The warmest autumn on record in northern Canada is giving way to abnormal and dangerous winter heat and drought—along with much uncertainty—as El Niño continues to make its presence felt, five months into its onset.
“Three Northern communities had their warmest falls on record this year, with many more in the top five,” reports CBC News. “And as El Niño continues, experts say warm and weird weather will likely continue through the winter.”
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Naming Old Crow in the Yukon, Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut as affected communities, CBC explains that El Niño is a natural weather pattern that starts in the tropics. “It often heralds a year of warm and sometimes extreme weather.”
“This El Niño can change everything,” said Hossein Bonakdari, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Ottawa. The phenomenon presents an “unknown situation” in terms of scientific predictions, he added, and Northern communities will likely face “a novel weather pattern” with challenges in the latter months of winter.
“Weather models are not [able to] predict clearly the situation of the second part of winter,” he noted.
World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas similarly said El Niño will be “playing out in uncharted waters,” when the United Nations body formally announced the weather pattern’s onset in July.
While El Niño has always tended to bring warmer and drier weather, 2023 marks the first time it occurs atop a baseline of so much additional human-caused warming. The general expectation is for a warmer, drier winter in the North, but Bonakdari warned that parts of Nunavut may end up with colder-than-normal temperatures in late winter. He also anticipates ice storms and wild temperature swings.
Earl Evans, a hunter and trapper in Fort Smith, NWT, is already experiencing the fallout of a warm November. Waterways that should be frozen solid are still open water or slush, creating slow and dangerous travel for hunters and trappers who need hard ice to reach game and traplines through the winter.
Weak ice is also a life-threatening hazard for animals like bison, caribou, and foxes, which likewise depend on it to range and hunt for food. Evans spoke of perceptible shifts in the range of animals as they move in search of sheltered spaces.
“It makes it harder for the people that are hunting them, because you go to the areas where you’ve always hunted, expect to get animals, they’re not there and you have to travel elsewhere and you’ll burn more fuel and more time,” Evans said. “It makes it more expensive for a person to live in the bush.”
“The effects of this year’s El Niño are expected to persist into the springtime,” CBC writes. “Bonakdari said the warm and dry conditions over the winter may lead to a greater risk of droughts or floods in the spring depending on the region.”
Looking to the short term, Bonakdari urged local communities and municipalities to prepare for “potentially intense storms” by making sure people have enough food and an emergency supply of goods.
Looking ahead to the summer, there should be planning that looks into mitigating wildfire and drought risk, he added.