Working with environmental data stored in computers that simulate climate change, two scientists last summer decided to see what would happen to the world’s national parks if global temperatures rise steeply in the coming century. The results were startling. “The 20 parks that would be most seriously challenged,” said Jay Malcolm, a University of Toronto forestry expert, “were all in Canada.” A report published last week detailing the scientists’ findings contained more disturbing forecasts for Canada and the world. It suggested global warming could drastically transform 35 per cent of the earth’s existing habitats, hitting northern regions the hardest. More than 60 per cent of habitats in Canada’s north could shrink and vast forests—scorched by rising temperatures and parched by a lack of moisture—could die. As habitats dwindle, animal populations, including caribou, polar bears, Pacific salmon and freshwater trout, could shrink or disappear. “Ecological tensions are building,” says Malcolm, “that could destroy habitats and species.”
Unlike most global-warming studies, the report for the World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) focused less on the intricate interplay of emissions in the atmosphere than on their likely terrestrial consequences. It came at a time when Canada is under pressure to start meeting its commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Despite Ottawa’s pledge to cut fossil-fuel emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, Canadian carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been rising steadily. “We have to go beyond mere rhetoric,” says Robert Hornung, an Ottawa-based climate-change specialist for Alberta’s Pembina Institute, an environmental research group, “and start taking action.”
The new report puts forward a bleak vision of what could lie in store for life on earth if emissions of CO2 and other gases overheat the atmosphere—a hypothesis some scientists dispute. Malcolm and co-author Adam Markham, a Portsmouth, N.H., zoologist, arrived at their conclusions by tapping into American and European computer models.
They estimated that heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere will rise during the 21st century to twice the world’s levels 30 years ago, raising average global temperatures by between 2° and 8° C.
Then they used the models to predict how rapidly forests and other vegetation would have to shift their habitats to survive climate change. The answer: 10 times faster than they did when the glaciers retreated following the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. Challenges of that magnitude, the report concluded, could overwhelm habitats and “will likely result in extensive species extinction.”
Troubling signs of change are already visible in the Arctic. The New York Times last week corrected a widely publicized report on scientists aboard a Russian icebreaker sighting open water at the North Pole in July. The original report said it was the first time ice had melted around the Pole in an estimated 50 million years. But the Times clarification said open water has occurred at the Pole before. Yet other scientists have reported a thinning of the polar ice cap, and in the Canadian Arctic, warmer temperatures are already affecting polar bears and other wildlife.
After years of fruitless talks, federal and provincial ministers will meet in Quebec City next month in an effort to hammer out a Canadian response to climate change. The obstacles to success are considerable. Ottawa will likely offer specific proposals, including possible funding for national programs to reduce fossil-fuel use. But some provinces—most notably Ontario—balk at battling global warming because they fear the economic costs will be too high. “Canadians have to step up the pressure,” says Gerry Scott, a spokesman for the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, “and let politicians know they want action.” If the computer projections are right, the alternative could someday turn parts of Canada’s northern realms into lifeless wastelands. G3
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.