News / Calgary

Extreme weather more likely to hit Alberta as temperatures heat up

Researchers analyzed 60 years of climate data from across the province and say the risk of floods and wildfires is likely to increase over time

Residents walk through flood waters in Calgary on June 24, 2013. Scientists say as Alberta heats up, the risk of flooding and wildfire events is likely to increase.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Residents walk through flood waters in Calgary on June 24, 2013. Scientists say as Alberta heats up, the risk of flooding and wildfire events is likely to increase.

Extreme weather events are more likely to hit Alberta and tourism will be significantly impacted by a gradually-warming province, according to some of Alberta’s leading scientists on the subject.

It’s well documented that Alberta’s iconic glaciers have been slowly disappearing, but experts are warning they may vanish altogether within the foreseeable future, leaving scars on the Rocky Mountain landscape and costing our billion-dollar-tourism industry thousands of visits. 

According to research from the Kienzle Watershed and Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Lethbridge (U of L), which analyzed temperature and precipitation measurements that have been collected every day since 1950 from 6,833 climate stations located across the province, Alberta’s climate has been warming consistently over the last half-century.

Climate is the average weather measured over many years, and the word weather relates to short-term conditions in the atmosphere that we can observe and measure, such as temperature, precipitation and wind.

A team led by Dr. Stephen Kienzle, professor of hydrology and geographical information science at U of L, recently compiled the nearly five million records from 1950 to 2010 and found average annual summer temperatures in Alberta have increased by 0.77°C, while spring and fall temperatures increased by 1.37°C and 1.05°C, respectively.

Winter temperatures have increased, on average across the province, by 5.21°C.

“It’s possible that today’s teenagers will see some of the last glaciers in the Rocky Mountains disappear in their lifetime,” Scott Jasechko, assistant professor of water resources with the department of geography at the University of Calgary (U of C), told Metro.

According to data from Brewster Travel Canada, there were approximately 304,509 visitors to the Glacier Discovery Centre near the Columbia Icefields in 2010 – that’s an average of 1,646 people a day.

Dr. Kienzle said with the exception of high-elevation regions, snowfall is being replaced by rainfall, which puts communities at a greater likelihood to experience extreme weather events such as flooding or wildfires.

“Floods, droughts and heat waves are some of the most serious stresses to the public when it comes to coping with a changing climate,” Kienzle said, adding the scientific community has known human activity has an effect on climate change since 1859.

His team also found the number of heat waves in Edmonton and Calgary have doubled since 1950, but the number of days with maximum temperatures below zero each year have decreased by 21. 

Dr. Gwendolyn Blue, associate professor with the department of geography at the U of C who focuses on public engagement related to climate change, said the warming presents risks to Albertans.

“The changes will be both direct and indirect – for instance, rates of allergies may go up. We also may see different kinds of infectious disease, water and airborne illnesses, and wildfires,” she said. “And it’s not going to be a uniform warming – Albertans will be affected differently based on where they live.” 

Jasechko said an important question for densely-populated areas like Edmonton and Calgary to consider is how factors such as less snow and melting glaciers will impact the frequency and duration of floods.

“One of the impacts of higher-intensity rain events may be a higher risk of flooding to Albertans, especially those in urban centres who are reliant on lands not being inundated with floodwaters,” Jasechko said.

All three were quick to explain recent events in Alberta – the wildfire in Fort McMurray last spring or the 2013 floods in southern Alberta – cannot be attributed to climate change, but they do serve as an important example of how devastating extreme weather can be.

“Climate change can contribute to drier conditions, caused by a combination things including less precipitation, more frequent and unusually-high temperatures, increased evaporation from bodies of water, and earlier snow melt – all factors observed before the Fort McMurray wildfire – so going forward, the increased risk of wildfires must be expected,” Kienzle said.

He said Albertans will have to learn to adapt and prepare for these types of events.

“For example, by covering cars under shelters so they don't get hailed out and building stronger roofs to withstand more freak winter storms,” the professor said.

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