Toronto winters warming up from climate change

Unusually warm, erratic winter weather in Toronto confuses residents

A sunny winter day in Toronto.
Climate change to blame as temperatures soar to a high of 15.3 C on Feb. 15, breaking a Toronto weather record. (Huma Hamid/Toronto Observer) 

Masses of people in light hoodies and T-shirts flocked to Woodbine Beach on a pleasantly warm Wednesday in January, eager to feel warm rays of sunshine on their skin. 

The enormous snow jackets, hats and gloves that normally adorned Torontonians all winter long were nowhere to be found. They’d seen an early retirement after a brief and warmer-than-usual winter. 

But as February rolled around with icy storms and bone-chilling temperatures, everyone’s hopes for an early spring shattered, and we were forced back into our bulky winter wear.

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Less than two weeks later, temperatures were so warm once again that Toronto broke two February weather records back-to-back, soaring to a high of 15.3 C on Feb. 15.

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The weather in Ontario is continuously becoming warmer and more erratic because of climate change. And unfortunately, urban areas such as Toronto face the brunt of the impacts because of their heat-absorbing infrastructure and excessive emission of harmful gases.

Climate change is making Toronto warmer

Moving forward, “the GTA is generally expected to see warmer, wetter and wilder weather” as a result of climate change, said Yuestas David, a senior research scientist at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

The rise of temperatures over time is a major impact of climate change. Out-of-season warm temperatures are now seen more often during Toronto’s winters, according to one extreme weather expert.

A comparison of daily average temperatures for the 2022-23 and 1840-41 winters in Toronto shows that there has been a drastic increase in temperatures over the past two centuries.

The daily mean temperatures were mostly below 0 C from November through March 1840-41, whereas during these months in 2022-23, the daily mean temperatures were mostly positive. From 1840-41 to now, there has been an average increase of 4.8 C in winter temperatures. 

“Canada is warming at twice the global rate with northern regions warming three — to maybe even four — times as fast,” said David.

If we continue with business as usual, which is known as the “high emissions scenario,” the TRCA predicts the local average annual temperatures may rise by about 12.8 C by the end of the century.

How else the weather is affected

Snowfall has also become a rare sight in Toronto, which traditionally experienced white winters up until this decade. And this may sound like good news for those tired of clearing their driveways, but it is damaging for snow-dependent attractions, such as ski hills, as well as our environment.

There were also multiple heavy rainfall and freezing rain warnings in Toronto throughout the winter months. Climate change has influenced precipitation patterns in the city. The TRCA predicts an increase in annual precipitation levels, which will likely lead to more frequent and intense storms moving forward.

Local conservation authorities have been warning residents to avoid going near waterways, as water levels are predicted to rise because of the rain and melting snow.

Freezing rains have also gotten a lot more regular due to the GTA’s warmer weather. Freezing rains occur when temperatures hover near 0 C, says Tanzina Mohsin, an expert on the GTA’s climate with the University of Toronto’s Climate Lab. 

Watch how climate change is impacting Toronto’s weather:

Extreme weather will also continue getting worse over the years, according to the City of Toronto.

Extreme weather has always been a part of Canada’s history, says David Phillips, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist. But as a result of climate change, these events are now “more extreme, more likely to occur” and longer lasting, he says.

Bad news for cities like Toronto

The consequences of climate change are dire for the entire world. But densely populated urban cities such as Toronto are impacted much more than rural regions.

Toronto has little grass and greenery — containing moisture — to provide shade and natural evaporative cooling, says Mohsin. On top of that, the dark concrete and asphalt, which dominate the city’s landscape, absorb heat all day long and then release it after dark, she says.

“Adding to this problem is waste heat from human activities such as industries, driving and air conditioning,” said David.

“All these factors make cities several degrees warmer than surrounding areas.” This is known as the urban heat island effect.

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Certain diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, are also more active or spread faster under warmer conditions, says Phillips.

The heavy rains and rising water levels will also have devastating consequences for Torontonians. “Often climate change, for urban areas, will bring greater flooding,” said Phillips. Flooding of places like basements and subway stations will become more common, says Mohsin.

These issues may not seem like much to those with means to facilities and resources like adequate drainage, air conditioning and cars. But a large chunk of the city’s population is unable to access these amenities, says Phillips. These groups will suffer the most.

These issues need to be acknowledged, says Mohsin, “and it has to be at all levels of government.”

Mitigating climate change

Along with taking green initiatives to reduce pollution and emissions, Toronto’s infrastructure needs to be updated so that it’s able to withstand today’s climate.

“We’ve kept the same infrastructure that we’ve had for four decades,” said Phillips. “And that’s been a mistake because our climate has changed.”

Individual initiatives such as planting trees, reducing energy consumption, proper waste disposal and using environment-friendly transportation can also help reduce your personal impact on the environment, says David. 

It’s all going to take a collective effort, says David. 

“Individual action is not enough. Systems and institutions also need to change, and people can help influence these changes.” 

By taking these steps, we can do our part in helping sustain the environment. However, some of the impacts so far might not be so easily fixed.

So don’t put away your beach sandals just yet. It’s uncertain what Toronto’s weather has in store. 

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Posted: Apr 15 2023 10:59 pm
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