Posts Tagged ‘climate change’


Be the Change

Connect with the Earth Day Network here.

Visit Earth Day Canada here.

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What a rollercoaster ride this winter has been! We’ve had plenty of snow and strings of extremely cold days punctuated by record-breaking thaws. On Wednesday, January 30th, the previous Ottawa record of 5.6 degrees C was shattered when the temperature climbed to 11.6 C. Today, just over a week later, a major snowstorm has been sweeping through. The thaw had reduced our snow cover to a few inches. The photo above was taken in the morning as the storm was settling in for the day. By evening, we had a fresh mantle of snow nearly a foot deep.

It’s a taste of the winter weather extremes we can expect as climate change continues to take hold. There’s a good article on the role of climate change on winter weather linked here.


Fortunately, RailGuy and I didn’t have to travel anywhere today, and, except for periodic episodes of snowshovelling, spent a pleasant day indoors by the fire. It was an ideal day for a little winter gardening, browsing through all those delicious seed catalogues that arrived over the last month or so and imagining the return of the green world. It’s time to get seed orders placed.

One of the plants that has caught my eye when we have visited other gardens over the past few years is a flowering tobacco variety, Nicotiana sylvestris. It’s the white-flowered plant in the foreground of the border pictured below. This planting was featured at Parc Marie-Victorin in Kingsey Falls, Quebec, which I wrote about here.


Nicotianas (pronounced nih-koe-shee-AY-nah according to Fine Gardening magazine) are fragrant annuals suitable for full sun to partly shaded areas of the garden. Smaller varieties are usually available at most places that carry bedding plants in the spring, but I have never come across this larger member of the family, Nicotiana sylvestris. Consequently, I decided to try growing my own from seed this year, and have ordered a packet from Thompson & Morgan. After extensive perusal of the catalogue, I settled on Amaranthus caudatus ‘Fat Spike’ and a few other choice varieties to round out my order. I’ve dispatched my order and now I can sit back and dream of a perfect garden…without having to lift a finger. At least for now.


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Happy 2013! I hope you enjoyed a pleasant holiday season and wish you all the best for the upcoming year.

As you grow older, time seems to speed up. With each passing year, the days and weeks grow shorter and shorter. Can it really be that we are already nearly two weeks into 2013? Amazing. With each passing year, a big snowstorm becomes more and more of a bother and less and less fun, so perhaps it is just as well that the winter is speeding by.

Here is southeastern Ontario, we had a white Christmas, with a significant snowfall a few days before the 25th. This was followed up after Boxing Day with a major storm that blanketed the landscape with an additional foot of snow.


We’ve also had some crisp, cold days, with the temperature dipping below -20 C. This is rather reassuring to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s. It seems “right”, the way winter is supposed to be. But actually, all the snow and cold has been something of a mirage. In spite of winter cold snaps and a snowfall that set a one-day record in Montreal, a few hours east of here, December was warmer than normal. It just shows how deceptive appearances can be.


The Weather Network had this to say about December:

Temperatures across southern Ontario were a couple of degrees above normal for December,” says Dayna Vettese, a meteorologist at The Weather Network. “Normally, Toronto sits at about 1°C for daytime highs in December, but in December 2012, Toronto was 4°C. The same goes for southwestern and eastern Ontario.

After a nippy start to the New Year, temperatures for January have taken an upswing too. Today, the mercury climbed above 0 C and light precipitation fell as rain.

blue jays

In fact, if you are 27 years old or younger, you’ve probably never experienced a colder-than-average month (global average, local conditions vary).

Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman notes the last cooler than average month globally occurred in February, 1985 (almost 28 years ago), “the year the hit film “Back to the Future” [the original, not the sequels] first hit theaters”.

“To put it another way, if you are under the age of 27, you have never experienced a month in which global average surface temperatures came in below the 20th century average,” Freedman writes. (Washington Post)

The weather’s just not what it used to be.

joe crow

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An excellent article in BusinessWeek begins:

Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change. Men and women in white lab coats tell us—and they’re right—that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.

Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.

An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

To read the full article, click here.

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Here, as across much of the continent, it has been hot, hot, hot and dry, dry, dry. In fact, from July 1st last year until June 30th this year, the weather has been both the warmest and the driest ever recorded during any previous July to June period in the Ottawa region. Our poor little river is no longer flowing. It has been reduced to a series of puddles interrupted by dry river bed.


Here, as elsewhere, there is talk of farmers losing crops. As climate change takes hold, we can expect plenty more of the same. Dave Phillips, Environment Canada senior climatologist, notes ‘Canada is not the Great White North that it used to be.’ If only Conservative denial of the problem could halt climate change, we’d be in good shape, but their strategy doesn’t seem to be working.


Still, my garden has been performing well, in spite of the drought. As you can seem in this overview of the main garden, it is mainly the grass pathways that are suffering. That’s not because the garden is well-watered. I don’t water anything except new plants still settling in. The rest are mostly on their own. When I do water, I use buckets or a watering can so that I can deliver water directly to the root area, rather than broadcasting water with a sprinkler.


Here’s my secret weapon. Mulch, and lots of it. I purchase it in bulk from a local tree service, shredded branches. The mulch both keeps down weeds and helps the soil retain moisture so it isn’t baked dry by the sun.

As I write this, there are thunderstorms in the forecast. Exciting! Last week, we had one single storm. It brought a 45 minute downpour of rain. What a blessing! I stood outside on the porch and enjoyed the rain as the garden sighed with relief.


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It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, March arrived liked a lion in a flurry of snow. There is no sign of snow now, and the first day of Spring was one for the record books. While the normal average temperature for this time of year is 4 degrees C, yesterday it soared to 25 degrees C (77F). Unheard of! But what a beautiful, perfect day.


We were just celebrating the arrival of the first Red-winged Blackbird a couple of weeks ago, but the birds have been showing up in a rush, Woodcocks and Song Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, even a Turkey Vulture, compressing the usual spring arrival season into days instead of weeks.


The pussy willows are out and the first frog chorus has filled the evening air.


Here’s a little Johnny Jump-Up, or Viola, the first flower blooming in my garden.


The torrent of spring runoff has already slackened and the little river is flowing tranquilly along its course.


On the radio, the announcer was warning people that it was still a bit early to plant seeds! The traditional planting date here is May 24th. It’s a little unsettling, to be having May weather in March. But perhaps Mousie had the right idea. After months of wearing a winter blanket, she settled right into sunbathing and soaking up the heat. It was a wonderful gift of a day, from sunrise to peaceful sunset.


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Northern Cardinal

This beautiful cardinal can be heard every morning now, singing out his song from a treetop perch. He’s been here all winter, but he has just started giving full voice to his chorus of “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie! Whit, whit, whit!” in the last week or so. What female could resist him?

It’s hard to believe that it was only last weekend that I spotted the first Red-winged Blackbird. Now they are everywhere, chucking and oak-a-leeing in the branches and foraging beneath the bird feeders. Over the course of the week, other migrants have joined them. There are quite a number of Common Grackles joining their numbers. Look at the beautiful iridescent colours on this fellow, helping himself to a seed at the feeder.


Common Grackle

As I was walking past a pine tree, I noticed a Brown-headed Cowbird keeping a cautious eye on me. There have been a few American Robins around for a few weeks, but now they are back in plentiful numbers. And this morning, I spotted a pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river. They skillfully avoided my attempts to capture them with my camera, taking off for a site farther upstream.

The birds are early, ready to put The Winter That Wasn’t behind them and move on to spring. This winter was the 3rd warmest on record here. Three of the warmest winters ever have been recorded in the last six years. What was additionally notable about this winter was the lack of precipitation. It was also the second driest winter on record.

How are these shifts in winter weather patterns affecting migrating birds?


Brown-headed Cowbird

A special report titled The Winter that Wasn’t: Bird Migration aired on CBC’s morning show The Current on March 7th. Biologist Allen Hurlbert from the University of North Carolina, B.C. biologist Dick Cannings and eBird editor Mike Burrell from Bancroft all addressed this question.

They note that the timing of migration is vitally important to the success of the upcoming breeding season. If a bird arrives back too early, he may encounter the bad weather and lack of food he flew south to avoid. If he arrives back too late, he may fail to find a good breeding territory and prospective mate.

One of the most important elements about timing is hitting the height of the insect season just right. Birds need a big supply of bugs to feed their demanding young. Without them, chicks may starve. If a warm spell disrupts normal insect patterns, causing bug populations to peak earlier, parent birds may not be able to adequately supply their young with food if they have started nesting according to their normal schedule.

We often have a poor appreciation of just how interconnected the natural world is. Failure or changes to one sector can have a ripple effect right through an ecosystem. Some bird species, such as Red-eyed Vireos seem to be adapting to changing weather patterns. Other species, such as Barn Swallows have been devastated. While Barn Swallows were once common birds, their numbers have plummeted by 75% over the last few decades.

You can learn more by listening to the full broadcast linked here.


American Robin

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Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Alfred A Knopf Canada 2010.

My 84-year-old aunt doesn’t believe in climate change. Here’s the thing, though. Climate change is a lot like gravity. It doesn’t matter one whit whether you believe in gravity. When you jump up in the air, you’ll still land on the ground. It’s the same with climate change. You can not believe all you like, but you will still be affected.

Bill McKibben is a long-time believer. The End of Nature, now marking its 20th anniversary, was one of the first popular books to warn of world warming. While the lack-lustre, criminally negligent politicians currently running the show here in Canada continue to play the denial game, McKibben observes that it is already too late to head off serious trouble. Climate change is already well underway, and if we would avoid the very worst the need to act is ever more urgent.

For the full review, link here to Willow Books.

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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new plant hardiness zone map in January. Hardiness zones are of interest to all gardeners as they give you some idea of what sort of plants may be expected to thrive in your region. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. The new version of the map includes 13 zones, with the addition for the first time of zones 12 (50-60 degrees F) and 13 (60-70 degrees F). Each zone is a 10-degree Fahrenheit band, further divided into A and B 5-degree Fahrenheit zones.

The new map replaces the 1990 map, which was based on temperature data from a 13-year period of 1974-1986. The 2012 edition uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. I didn’t see any clear explaination as to why a longer period was used. In other situations it might be argued that data from a longer period is more accurate, but as average temperatures have been spiraling upward and the last decade has seen some of the warmest years on record, extending the data period to 30 years disguises the impact of recent changes. Perhaps the USDA was looking to deflect critisism from the Big Oil-Wall Street crowd.


Here’s a chart released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The year 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record since 1880. Last year, 2011, was ranked 11th warmest, tied with 1997. However, 2011 was a La Niña year. La Niña is defined by cooler-than-normal waters in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean that affect weather patterns around the globe. When compared to previous La Niña years, the 2011 global surface temperature was the warmest on record.

The new USDA map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. What does this mean for gardeners? If there has been a borderline-tender plant you have been itching to try in your garden, maybe now is the time. Because the times, they are a changin’!

The new USDA map is interactive. You can check out your hardiness zone here. For the NOAA State of the Climate report, click here.

Finally, here is a 27 second video from NASA illustrating global average surface temperatures from 1880 to 2011.

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Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis by Alanna Mitchell. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

Overfishing isn’t the only problem facing the world ocean. Alanna Mitchell spent two and a half years travelling the globe as an investigative journalist in a quest to examine the state of the seas. Sea Sick is an account of her journey as she discovers first hand what scientists are learning. Each of the ten chapters in Sea Sick takes Mitchell to a different part of the globe, where she joins scientists on the front lines as they study how the ocean is changing.

In Australia, she snorkels over the Great Barrier Reef and talks to Katharina Fabricius on Magnetic Island about reefs and their future. Climate change has three direct effects on corals. First, the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the ocean to the point that the coral’s symbiotic algae die and result in coral bleaching. Second, climate change will potentially raise sea levels, depressing the ability of coral algae to photosynthesize and, in effect, drowning the corals. Third, the acidification of the ocean that results from increasing carbon dioxide levels inhibits the availability of calcium, which in turn depresses the ability of coral to build structures. If acidity levels climb high enough, coral structures will be corroded by the acidic water. Coral reefs are often compared to the rainforests of the sea. They are centers of diversity. And they are dying.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Mitchell joins a ten-day expedition with scientists investigating the 17,000 square kilometre dead zone that forms at the delta of the Mississippi River. The dead zone is an area of low or no oxygen where virtually nothing can survive. The Gulf dead zone is related to the runoff of agricultural chemicals from land all along the mighty Mississippi River. Plankton gobble up the phosphorus and nitrogen that the river dumps into the Gulf, reproduce rapidly and then die and fall to the bottom of the Gulf. Bacteria then eat the plankton and decompose, using up all the oxygen in the water. The ability of the Gulf waters to handle all the extra phosphorus and nitrogen that pores into it with the river has failed. The dead zone is a result. The Gulf dead zone is one of 407 around the world. The number of dead zones has doubled each decade since 1960.

In other chapters, Mitchell takes the reader with her to Puerto Rico, Plymouth, England, Panama, Halifax, Spain, China and Zanzibar as she pursues the latest in ocean research. In an interview on CBC’s Last Chapter, Mitchell talks about her experience. As a result of her investigation, Mitchell fell into a clinical depression and was bedridden for a month.

It’s not a happy picture, but it is vitally important that we understand that carbon emissions and global warming effect more than the continents. The very oceans, unimaginably huge, are being changed by our actions. We are running out of time if we wish to salvage the oceans, and indeed the planet, for future generations.

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