Climate change and the effects of drought-stress on the soil in a Niagara vineyard (Photo: Heather VanVolkenburg).
For the past few months, we have used our blogs to introduce our research project and discuss the importance of the agricultural sector in the Niagara region. This week, we will begin talking about the main topic of the project: climate change.
Everyone in Canada loves to talk about the weather. We hear about it on the radio and TV, and it’s often the first topic of conversation with anyone we bump into. Weather is what we experience every day when we go outside, and what influences our daily activities. Daily weather events are also important for farmers, who need to monitor them in order to make important crop-management decisions. If there has not been very much rain, for example, will they need to water artificially? If there has been too much rain, alternatively, will they need to spray crops to prevent mildew?
We also frequently hear the word climate and, especially these days, the term climate change. The concept of climate tends to cause a bit of confusion, however, and is a little more complex to explain than weather. Climate is more like the overall characteristics of a place, rather than day-to-day conditions. We live in a temperate climate in Canada, which means that we have four seasons with cold winters and warm summers. Scientists characterize our climate by looking at averages of weather variable measurements (such as temperatures) over a period of 30 years or more. Do you remember (if you’re old enough) what the weather was like 35 years ago?
The climate on Earth has changed since it was first formed. It also continues to change due to geological changes, such as the movement of continents. If that fluctuation is a natural occurrence on Earth, then why are we talking about climate change so much these days? Climate usually changes at a very slow pace and we would need a very long time period to detect most of those changes (you cannot feel these changes in the short term since we are talking about thousands of years!). However, once humans began using fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, gasoline, tar sands and oil), things began to change at a significantly faster rate.
Why? The use of fossil fuels injects chemicals back to the Earth’s surface — especially into the atmosphere— that results in an acceleration of changes in temperatures and variables such as air currents and rainfall. These chemicals are the famous (and infamous) greenhouse gases. While we do need some of these chemicals to keep the Earth relatively warm (the planet would rest at about -98oC otherwise!), too much means that we heat up the planet.
You may think that a warmer climate is not such a bad thing — especially if you dream of having a longer summer! There is a flip-side to a warming planet, however, and it is less pleasant than having a few extra warm days to spend at the lake every year. With changes in air temperature and the resulting changes in water and air currents, extreme events, such as storms, hurricanes, long periods of drought, and/or heavy rainfall begin to occur more frequently. This unpredictability also creates many challenges for farmers trying to manage and maintain their crops.
We see the impacts of these changes all over the globe; climate change is real, with serious implications for our agricultural sector. By combining farmer knowledge with what we know as scientists, we hope to find strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of these changes through our research.
This blog will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!