A changing atmosphere

Global warming's impact can be seen locally, right here in Kingston

Climate change is expected to impact Kingston's famed squirrel population.
Climate change is expected to impact Kingston's famed squirrel population.

Climate change is happening, and is likely to impact Kingston’s animal population — including the famed Kingston squirrel.

According to Queen’s geography professor Warren Mabee, the local squirrel population may increase and become more aggressive as temperatures warm.

“We’re going to get more aggressive squirrels because the cold winters won’t be there to keep the numbers down,” Mabee said.

Kingston won’t just see more squirrels: we’re likely to see an increased presence of larger animals, like coyotes and deer, as the climate warms. This is because changes in climate are more favourable to animals that are higher up on the food chain.

“The higher up on the food chain you are, the more options you have in terms of what you can eat,” he said.

What’s now beyond the shadow of a doubt is that burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that it’s “extremely likely” that human influence has been the dominant cause of warming over the past 60 years.

Canada as a whole has been warming significantly faster than the global average for decades — on average, its warmed 3.2 degrees Celsius since the mid-20th century.

In Ontario, there’s been an increase of up to 1.4 degrees Celsius in average temperatures since 1948. Though climate change may seem an abstract idea, numerous effects of this phenomenon can be seen in the local environment.

Kingston’s winters have warmed faster than any other season, according to associates of Risk Science International.

According to a 2012 study by researchers at McGill and Concordia universities, higher winter temperatures might mean an end to natural ice hockey.

“If you draw a straight line into the future you get zero rink-flooding days by mid-century which implies that at some point in that period you can’t build a rink because it is not getting cold enough,” according to Damon Matthews of Concordia, in The Guardian.

Yet in a global context, Kingston will be better off under climate change than almost anywhere else, Mabee said. Since the city is unlikely to be incorporated into any large urban centres, it will probably be a “provider” rather than a “taker” in the global economy of food, water and energy provision.

Canada as a whole will be a target for climate refugees, according to Mabee, and Kingston is likely to see a large influx of migrants looking for preferable conditions.

While these changes would take place under great stress, Mabee said these newcomers mean “great minds, great thoughts and great cultures might be brought into the Kingston mix.”

As far as local political changes, Mabee said that local grassroots organizations concerned with sustainability could come to be bigger political players as climate change progresses.

According to City of Kingston Sustainable Initiatives Coordinator Daniel Shipp, the City is making changes to react to climate change and mitigate its effects, such as retrofitting buildings, creating express bus routes, investing in green energy production and has introduced LED street lights. More long-term initiatives include a community action plan to reduce energy use in Kingston.

While local efforts may be steps in the right direction, climate change is a decidedly global problem. According to Mabee, a bottom-up approach is needed, emphasizing agreements between local jurisdictions.

“Conferences are great for setting big goals, but they are not good at setting the means and mechanisms for achieving them,” he said.

Mabee also mentioned another atypical addition to Kingston’s ecosystem caused by the earth’s warming temperature: a greater presence of pests like the emerald ash borer, an insect he says “historically would not have had a habitat here.” Unfortunately, this species now threatens local trees.

Other curious changes to Kingston’s ecosystem can be seen due to global warming. The local area has already seen a significant increase in its deer tick population due to warming temperatures.

Deer ticks are a significant public health issue as they carry Lyme disease.

Officially, Kingston is now an “endemic” area for Lyme disease according to Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health.

Then, there are Kingston’s countless “mayflies”.

The correct term for these insects is midges. Research from Queen’s Professor of biology William Nelson, indicates that Kingston can likely foresee an increase in the midge population, as climate change continues to impact the local environment.

Nelson’s research indicates that higher temperatures result in greater insect populations. As a result, the huge clouds of midges that Queen’s students confront on campus may get even larger over time.

While humans debate how much to invest in climate change adaption, animal behaviour is changing as an ongoing reaction to the changes in the environment.

“We see more individuals of some species, fewer individuals of other species, and some entirely new species appearing in Kingston and the region,” said Queen’s biology professor Fran Bonier said. “In general, species ranges are shifting northward.”

Bonier said the changes in temperature result in mistimed natural events, including the premature flowering of plants, premature metamorphosis of insects and early breeding for birds.

“These shifts in seasonal timing can be problematic for some species,” she said. “For example, insects might be more sensitive to shifts in temperature — as ectotherms, they can speed their development and metabolism more in response to those changes than an endotherm can.”

According to Bonier, this results in the disruption of expected patterns.

“For warm-blooded animals that rely on insects for food, and timed breeding to coincide with food availability, this can create mismatches,” she said. “Birds might hatch their eggs at a particular time in the season that used to be a time of peak insect availability, but no longer is because of the insects’ response to climate change.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.