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Analysis | Lack of snow disrupts the environment

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Feb17,2024

Wherever it is cold, snow cover plays a crucial role in the ecological balance of territories. Its degradation, due to climate change, will have consequences on all of us, whether we are skiers or not.

Analysis | Lack of snow disrupts the environment

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Almost total lack of snow cover on agricultural land south of Regina

  • Étienne Leblanc (View profile)Étienne Leblanc

The era of après-ski does not really appear as a party.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the snow cover that covers our winters and the peaks of our mountains will continue to thin, including almost everywhere in Canada. A phenomenon fueled by climate upheavals of human origin, as American researchers showed in a study (New window) published in the journal Nature, at the beginning of January.

According to this study, climate change has modified the spring snowpack in 31 major river basins in the Northern Hemisphere, including the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes.

The ski industry is obviously a direct victim of this new reality, in Canada as elsewhere. In Western Canada, the current winter is perhaps a foretaste of the future, as my colleague Francis Plourde well described in his recent reports.

In Europe, in the Alps or the Pyrenees, the situation is so critical that the French equivalent of our general auditor, the Court of Auditors, got involved . In a report that caused a lot of noise, the experts from this institution estimate that only a few resorts can hope to continue their ski activities beyond 2050. A phenomenon that was well explained in an interview on the show Tout terrain researcher Vincent Vlès, expert on French tourism infrastructure.

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It’s not new that we’re talking about the risks that climate change poses for skiing. I remember covering the publication of a report (New window) from the Ouranos consortium on the future of this industry in Quebec in the face of climate change… in 2006, almost 20 years ago.

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Skiers advance on an artificial snow slope in Wildhaus, Switzerland. In January 2023, the Swiss Alps face lack of snow and warm temperatures.

Unfortunately, the distressing images of skiers hurtling down bare slopes are just the tip of the iceberg of snow cover degradation.

According to Natural Resources Canada, the share of snow cover has decreased by 5% to 10% per decade since 1981 in the country, due to the later arrival of snow in winter and earlier spring melt.

This gradual disappearance, however, has even more worrying environmental effects. Because snow is much more than just a layer on which you can slide. Snow is not inanimate, it is alive.

When it falls normally, the snow is an immense reservoir of water waiting to melt to water an entire geography that is thirsty.

If Saskatchewan can boast of being the world's leading exporter of lentils and dried peas and an important player in the production of wheat, canola and mustard seeds, it is largely thanks to the snow that falls in the mountains of the neighboring province, stored in the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains.

Normally, when spring comes, the large reservoir that was built over the winter melts gradually and gradually releases its waters , providing balanced water to a large part of the vast hydrographic network of Western Canada, until late in the summer.

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The South Saskatchewan River and downtown Saskatoon in the background, Saskatchewan , December 6, 2023.

When you go to Saskatoon and you see the South Saskatchewan River, only 1% of the flow of that river comes from Saskatchewan. The rest comes from the Rockies, explained hydrologist John Pomeroy to my colleague Benoît Livernoche in 2022.

It's the same thing elsewhere in the country, as much in the many orchards and vineyards of the Okanagan Valley as in the lowlands of the St. Lawrence or in the Hydro-Québec reservoirs: the snow accumulated during the winter is an essential source of water.

Except that climate change is disrupting this cycle. More and more often, it is rain that falls instead of snow during the winter in the mountains, water that largely evaporates before reaching the rivers.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">Additionally, as temperatures are warmer and spring comes earlier, the snow melts quickly, over a shorter period, and earlier in the season. A phenomenon that disrupts the water supply cycle, particularly in the Canadian Prairies. At the end of summer, when farmers have a great need for water, there is not much left.

When years with little snow cover accumulate, drought sets in in the affected areas. This is how the conditions conducive to forest fires develop, a phenomenon that has marked the year 2023 in Canada.

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Rick Mitzel, general manager of SaskMustard, examines mustard plants

Agricultural activities are also suffering. The French won't soon forget the shortage of Dijon mustard that hit their country in 2021, a situation that caused endless lines at grocery stores. Circumstances which originate in Canada, caused by the drought in Saskatchewan, a major producer of mustard seeds.

I have always liked the expression coat of snow to illustrate how this vast white layer covers the landscape. It reminds us of the reassuring side of snow, which protects, envelops, calms, which invites silence, which deafens. The one that warms you up, even.

Because that’s a bit of what snow does on the ground.

It first plays an insulating role for the flora, and its accumulation determines the temperature of the soil: it protects the vegetation by covering it during the x27;winter and helps mitigate the effects of temperature variations in the ambient air. Even if it's -15°C, -20°C or -30°C, the ground temperature remains stable, around 0 degrees under the layer of snow, which traps the ground's heat.

If the snow melts too early, the vegetation wakes up earlier and may be more subject to refreezes, which disrupts its natural cycle. This phenomenon can have cascading effects, notably on the nutritional richness of greenery and therefore on the quality of the food chain of herbivorous species.

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The willow ptarmigan, also called the white partridge, moves in groups, as residents of Matagami have observed.

The little universe that teems under the white envelope can also be greatly disrupted. Under the layers of snow, life goes on. Microorganisms in the soil rise through the snow to get water. Small rodents hunt there, partridges warm up there, otters dig galleries to access the rivers, and a whole host of microscopic fauna lives there, sheltered. Some lichens and microbes carry out photosynthesis when covered with snow.

The absence of snow cover thus disrupts the interactions between plants and certain animals and disrupts the microbial processes essential to ecological balance.

When it rains falls on the snow during a mild spell, it disrupts the course of things. Very often, a layer of waterproof ice forms on the ground and asphyxiates what is underneath. The consequences of this phenomenon are multiple.

For the farmer who raises livestock, this can mean the early death of the hay used to feed his animals in the fields.

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Round bale of hay in the middle of a yellowed field. A little snow on the ground.

For wild animals who are used to feeding by eating the vegetation found under the snow, this layer of ice constitutes a major obstacle which may endanger part of the local fauna.

Finally, snow is a formidable optical machine: it is the natural surface that reflects the most visible light. A characteristic that contributes not only to the climatic balance of the planet, but also to human health.

On the one hand, the white of the large snow carpet allows an albedo effect, that is to say it allows solar radiation to be reflected towards the atmosphere. This energy which returns to the sky prevents heat from remaining on the ground. A dark, snow-free surface will, on the contrary, absorb the sun's rays and trap heat.

The ice pack in the Arctic fulfills the same function, which is why the melting of this large white surface which gives way to the black sea contributes to the warming of temperatures. Everywhere on the planet, snow cover helps mitigate climate change.

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A person rides a bicycle during a snowstorm in Montreal.

On the other hand, scientists are measuring (New window) today the benefits of natural light generated by snow-covered surfaces, not only on human health, but also on the safety of citizens, on the quality of urban development and on economic development.

In gray or sunny weather, or even at night, the quality of the light is improved by the presence of snow.

We understand that the gradual disappearance of the snow cover has very concrete effects on the environment. But the phenomenon also touches the very essence of the fabric that makes up the country.

Snow is a central element of the collective imagination of Quebec and the Canada. We shovel it, we slide in it, we get stuck in it, we make figures of it, we marvel at its beauty.

But for how much time yet?

  • Étienne Leblanc (Consult the profile)Étienne LeblancFollow
Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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