
Since the 1850s, most of the large glaciers in the headwaters of the Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Bow Rivers have shrunk considerably and this change has accelerated in recent years. From 1975 to 1998 the size of glaciers decreased by 50% in the South Saskatchewan River basin and by 23% in the North Saskatchewan River basin.64 Average stream flows in the Athabasca River have decreased by about 20% since 1958, with minimum flows projected to diminish by a further seven to ten as early as 2026.65 The thriving algal blooms already threatening the water quality and ecological health of Lake Winnipeg are expected to worsen with the warmer temperatures predicted due to climate change.66
- Prairie governments (municipal, provincial and federal) need to immediately implement aggressive plans of action to mitigate climate change and avoid dangerous levels of average global warming.
- Enact an aggressive water policy framework that proactively prepares the southern reaches of the Prairie Provinces for drought.
- Mainstream climate change into water policy.
- Build resilience for climate change adaptation.