Climate

The global climate is rapidly changing — and that is having major implications in northern Ontario.

People, wildlife, ecosystems and industry in the north in Ontario are already feeling the effects of a changing climate, including more extreme weather events like increased precipitation, floods, heatwaves, and food and water insecurity.

The carbon-rich ecosystems in northern Ontario play an essential role in moderating local and global climate conditions. Despite the ecological and biological significance, there is a growing push for rapid industrial and infrastructure development in northern Ontario.

SDG 13: Climate action

Hudson Bay toad (Anaxyrus americanus copei)

The lands, waters, people and wildlife in northern Ontario are already being disproportionately affected by climate change. To appropriately make decisions about the future of this vital region, we need to understand how expanded human activities and resource extraction will affect climate change, and how that will impact the people, plants and animals living there.

Historically, the climate in the north in Ontario is relatively cold and dry, with short, cool summers and long, cold winters.

There are a number of factors that affect the climate in the region. Hudson Bay and James Bay are the world’s largest, cold inland seas and have a profound effect on the climate and ecosystems throughout the Hudson Bay Lowland eco zone. Northernmost parts of the region have continuous and discontinuous permafrost (frozen soil) that affects the summer climate.

The climate has shaped the living patterns of Indigenous peoples, plants and animals for millennia — playing a central role in where they live and how they interact with one another. It creates specific conditions that shape the many ecosystems that make up northern Ontario, including soil composition and structure, the slow formation of peatlands, the water cycle, species distribution and habitat availability, and the timing of life-cycle events for wildlife species such as egg laying.

Changes to the climate will affect biodiversity by altering the relationships between species, and altering the availability and distribution of habitats throughout northern Ontario.

Indigenous communities have been paying attention to changes in the climate, adapting their lifestyles to what is happening on the land and in the waters. This knowledge is often passed on from generation to generation as part of oral traditions and intergenerational education.

More recently, scientists have developed tools to help them observe, monitor and measure climate conditions, such as tracking wildlife population numbers and habitat loss. This helps Indigenous Peoples and scientists assess how well ecosystems are adapting to human activities like mining and infrastructure development, as well as ongoing climate changes. These studies of past periods of climate change and their effects on species and ecosystems help scientists predict how animals and plants may adapt to future climatic changes — the effects of which can already be seen.

Sunset near the Attawapiskat

SDG 13: Climate action

Hudson Bay

Regional Climate

Temperatures in northern Ontario are rising at more than

the average rate

It’s predicted average summer temperatures will be

hotter

by 2080

increase

by 2080

By 2030, wildfire incidents are projected to have

%

increase

in northern Ontario forests

2018

there have been 18 evacuations of northern Ontario First Nations due to forest fires and floods

2022

2018

2022

there have been 18 evacuations of northern Ontario First Nations due to forest fires and floods

Climate Change

According to the latest climate models and projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, northern Ontario will experience significant changes in its regional climate.

These changes include more frequent and intense changes in extreme temperatures, more extreme weather events like floods and heatwaves, and varied precipitation patterns that result in more rain and snowfall. Despite the increased precipitation, climate models suggest the warmer temperatures may result in the loss of moisture from soil and freshwater lakes and rivers, which will contribute to drier conditions in the Boreal Shield region.

In the Hudson Bay Lowlands, current models predict the peatlands will remain a carbon sink and will not dry up as a result of climate changes. This is significant because when peatlands begin to dry out, the organic material begins to decompose and releases carbon — turning important carbon stores into net emission sources. Other peatlands in Canada, however, are expected to become net carbon sources under current climate models, making it even more important to protect the peatlands in northern Ontario.

Indigenous people, who make up the vast majority of the population living in the far north in Ontario, will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. Many of the First Nations are remote, accessible only by air or ice road in the winters. Warmer winter temperatures in recent years have resulted in shorter ice road seasons — which First Nations have historically relied on to connect to each other, and bring in diesel fuel, food and building materials. Wildfires have also become larger and burned more intensely in recent summers, resulting in several emergency evacuations of First Nations. This includes more than 3,000 people living in the Boreal Shield region of northern Ontario, who were forced to flee their homes in 2021 during a record-breaking wildfire season.

These changes and extreme weather events are resulting in unsafe housing, disruption of key health and social services, and negative mental and physical health outcomes. It is also having an impact on Indigenous identity by affecting the ability of First Nations in the Ring of Fire to build and maintain connections to the land.

How will climate change affect human health in northern Ontario?

The health impacts of climate change were summarized into five categories in a recent report by a consortium of health units in northern Ontario. They include:

  • Temperature extremes — More days of extreme heat in the region will result in more heat-related visits to emergency departments for conditions such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory disorders. These impacts will bring an increase in morbidity and mortality, and will disproportionately affect people with existing chronic disease, with low income and those who work outdoors.
  • Extreme weather events — This includes more wildfires, flooding, and intensified storms, which will impact the physical, mental and socioeconomic well-being of people living in northern Ontario, through increased smoke inhalation and poor air quality exposure, higher risk of drowning, infrastructure damage, and forced community evacuations.
  • Food and water insecurity — Temperature extremes and unpredictable growing seasons are affecting the health of agriculture crops. Shorter ice road seasons disrupt the ability of remote communities to import food in a cost-effective way, and climate change has affected the geographic distribution of traditionally hunted caribou. Warmer temperatures also increase the prevalence of foodborne illnesses and result in greater spread of bacteria and algae — such as blue-green algae blooms — which can affect the availability of clean, safe drinking water.
  • Vector-borne disease — The most prevalent vector-borne disease in northern Ontario is Lyme disease, which is carried and spread by blacklegged ticks. Warming temperatures increase the rate of tick maturation and expand the areas across northern Ontario that are at risk of exposure to ticks and contraction of Lyme disease.

Climate change is already affecting wildlife species and ecosystems throughout the north. Warmer winter and spring temperatures have resulted in earlier breeding periods by amphibian and bird species. Some bird and fish species are experiencing a loss in available habitats in their southern range because of warmer air and water temperatures, while certain invasive species like smallmouth bass and algal blooms are seeing increased habitat availability.

These changing climatic conditions are also affecting existing infrastructure and resource extraction projects across Canada, including in mining projects in other parts of the country:

  • Warm and dry conditions have intensified dust emissions.
  • Increased erosion has affected water quality and infrastructure availability.
  • Reduced water levels have restricted access to water available for operations.

Warming temperatures have affected the ice road season, which industries rely on for product transportation and supply lines. Wildfires have damaged local infrastructure, including power and telecommunication lines being built through northern Ontario. In the future, extreme weather events like floods and intense storms will represent a significant threat to damage infrastructure and impair industry operations.

Climate change is already creating significant challenges for human, wildlife and ecosystem health. Additional human-induced stressors, such as the construction of roads or intensified resource extraction projects, will speed up climate change by releasing more greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating the effects.

What is a positive feedback loop, and how will it intensify climate change in the north?

Climate change is like a snowball effect — the impacts begin on a small scale and are barely noticed, but it feeds off itself and gets worse. Higher global temperatures will have effects that lead to even faster, more dramatic warming.

This cyclical process is known as a positive feedback loop, which is largely responsible for the disproportionate rate of warming that we’re experiencing in northern Ontario.

As more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, the planet warms, which results in the melting of snow and ice — surfaces that help cool the planet by reflecting incoming solar energy. Instead of these light surfaces, snow and ice surfaces are being replaced by dark surfaces like newly exposed open water and uncovered land, which absorbs solar energy and results in increased temperatures and increased greenhouse gas emissions. The solar energy that is reflected back into the atmosphere is trapped by the growing presence of greenhouse gases and further warms the atmosphere.

This feedback loop results in a dramatic loss of sea ice, including in Hudson Bay and James Bay. It is also affecting the stability of the polar vortex — a large area of high-speed, low pressure, cold air that is always circulating above the Arctic — resulting in frequent instances where cold air is being pushed further south and warm air pushing north. This results in dramatic temperature fluctuations that are becoming more evident in northern Ontario.

Despite the rapidly changing climate in northern Ontario and the snowball effect of increased human-induced stressors on the region, there is a continued push by the Ontario government to expand resource extraction in the north. They are trying to advance this without fully examining the cumulative effects of resource extraction or road construction on climate change.

There are almost no policies at the provincial or federal level that address adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the Ring of Fire region. For example, Ontario’s Wetlands Conservation Strategy has no commitment to wetland protection in the north — particularly in the Hudson Bay Lowland — despite the known carbon storage and sink capacity of peatlands.

The northern half of Ontario is a vital region in the world for biodiversity and climate change mitigation — particularly with its considerable peatland area. The lands and waters are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and we need to consider very carefully how much more stress the ecosystems, humans and wildlife will be able to endure before expanding resource extraction projects.

Celebrating Indigenous-led conservation at the ICCA consortium in 2013

Looking Forward

Western Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio rutulus)

Ecosystems are already showing signs of change from our rapidly shifting climate. However, there are actions that governments and communities can take. Usually, scientists talk about responding to climate change in one of three ways:

  1. Mitigation — This includes efforts to reduce or prevent further greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the atmosphere. For example, protecting carbon-rich forests and peatlands from industrial development helps to ensure the carbon stored in the trees and peat soils stays there, instead of being released to the atmosphere.
  2. Adaptation — This refers to humans and governments making decisions to adapt to life in a changing climate, and taking action to reduce the risk of exposure to negative impacts of climate change. For example, adaptation would encourage people not to build homes in areas expected to experience flooding or sea level rise.
  3. Building resilience — Resilience speaks to the ability of an area to deal with or recover from negative impacts of climate change. An example is investing in smarter stormwater systems to deal with expected higher precipitation levels.

In the north in Ontario, there are several strategies that can and should be employed to support ecosystems and threatened species as they experience ongoing and future climate changes.

Some of these strategies include:

  • Proactively conserving habitats, and expanding protection and conservation areas.
  • Reducing non-climate stressors, such as infrastructure development and extractive industries like logging and mining.
  • Understanding the other ways ecosystems, animals and plants contribute to planetary and human health, and protecting key species and habitats.

Conservation scientists, alongside Indigenous knowledge keepers, have been recommending comprehensive climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience policies in northern Ontario.

As early as 2009, the Ontario Expert Panel on Climate Change identified peatlands in what they called the “Far North” as an important area for the provincial government to consider in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The Expert Panel on Climate Change, Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario all recommended Ontario protect the peatlands as a mitigation strategy because it would limit the release of greenhouse gases, and maintain the natural ecosystem and climate regulation function of these long-term carbon sinks.

To date, the provincial government has not taken up these recommendations, nor has it developed policy solutions and planning approaches in the region. In addition, there is no evidence that decision-making in the region considers climate change mitigation and adaptation, despite the government’s own recommendations to do so in the 2011 Growth Plan for Northern Ontario.

Minerals & Money

Despite the globally significant values and services offered by ecosystems in northern Ontario, political and industry leaders continue to prioritize economic values of the region — without publicly presenting a business case to justify such a major, impactful decision.