Warming Winters Threaten Culture In Northern Communities, Report Says

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The waters of Lake Muskoka are partially frozen on snowy day in December. Photo by Maddie Binning

The impacts of climate change have put a number of species and ecosystems at risk, and now, the culture of northern communities is being threatened by warming winters, according to a recent report co-authored by York University biologist Sapna Sharma.

Sharma has been studying climate change’s impact on lakes across the world over the course of the last 10 years. Throughout her research, she and her colleagues have seen increased water temperatures in addition to earlier ice break up and later ice freeze, indicating shorter ice duration around the world. While ice cover duration has been declining in northern hemisphere freshwaters over the past 150 years, Sharma and her colleagues found that little information was available about how the changes to lakes affected humans and their communities.

“Some of the lakes in the northern hemisphere are warming the fastest and, as a person who studies climate change, we can talk about lakes and how they’re changing, but really I felt like the next education piece is to talk about what that means for people,” Sharma said.

During a previous study, Sharma and her team found that freezing occurred eight days later and ice break up was five days earlier in Ontario lakes. Based on the study’s projections, lakes in the Muskoka region will have their ice duration lessened by about 16 days in 2050 and by about 20 days in 2070. 

Warmer winters tend to have shorter seasons of ice as well as less thick and stable ice, Sharma said, which impacts the safety around doing recreational activities like skating, pond hockey or ice fishing.

“Winter is really important to us in Canada, and there’s an emotional loss that people have documented around losing cold winters,” she said. “With less stable ice and less thick ice, that’s a loss to the social fabric that our communities are built on.”

In addition to its effect on social connection, a shorter ice season can also hurt the economy in lakeside communities. The study looked at ice fishing tournaments in Minnesota and found that warmer winters contributed to event delays, modifications and cancellations. These events, typically held in small communities, can often bring in as much as $500,000 to $1 million over the course of a weekend, which has a big impact on the economic conditions of some communities during winter.

“Muskoka is no different,” Sharma said. “Less opportunities for recreation might mean people, for example, from Toronto not spending as much time up north in the winter, which has implications for cultural and social interactions but also economic conditions for the region.”

Indigenous communities north of Muskoka are even more vulnerable to the changing conditions, Sharma said. Winter ice roads are important for transportation opportunities and the delivery of supplies as well as for social connections due to the isolation of some communities. Mental health issues are associated with warmer winters and the delay in ice road construction, but beyond that, the shorter ice season impacts food supplies and hunting practices as well.

“Indigenous communities rely on ice for for provisioning of food, [for] hunting and fishing,” Sharma said. “The shorter ice season and less stable ice seems to result in more search and rescue events because of the danger associated with poor ice conditions.”

The various threats to communities and their culture caused by lake ice freezing later and melting earlier is something that affects people across the globe, she said, not just those in Muskoka and northern Ontario.

“In Muskoka, it’s a small area in part of a bigger story, where lakes around the world are experiencing similar changes and they’re changing quite rapidly because of these warming winters,” Sharma said. “What I want people to know is that winters are changing faster than you think they might be.”

For more information, visit the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography website to read the full report.

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