“Why can’t Al Gore be right?” asked my friend as we suffered another bitter Canadian winter. Intolerable Januaries aside, global warming alarmists suggest we should be happy if global warming does not occur. But that may not be the case, especially so for Canadians. A recent scientific analysis says that if climate models are correct, Canada could claim enormous amounts of new geography for cropland before the end of the century. The implications are transformational, not only for the millions of square kilometres that could grow crops for the first time, but also for the direction of scientific research and government policy.
In May of 2018, Nature.com published a study entitled, Northward shift of the agricultural climate zone under 21st-Century global climate change. It represented the collaborative work of six academics, including some from Canada’s Memorial University. The idea was to use models to anticipate what new lands could support crops due to climate change increasing the number of growing degree days (GDD). This represents the sum of degrees Celsius above a base temperature (5 degrees for most crops) for each day within the frost-free growing season. Small cereals such as oats and barley require 1,200 GDD, and this was the threshold used to map out the future frontiers of agricultural land. Averages were taken for seven different climate models to mark out a map of what areas, on average, passed met or surpassed 1200 GDD by 2099.
The results are, well, earth-changing. Worldwide, just one-quarter of boreal areas grow crops, but by the end of the century, it could look more like three quarters. In this scenario, the northward reach of arable land could extend north another 400 to 600 km in Russia, Finland, and Western Asia; 900 km in Alberta; and 1200 km in eastern Siberia. This means an additional 10 million square kilometres could turn to farmland, with 5.1 million of them in Russia and 3.1 million in Canada. The authors also predict “transformational” effects on local land use in Finland, Sweden, and Kyrgyzstan. Cropland north of the 70th parallel could become reality.
If the idea of farming far above the arctic circle seems far-fetched, well, it might be. Two peer-reviewed studies released in 2017 suggest the models have it wrong when it comes to the effects that greenhouse gases have on temperatures. Christy and McNider’s Satellite Bulk Tropospheric Temperatures as a Metric for Climate Sensitivity, published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, demonstrated that global warming since 1979 was only half of what models suggested it should be. Similarly, Nature Geoscience publishedCauses of differences in model and satellite tropospheric warming rates, by Santer et al. to show that the post-2000 era global warming predicted by climate models just wasn’t there.
Together, these studies challenge Canada’s prevailing perception to climate change and approach to tackling it. The science is neither as settled in its assessment nor as cataclysmic in its implications as many have been led to think. Policy makers and researchers have been too narrow in their focus on predicting climate change’s effects and its emphasis on prevention of those effects by limiting fossil fuels. Billions of dollars spent on solar and wind energy; carbon taxation; and regulatory burdens on the production, transportation, and consumption of fossil fuels slow economic growth far more than world temperatures. If Canada stopped all industry, had zero agriculture, produced no oil, and no fires ever burned, 98.4 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions would still be there. Yet, if the globe warmed as much as the climate models suggest, the increase in Canadian arable land would be an area two times the size of Quebec. Why does Canada look at climate change with fear and trepidation instead of hope and preparation?
The Northward Shift study says if northern regions like Canada want to be ready, there’s work to be done. Seasonal precipitation could be less than ideal in many areas, so that winter water storage, summer irrigation, and further development of drought-adapted plants will be necessary to seize the opportunities in many areas. By contrast, on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Canada’s boreal regions will get more rain during the growing season than they currently do. This is generally helpful, but it will require more measures to control erosion and drainage.
If climate change does wipe out agricultural lands in some places, it will make land conversions and food security more important than ever. In this regard, Newfoundland and Labrador provided the study’s sole example of a government “pursuing a food security policy that includes expansion of agriculture on its territory, currently mainly covered by boreal forests.” In 2017, it announced a five-year plan to double its farmland and increase its food security by at least 20 percent.
Commentator Rex Murphy once quipped, “Vegetables require two things: soil and sunshine and Newfoundland has neither!” Yet, Newfoundland expects a brighter future and is ready to pursue practical changes to get there. Hopefully, just like the clocks in the province, the rest of Canada will soon follow.