Canadian gas companies are fudging the numbers in an attempt to stay in business as the energy transition unfolds. The Ford government’s getting heat over another Ontario development project. And Steven Guilbeault is heading on a climate mission to China.
This week, I took a deep dive into heat waves — not the ones causing sweltering temperatures in places like Alberta, but the ones chipping away at our oceans’ ability to protect the planet from overheating thanks to human-caused pollution. I spoke to my colleague Rochelle Baker about this trend of warming waters and what it means for both our aquatic ecosystems and ourselves.
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One last thing: I’ll be on holiday next week, so you won’t see me in your inbox next Saturday, but I’ll be back the weekend after on Sept. 2.
Have a great weekend and stay safe!
— Dana Filek-Gibson
Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
Trouble in the water
Oceans around the globe are heating up, and with the longest coastline in the world, Canada is especially vulnerable to these warmer waters. Over the past few months, all three of the oceans bordering the country — the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic — have seen marine heat waves where surface temperatures remain higher than normal for five days or more.
But even as oceans hit record-breaking temperatures, they haven’t gotten much traction in the climate conversation.
“It always surprises me how little ‘limelight’ the ocean when it comes to the climate crisis — particularly about the massive role it plays in keeping us and the planet from burning up, or how its ability to continue to do that is threatened by our continued use of fossil fuels and our failure to reduce the resulting greenhouse gas emissions,” Rochelle tells me.
She’s right: Oceans are the unsung heroes in tackling climate change. They’re massive carbon sinks, pulling roughly a quarter of our carbon emissions out of the atmosphere and absorbing a staggering 90 per cent of the excess heat we humans have caused through global warming since the Industrial Revolution began. We’re in trouble now, but without them, we’d be in much worse shape.
Except increasingly, our hero faces an impossible task — and one that’s weakening its powers in the fight against climate change.
“The ocean is still vulnerable to global warming, which results in cascading impacts such as ice melt, marine heat waves, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss,” Rochelle explains. Taken together, these changes create a “compounding feedback effect” that limits the ocean’s ability to keep absorbing heat and greenhouse gas pollution for the rest of the planet.
That’s why this summer’s marine heat waves are a dire warning sign. Scientists have known for decades that oceans are getting hotter, and they predict that trend will continue. But how fast — and how intensely — they’re heating up “is unsettling the science community now, making forecasting more difficult,” Rochelle explains.
“The changes and impacts are taking place so quickly, it makes predictive modelling tricky, potentially upsets the current understanding of the global ‘carbon budget’ or thresholds for warming, and makes planning for effective climate mitigation and adaptation measures more difficult.”
If you live near an ocean, it’s easy to make the connection between these alarming developments and your own well-being. In the Arctic, for example, a hotter ocean means melting permafrost, which can lead to damage along the coast and melting ice, which not only balances the climate but serves as a travel route for people up North. One expert Rochelle likened the ice loss to losing a major highway like Ontario’s 401.
But even if you’re landlocked, Rochelle points out that oceans and their pollution-fighting powers matter.
“The oceans buffer the planet’s climate and produce 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, something folks on the Prairies are dependent on, too,” she says. “Also, excessive ocean heat drives more unpredictable and extreme weather patterns globally such as hurricanes, storms and atmospheric rivers in some areas, while sparking drought and fire conditions elsewhere. So, folks thousands of miles from the coast still suffer the effects of a superheated ocean.”
For the moment, oceans show no signs of cooling down. Scientists hope to see the warmer temperatures drop off by October or November — though with El Niño, it’s hard to say. Roughly 40 per cent of oceans are experiencing marine heat waves right now, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Up to half of the world’s oceans could reach this state by September and stay warm through the end of the year.
But in the long run, warmer oceans will shape our planet in numerous ways. Melting sea ice and a hotter ocean have already slowed the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, better known as the Gulf Stream, which drives the Atlantic’s current by moving warm ocean water south to north. By 2050, we could see a full collapse, disrupting weather systems around the world.
“In cooler waters like ours, food webs shift,” Rochelle says. “For example, there’s less quality plankton available for fishes and other marine creatures, with corresponding impacts for large predators, including salmon, whales, sea lions and even land animals such as bears, wolves and eagles.
“Toxic algae blooms and disease thrive in warmer waters. Biodiversity loss and die-off can occur, and many species, such as commercial fish stocks like salmon, tuna or squid, shift habitat ranges as water conditions change, threatening food security for predators and humans alike.”
More CNO reads
Suncor waves the white flag on climate change. With the oilsands company walking back its already weak climate targets, Max Fawcett argues flip-flopping on climate commitments should remind everyone that voluntary pledges and promises are no substitute for legally binding responsibilities.
Ontario’s other development debate. Plans to turn a beloved waterfront Toronto park into a private spa are drawing criticism and suspicion from opponents who worry the Ford government is trying to push through the project, Abdul Matin Sarfraz reports.
First Nations youth make their mark. A group of young people are cultivating ancient food systems in Nuu-chah-nulth territories as part of a land-based leadership program that combines community service, skill-building and traditional knowledge, Rochelle Baker reports.
“Bottlenecks” ahead. If Canada is going to hit its EV targets, experts say there are several issues the federal government needs to address first, Isaac Phan Nay reports.
Enbridge relied on a faulty study to pitch its Ontario gas network expansion. The gas utility has repeatedly cited a report that inflates the cost of switching from gas to electricity for home heating by $140 billion, John Woodside reports.