How warmer winter weather is impacting the environment in the Greater Toronto Area

The Greater Toronto Area has been experiencing an above-average winter when it comes to temperatures. It has meant snowfall totals have been far below normal. Nick Westoll has more.

As many look to take advantage of any opportunity to do winter activities outside in the Greater Toronto Area, this season it has been harder to do thanks to unusual weather in the region.

“The unfortunate thing is this is an indication that climate change is here, climate change is happening,” How-Sen Chong, a climate campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, told CityNews on Thursday.

“This is basically what we’ve been expecting for decades now. All the climate models have told us that the weather is going to get warmer, the weather is going to get weirder.”

All across the GTA there is hardly any snow. Most of the Great Lakes haven’t substantially frozen over either.

Meteorologists like Geoff Coulson at Environment and Climate Change Canada said the current conditions are largely driven by El Niño, meaning warmer-than-normal temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

“I think the real uncommon nature of this winter has been the persistence of the mild temperatures, and in other El Niño winters, it has generally been milder than normal, but not necessarily to this level to these number of days,” he said.

When it comes to the lack of snowfall in the GTA, he said it can be “problematic.”

“We’re off the pace. The normal snowfall for a whole winter at [Toronto Pearson International Airport] is about 109 centimetres. So far this winter, we’ve had a little over 40 centimetres,” Coulson said.

He consulted Toronto Pearson International Airport weather records dating back to 1937 after being asked how this winter season so far is stacking up to others.

“December was the second-mildest December at Pearson Airport. The only milder one I think I’ve got on here was 2015. January (was) another very mild month. We came in, I think, ninth overall,” Coulson said.

The forecast for Friday calls for a high of 12 C in Toronto. The normal daytime high is -2 C.

Since we’re only in the middle of winter, he cautioned against assuming the more pleasant weather will last.

“There is a change afoot in the forecast starting middle of the month, so middle of next week, where we start to see indications of a more normal temperature pattern reasserting itself in southern Ontario,” Coulson said.

But it’s not just snowfall totals and temperature values that scientists, researchers and advocates are looking at. There is a concern about a lack of ice on many of our lakes.

Sapna Sharma, a scientist and a professor at York University who studies ice conditions and recently returned from a research trip in central Ontario, described the importance of having an “ice lid” over a lake.

“You can think of it sort of as a reset button for our ecosystem,” she said.

“If the lakes are freezing less, they have shorter ice duration or aren’t freezing at all. They don’t have that chance to reset in the winter.

“If we lift that lid early, you increase water winter evaporation rates and that directly affects the quantity of water. So ice is really important in maintaining our water quality and our water quantity through the open water season.”

Sharma said if water levels drop due to evaporation, it can also fuel the growth of algae much more than what’s seen under the ice and at higher water levels. She said algae is not a bad thing if it’s in moderation as it acts as a good food source, but accelerated growth can have repercussions.

“It can decrease the oxygen levels at the bottom of the lake and that creates really poor conditions for fish and bugs to survive in the summer, so we might end up seeing more winter, more summer kills of fish because of low oxygen conditions,” Sharma said.

“It also has the potential to affect drinking water. Some of that algae may become toxic in the summer, and that harms (not only) our wildlife but also our pets and potentially beach closures.”

Sharma noted there has also been a concerning trend when it comes to ice formation on lakes.

“We can see in the last 25 years, the rates of ice loss are six times faster … Also we’ve started seeing since about the 1990s that some lakes are starting to experience ice-free years,” she said.

“As the climate continues to warm, we forecast that up to 200,000 lakes may begin to experience these ice-free years, and almost 6,000 lakes could permanently lose ice cover, and that has huge consequences.”

Lastly, Sharma said a reduction in lake ice in the winter is posing a risk to humans as people continue to try to carry on with typical seasonal activities without realizing there is reduced ice thickness.

Despite all of those concerns, Sharma said there have been some benefits.

“Having less ice actually is increasing the amount of activity under the water. So right now, there’s more food for fish to eat, there’s more food for little critters to eat when they’re there is less ice, and so they might be getting bigger, and maybe there will be bigger fish to angle for in the summer,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sharma said recent weather conditions reinforce the need to deal with pollution and climate change.

“If we continue emitting greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, we’re looking forward to some pretty dire consequences for our freshwater ecosystems,” she said.

Sharma said other actions like stronger regulations to protect wetlands and maintain water quality are needed too.

Chong echoed Sharma’s calls and those of other environmental advocates. He said while his optimistic positive changes can happen thanks to technological advancements and climate adaptation, he reiterated we all have a role to play.

“What we have is not just our ability to act as individuals, but our ability to act as a group together,” Chong said, adding politicians at all levels of government must act.

“Invest in these climate solutions that also are affordable and make life more affordable for Torontonians.

“The solutions that we need here in Toronto include investments in things like fast and affordable transit. It includes things like efficient buildings that are cheaper to run because they’re not running off of expensive fossil fuels like oil and gas. It includes things like trees and parks.”

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