The seasonal ice used by polar bears is disappearing and “by the end of the century, those bears will be wiped out,” says Gough (photo by Allan Hopkins via Flickr)

Polar bear expert explains why this cold winter cannot be used to deny climate change

William Gough on the changes underway to northern growing seasons and seasonal ice

We’ve survived another cold winter. It almost makes you wonder if this whole “global warming” thing is a sham. It’s not, though. Climate change is, in fact, very real, and it’s possible that we may never see cold winters like this again. U of T Scarborough writer Chris Garbutt sat down with climatologist William Gough for some answers.

We’ve had two cold winters in a row now. What gives?
The students I teach are about 18 or 19 years old, so last winter (2013-14) was the coldest winter since 1994, which might just be the year they were born. So these would be the coldest winters they'd experienced.

It was cold enough to freeze the Great Lakes and that doesn't happen very often. Prior to 1900 it would have been once in five years. Now it's once in 20 years. This could be the last year the Great Lakes freeze over. Maybe once more before 2020. But if the projections are correct, I can't see how there could be another one after this decade.

But didn’t we just have the coldest February in history?
It was a cold winter, but I think the numbers you're hearing in the media are not quite right. If you look at it, it's probably the fourth coldest since 1840.

Worldwide, last year (2014) was actually the warmest year on record. Nobody in Toronto believes that, but if you look at a map of the world, just about everywhere was warming except this small area over the Great Lakes. It's no wonder people in this area are wondering what's going on. We've locally not experienced what the rest of the world has experienced.

Last week, we saw a video of the head of the U.S. Senate Environment Committee bring in a snowball from outside as proof that global warming isn’t real. Does it frustrate you as a scientist when people pull these stunts?
I've encountered this kind of thinking before where we base things on our lived experience. And I get it. We often evaluate our lives based on that perspective. That's why we have climate data and we rely on that to look at trends. The worldwide trend is very clear, with only some variation.

It's a challenge each time, especially because we use the measurement of a worldwide temperature. And so far it's one degree Celsius warmer, and you think, “big deal. I experience that in an hour.” If you go to the future, we're talking about 1.5 to 4 degrees and that doesn't sound so bad.

My research is in polar bears. Hudson's Bay has seasonal ice that exists for eight to nine months of the year. An ecosystem has been built around that. By the end of this century, that ice platform will disappear. Bears use that ice to go out to feast on seals, then come back to land and starve until the ice re-forms and they can feed again. This is how polar bears have survived for eons. If they don't have the ice, they don't survive. So by the end of the century, those bears will be wiped out.

In terms of taking action, I think we’re all trying to use less energy. What else can be done?
Well, think about what the big energy users are. On a personal level it's water heating and space heating. So doing laundry with cold water and insulating your house better. If you've got old appliances, get new ones, because they're more efficient.

But that won't be enough. It really takes a coordinated effort of the nations of the world. There's a little bit of hope, with China and the U.S. starting to talk, and there are lot of people in China who are really engaging in this, which is really encouraging to see.

Based on the projections, some of the changes seem to be inevitable. How do we respond to things that are already happening?
We have to exploit opportunities. No one likes this, because it's like making money off of disasters. But we've got to talk about it.

For example, Northern Ontario has this great clay belt that's marginal in terms of climate right now, but it'll become much better. I work with First Nations communities in Ontario's far north, where there are people who are developing community gardens. The growing season is becoming long enough. In the Great Lakes, there won't be any ice, but shipping will be able to happen year round.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve come to realize that things are going to get worse before they're going to get better. So we have to adapt.

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief