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What does climate change mean for First Nation communities in northern Ontario?

People are noticing - shorter winter road season; flooding when rain in winter falls on frozen
ground; thinner ice on traditional winter travel routes; lower water levels along summer travel
routes; more severe rainstorms in summer between longer dry periods; migration of geese and
caribou has changed; some birds, insects and fish are moving north; spawning beds shifting;
melting permafrost. Concern is rising about wildfires if forest and bush becomes drier. These impacts will affect future generations. Some examples of the possible effects of changing climate in the
communities and homelands of First Nations in far north Ontario changes can be found below.

 
 

Winter Roads

Shorter and uncertain winter road seasons 

As climate change is experienced in the far north of Ontario, winter road seasons will become shorter and less predictable.  The beginning and end dates of a winter road season are related to average winter temperatures. The warmer a winter is, the shorter a winter road season will be. As average temperatures in the far north increase, shorter freezing seasons are expected, and with it shorter winter road seasons. These seasons will also be less predictable and more varied.

Communities on thin ice

In these shortened seasons, the roads are expected to become thinner, with poorer density, unusual texture including excess slush, potholes, empty patches, and have decreased weight limits. Drivers will have to reduce both their speeds and weight loads in order to maintain their safety. Variations in winter road season can also be due to fluctuating river water and ice levels, which can be indirectly affected by climate change. Overall, the effects of climate change on winter road season will result in it being more troublesome and costly, with increased interruptions and reduced safety.


Changes to the animals

Boreal woodlands caribou population is under threat

Caribou are the most abundant large mammal of the Arctic and subarctic regions of Canada. The boreal woodlands caribou of northern Ontario is listed as a threatened species as risk. Caribou are under threat in three ways:

Changes to food accessibility

In the winter, caribou feed on lichen, slow-growing organisms that can take 50 to 100 years to grow.

Changes in snow depth can affect how much lichen is available for caribou to forage on in the winter months. This can be made worse by icing, which occurs when snow is rained on or during freeze-thaw cycles, forming a layer of ice over the lichen making it near impossible for caribou to feed since they can’t break past this layer.

Palsas are areas of high ground containing lichen, tea, and berries. These higher ground areas are attractive for caribou because they provide both food to eat and good ground to travel across. But as permafrost slumps as a result of climate change, caribou may decline in these areas as they will lose their lichen food sources.

Physical effects of weather

Caribou calf mortality is highly affected by weather, and in particular wind and temperature.

Caribou calving seasons have traditionally occurred during times of peak vegetation, but there is risk of a mismatch between calving and available food; caribou calving is related to the length of day but vegetation availability will change with temperature as a result of climate change.

Climate change will also result in changes to rain and snow, increased forest fire cycles and intensity, and vegetation, which can all severely impact caribou populations. For example, a forest fire could wipe out an area’s available lichen overnight!

Parasites

With warming temperatures, biting flies and mosquitoes are emerging earlier and increasing in number and activity. As they harass caribou more often and sooner in the season, caribou spend less time foraging and more time trying to find safety in icy, snowy, or windy areas. This means the caribou spend less time eating, which results in them having reduced nutrition and physical conditions. Severe insect harassment can lead to decreased pregnancy rates among females and increased calf mortality.

As the distribution of white-tailed deer expands further north, they bring with them parasite meningeal worm or brainworm. Once brainworm is introduced to a caribou population, it causes a significant population decline. The migration of white-tailed deer further north will also bring more predators like wolves and coyotes to the region, which may affect caribou numbers.


Moose populations in northern Ontario have dropped

The effects of factors that decrease moose populations like disease and parasite prevalence, predation, and weather, will only be increased by climate change. For moose, a warming north will bring more disease, increased predation as predator species expand their ranges northward, heat stress, and a decrease in nutritional food. 

Ticks and brain worm

As winter tick distributions expand due to climate change, moose will be affected through blood loss and possibly death from anemia. Winter ticks thrive in earlier snow melts, which will become more common with warming. Moose try to rub off ticks, which can result in bald spots that can lead to hypothermia during colder seasons. Larger winter tick loads in northern Ontario result in about 20% of adult moose deaths!

Brain worm is a parasite common in white-tailed deer. While brain worm doesn’t affect deer, in moose these parasites cause death. Both animals contract brain worm by eating infected snails or slugs. In northern Ontario, brain worm is responsible for almost half of adult moose deaths.


Ticks and Lyme disease

Lyme disease is an illness carried by blacklegged ticks, which are also known as deer ticks. In the past these ticks haven’t been able to survive in the far north of Ontario because of the cold, but as temperatures increase due to climate change, these ticks are pushing further north, and are bringing Lyme disease with them. Deer ticks thrive in wooded areas with lots of leaf litter, tall grasses, and trees like oak, maple, and hickory.

In the next 60 years there will be an increase in the amount of Lyme disease-carrying ticks that will be found in the far north of Ontario. Lyme disease carrying ticks are already present in the Mushkegowuk region, but in very low numbers, so the risk of getting sick is still low. As temperatures increase, the risk of contracting Lyme disease will increase from low to a moderate risk by 2050.

The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are:
Fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, spasms, numbness and tingling, facial paralysis, fatigue, swollen glands, and skin rash. A tick has to feed on you for 24 hours in order for it to transmit Lyme disease to you.


Goose migration changes 

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Changes in food and migration patterns

Changes in Canada goose and lesser snow goose habitat, population numbers, and distribution in the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands have been noticed in the past few decades by both local observations and technical data sources.

Climate change affects the ability of geese to access their food resources. For example, salt marshes—which are important feeding and nesting grounds for geese—are sensitive to the temperature changes that are a result of climate change. Changes in the availability of marsh plants can affect gosling growth.

With changing seasonal temperatures, it has been observed that snow geese are migrating south in the fall earlier than they used to, leaving around mid-August or early September, as opposed to the third week of October. While Canada and snow geese are not arriving to the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands earlier than historical migration patterns, hatch dates have indicated that Canada geese are nesting earlier than in the past. Migration pattern changes have been observed in the spring migration route of Canada geese, it becoming more inland and less coastal.

The window for hunting geese before they nest is already short, and it shortening further would decrease the availability of vulnerable birds. Changes in the time between goose arrival and nesting would result in communities having to adapt and develop new hunting strategies. For example, hunting more inland rather than coastal.

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It has been reported that spring seasons have warmed in the past half century in Moose Factory and Peawanuck, accompanied with an earlier spring melt. This makes geese less available to hunters since geese are departing for their inland nesting areas earlier, reducing their vulnerability in coastal areas. They may be nesting sooner as an adaptation to summer temperature increases or changes in vegetation availability or composition in coastal regions.

Local observations in the southern James Bay area have observed a decrease in Canada and snow goose numbers in the past 30 years. Geese numbers of these species, on the other hand, have increased in the past 40 years along the south of the Hudson’s Bay, which may indicate that geese are migrating further north.


Some fish species are moving north

Fish are cold-blooded, meaning that their body temperature matches the temperature of the water they are in. As the climate warms in Northern Ontario, some fish species will expand their distribution northward, following their preferred water temperatures. This will mostly be seen with warm-water fish, who will have an increase in the amount of suitable lake and river ecosystems available in up north. While the effects of climate change will be beneficial for warm-water species, their presence will disrupt cool- and cold water fish communities.

An example of one of the species moving north is the rock bass. An expansion of rock bass northward is bad  for shore fish communities. Other species pushing north include rainbow smelt and smallmouth bass. 

Rainbow smelt (photo at left) are of concern because they can cause reduced walleye densities and increase contamination in predators high on the food chain.

Smallmouth bass can cause disruptions to food chains by disturbing minnow populations. Currently, smallmouth bass can be found as far north as Timmins, but it is expected that this range will extend more northward.

Climate change has already caused major die-off events in fish species in the far north of Ontario. For example, in 2001 there was a large loss of brook trout and white suckers in the warm, shallow lower section of the Sutton River.

For coldwater species like the lake and brook trout, their distribution and mating rates may be decreased due to warming air and water temperatures. Some scientists believe that brook trout could decrease by as much as half by 2050. Coolwater species like walleye will see their distributions increase as more northern Ontario aquatic environments become suitable in temperature. It is predicted that by 2050 walleye may expand their range by more than half their numbers, reaching as far west as Alberta and as far east as Nova Scotia.

If the climate continues to warm along its current trend, northern Ontario fish species will become dominated by warm water fish.