International Women & Girls in Science Day: Alberta’s Changing Climate and What It Means For Our Water Resources

By Dr. Brandi Newton, Alberta Environment and Parks

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, Dr. Brandi Newton from Alberta Environment and Parks shares her experience working as a hydroclimatologist in the department.

Alberta’s winter climate with its plentiful snow is ideal for outdoor recreational activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and fat-tire biking, and we take advantage of it. The snow that accumulates in the mountains also serves as an important source of fresh water during spring and early summer for traditional uses such as river navigation, for aquatic and riparian ecosystem health, drinking and household use, agricultural irrigation, industrial needs, and snowmelt fills reservoirs used in hydroelectricity generation.

Alberta also serves as the source region for several major river basins in Canada making us stewards of a resource essential to both Albertans and numerous downstream users.

We know that climate is changing across the world and here at home in Alberta. Climate models indicate average global temperatures will increase by 1.0°C to 3.7°C above the 1985-2005 global average temperature by the end of this century (IPCC 2013). We also know that higher latitudes and land surfaces are warming at a faster rate and that the biggest temperature changes occur during winter, which will significantly impact when and how much water is available to us through the amount of snow that accumulates each winter and the timing of snowmelt.

Brandi at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. During the summer, Rocky Mountain rivers are fed by glacier melt and high elevation snowmelt.
Photo by Dr. Thomas Edwards.

Knowing what the changes to our winter climate will look like is critical to managing Alberta’s water resources. As part of our stewardship work, we have started to examine how climate has changed in Alberta to better understand future risks to water resource availability.

Alberta’s Changing Winter: Early Results

Our goal is to determine which regions of the province are most at risk for annual or seasonal shifts in water supply when it comes to winter climate change. This is particularly important because snow is not evenly distributed across the province, with much greater snowpack in the mountains compared to lower-elevation areas.

One of my favorite parts of being a research scientist is solving complex scientific questions involving water and climate, and more specifically, understanding how a changing climate will influence an uneven distribution of winter snowpack and associated water availability from spring and summer melt.

It all starts with Alberta’s networks of meteorological and hydrometric monitoring stations, and passionate staff who conduct field measurements and maintain equipment to measure snow depth and distribution. This data is critical to provide the best available information to decision-makers.

One of the results of our ongoing study to analyze this data shows that winters appear to get shorter. For example, spring temperatures have been rising above freezing significantly earlier in the last ten to 15 years over the period 1950 to 2017. This trend is more pronounced in the Prairie region of southern Alberta where spring temperatures are occurring two to three weeks earlier.

Historically, Alberta’s southern prairies have experienced the greatest climatic variability – meaning there could be very high temperatures and precipitation one year and very low the next. As a result, the prairies rely heavily upon water management strategies, primarily for agricultural purposes.

High elevation snowpack remains in early July 2019 in Banff National Park. We rely on high elevation snowmelt for summer water resource availability. Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton.

The next steps in this work are to compare our results with future climate scenarios to determine if spring will continue to arrive earlier, further shortening the duration of winter and time for snow to accumulate. Future projections are based on medium- and high emissions scenarios, similar to the 1.5°C and 3.5°C global warming scenarios.

Knowing how Alberta’s winter climate and snowpack may change under these scenarios is important for managing water resources, and foreseeing potential risks.

For example, the amount of winter snowpack and the timing of spring melt will not only affect water availability, but also may affect spring flooding. When snowmelt is combined with spring rainfall and river ice break-up jams, it can cause severe flooding, such as the 2013 flood in southern Alberta and the recent ice jam flooding in Fort McMurray in May 2020.

Conducting routine snow surveys in Banff National Park with an Alberta Environment and Parks monitoring team. Snow surveys are a critical source of information for flood forecasting.
Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton

Ongoing Research

Understanding these factors is to the benefit of all Albertans and the economy and, not surprisingly, generates a lot of interest. Most recently, there’s been a lot of attention on the impact of climate change on glaciers and the possible consequences for communities that rely on glacial meltwater for part of their water supply.  

At Alberta Environment and Parks, we aim to look at all the drivers influencing climate and water availability, including glacier loss and changes to winter precipitation. From a water supply perspective, glacial meltwater reductions are of particular concern in late summer, during drier years, and for communities in closer proximity to glaciers.

For most municipalities in Alberta, glacier melt contributes a small fraction of the overall water supply, particularly during the summer when contributions are the highest. Seasonal and year-over-year variability of precipitation has a major impact on water supply across Alberta.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on water supply requires us to understand many factors and how they interact with each other, so ongoing research is crucial.

Beyond new scientific knowledge, our research will inform Alberta’s water policy and management decisions and help inform community resilience to ensure Albertans have access to water now and in the future.

Dr. Brandi Newton is a hydroclimatologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. She studies climate and hydrology in Alberta to better understand relationships and changes in climate, streamflow, and the drivers of extreme hydrological events such as floods. This helps inform environmental monitoring, management and policy decisions, and public understanding of environmental conditions in Alberta. Brandi has previously worked on projects including the atmospheric role in the Arctic freshwater system, the climatic redistribution of western Canadian water resources, mid-winter river ice break-up, and other winter extreme climate events in western Canada and Alaska.

Learn More

For more details on historic and projected climate change globally and in Canada, see the following reports: