Western provinces should brace for hotter temperatures than expected by 2050: McGill researchers

People living in Canada’s western provinces are facing hotter temperatures than predicted in the decades to come, a new modelling approach from McGill University suggests, while people in the east might actually see less warming as a result of climate change.

The new method, outlined recently in Geophysical Research Letters, relies on historical data linked to things like solar energy and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The research team examined how those variables have, in turn, affected temperatures across the globe since 1880, in areas as small as 500-square kilometres.

“Some areas, especially northern areas, are more sensitive than others,” said Shaun Lovejoy, the McGill study’s lead author. “To get the future, we assumed that the sensitivity is essentially going to be the same.”

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Until now, the widely accepted modelling done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that residents of cities in Alberta could expect it to get, on average, about 0.8 C warmer than it is now over the next three decades.

“According to us, it will actually be about 1.4 degrees warmer. So the warming has been underestimated there by about 0.6 degrees, up to 2050,” Lovejoy revealed.

“That’s a fairly significant bump.”

So far, the region has already warmed by about 1 C due to human-provoked climate change, he noted, “so that’ll mean it could be … 2.4 C overall.”

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While 1 C or 2 C of additional warming may not seem like much, extensive research has suggested that even slight temperature increases can have a profound effect on ecosystems, extreme weather patterns and human communities. The Paris Agreement calls for limiting the increase in global temperature by the end of this century to no more than 1.5 C to 2 C.

The results of this latest research suggest that a child born today in a city like Edmonton or Fort McMurray will be a senior citizen in 2100 experiencing a very different reality outdoors than his or her grandparents.

“A lot of the discrepancy between our projection and the usual method … in high latitudes, is in the winter,” Lovejoy said. “So that might be one of the things that people might notice the most, is particularly warmer winters.”

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While the new McGill model predicts a hotter-than-expected future in parts of Canada, it also suggests that other regions, like Quebec and Ontario, will stay cooler than previously believed.

“The east part, the warming has been somewhat overestimated, and the west part it’s been somewhat underestimated,” Lovejoy said.

In fact, the researchers note, the current computer modelling used by the IPCC may have it wrong for over 39 per cent of the entire globe, either underestimating or overestimating the swings to come.

In the red areas of this map, accepted predictions may overestimate the reality of what's to come by up to 3 C. The blue indicates an underestimation of the temperature increase (again, up to 3 C). This model assumes that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double by 2100.

In the red areas of this map, accepted predictions may overestimate the reality of what's to come by up to 3 C. The blue indicates an underestimation of the temperature increase (again, up to 3 C). This model assumes that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double by 2100.

McGill University

‘We’ve got a problem here’

The models that humanity currently relies on to predict temperatures in the future aren’t wrong about the big picture surrounding climate change (which is real, and happening), the researchers noted. They simply include a lot more variables.

“They try to model all of the interactions – clouds and ocean currents and ice sheets. Trying to take into account everything at a very detailed level,” Lovejoy said.

But there are important nuances and historical patterns in different geographical regions that get missed, and large margins of uncertainty. That can affect how governments frame climate-change policy.

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Depending on the IPCC projections they rely on, a government could either take a very aggressive stance on reducing emissions, or do virtually nothing at all to stay under 2 C of warming.

“Up to at least 2050, a government could go on either of those paths and say, ‘Oh well, our policy is consistent with 2 degrees.’ How can they do that? It’s because the spread in the current projections is so big,” Lovejoy explained.

“Essentially, policies are no longer linked to targets. So that’s what I’m calling sort of an uncertainty crisis. The advantage of our technique is that it can significantly reduce the uncertainty levels.”

Lovejoy said he’s hopeful that his team’s approach and the more traditional one can eventually be melded, to form a sort of hybrid prediction that would be even more reliable.

“We’ve got a problem here which is so important for the future of civilization that it really requires many approaches and many different ways of doing things.”

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