Climate change made Canada’s hyper-warm December twice as likely

All told, a look at global temperatures shows climate change having four times the influence of El Niño.

"While El Nino is important, climate change caused by burning gas, coal, and oil is the primary reason Canada experienced record warm temperatures this December." CBC News photo by David Bajer.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Jan. 16, 2024.

By Mitchell Beer

Climate change made December’s hyper-warm weather across Canada at least twice as likely, concludes a new rapid analysis released this morning.

The analysis shows most of the country with a “detectable climate footprint” that drove up daily temperatures through much of the month, Princeton, NJ-based Climate Central reports. That was the case for 13.9 days out of the month in the Northwest Territories, 13.8 days in Nunavut, 11.2 days in British Columbia and Ontario, 9.9 days in Manitoba, and 9.3 days in Quebec.

Six out of 10 provinces and one out of three territories recorded their warmest December since 1970, the four-page report finds.

“Much of the country, especially the central provinces, had monthly temperatures more than 5°C above the long-term (1991-2020) average,” Climate Central states. “The three most unusually warm provinces were Manitoba (8.6°C above normal), Saskatchewan (8.0°C), and Alberta (7.1°C), but every province and territory was above normal,” with Nova Scotia recording the smallest anomaly at 2.4°C.

The world is in the midst of an El Niño event, in which warm water accumulates around the equator and influences global weather patterns, and news reports are already predicting record temperatures in 2024 as a result. “Climate change is, of course, primarily responsible,” Bloomberg wrote last week. But El Niño “makes scientists even more secure in their 2024 predictions.”

But “while El Nino is important, climate change caused by burning gas, coal, and oil is the primary reason Canada experienced record warm temperatures this December,” said Climate Central’s VP of Science, Dr. Andrew Pershing.

“El Niño is certainly an important driver of weather conditions across the planet this winter, and Canada typically has milder winters when El Niño is active,” the release adds. But “on its own, El Niño is not sufficient to produce record temperatures like those observed in December.”

The impacts listed in the Climate Central report begin with multiple weeks’ delay building the ice roads that connect remote communities in the Northwest Territories and northern Saskatchewan in winter. Without ground access, communities are forced to fly in essential supplies at much higher cost.

Warm weather also affected ski hill operators in B.C. and Ontario, delayed the opening of Ottawa’s Rideau Canal skateway, and “thinned the ice on Canadian waterways, creating deceptively treacherous conditions that endangered the lives of people across the country,” the report says. “These risks are more likely to fall disproportionately on children and Indigenous peoples.”

Pershing said Climate Central’s Climate Shift Index (CSI) differentiates the heat “fingerprint” of climate change from natural temperature variations by comparing actual conditions against a 30-year average that takes into account the highs and lows brought on by El Niño and its opposite phenomenon, La Niña. After capturing that natural variability, “we start to see the local warming trends and look at how conditions are projected to change at that location through the climate models,” he explained. “So our system is meant to account for the natural swings of temperature cycles like El Niño and allow us to really isolate that signal of climate change,”

All told, a look at global temperatures shows climate change having four times the influence of El Niño, Pershing said.

While Climate Central follows climate and weather patterns around the world, Canada “is really in the bull’s eye,” he added, with an unusually warm spring last year followed by the summer’s epic wildfires, then a warm December.

Earlier this month, Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at the Meteorological Service of Canada, said 2023 was the first year the country has seen “where every square centimetre was warmer than normal.” The year as a whole was likely Canada’s third-warmest on record, with colder conditions from February to April bringing down the 12-month average. But the unique conditions came into focus after the Meteorological Service team calculated the period from May to September, rather than focusing only on the summer months.

Phillips, who said he’s been following weather data for 50 years, recalled May 1 as the date when temperatures soared and many parts of the country “went from slush to sweat”. Those five months were the first time all of Canada faced across-the-board average warming, a finding that was “quite spectacular and dramatic,” he told The Energy Mix. “It just hasn’t happened before.”

Pershing said weathercasters in his country have been more apt to deliver a similar message. “Over time, and I think really the last few years, the weather broadcast community in the United States has gotten much better at talking about climate change and putting these events into context,” he said in an interview Monday. “Weather is going to happen. It’s cold in parts of North America right now. We’re going to get cold, and we’re going to get hot, but there’s this relentless pressure toward warmer and warmer conditions caused by burning coal, oil, and natural gas.”

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