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Climate

Climate, including temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns, affects many aspects of life on earth. For example, climate influences where people, plants, and animals can live and how they move and interact with each other. Climate also affects how productive certain systems may be which determine how many people, plants, and animals can live in an area.

Climate is in turn can be affected by people and the changes in climate can fundamentally affect the growth, distribution and abundance of people, plants, and animals, including in the Ring of Fire.

SDG 13: Climate action

Hudson Bay toad (Anaxyrus americanus copei)

Ontario’s climate is warming and becoming increasingly variable. These changes will affect people, plants, and animals in different ways. Understanding how vulnerable and at risk people, plants, and animals may be to climate change in northern Ontario is critical for decision-making about the future of the Ring of Fire.

Western Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio rutulus)

Northern Ontario Climate

The climate in the Ring of Fire is relatively cold and dry, with short and cool summers and long and cold winters. The presence of continuous and discontinuous permafrost (frozen soil) also affects the summer climate.  

The Hudson and James Bays are the world’s largest, cold, inland seas and have a profound effect on the climate and ecosystems throughout the Hudson Bay Lowland. Climate change is decreasing the amount of ice cover and the length of time sea ice remains on these bays.  

The southern and western portions of the Ring of Fire also experience long cold winters and short warm summers, but the temperature, precipitation, and weather patterns are more variable. 

In general, everything from genes to whole biomes evolve in response to current climate conditions adapting to a range of variation across space and time. Scientists may monitor and measure these systems (e.g., population numbers or status, habitat lost) to assess how well these systems are doing given human activities such as mining and roads as well as climate change. In addition, studies of past periods of climate change and their effects on species and ecosystems also help us understand how animals and plants may respond in the future. For generations, Indigenous Peoples and communities have also been paying attention to what is happening on the land and in the waters noting changes in the climate as well the effects of these changes on animals and plants.

While nothing can be done to prevent these systems from being exposed to climate change, some proactive adaptation strategies, as well as adaptive management measures to increase the ability of ecosystems and threatened species to adapt will be possible. These include: proactively conserving habitat and expanding protection and conservation areas; reducing non-climate stressors; and managing species and habitats to protect ecosystem services. 

Climate Change

There are already documented changes in species and ecosystem functions in northern Ontario including in the Ring of Fire with recommendations for further research, management and policy actions both in freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, including carbon-rich peatlands. 

Combined with other impacts from human activities such as mineral exploration, mining, etc., Ontario has conducted a number of vulnerability assessments to identify climate change adaptation options for various environmental systems including animals, forests, peatlands, and aquatics. 

Many First Nation communities in the region are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. For example, warmer temperatures compromise winter roads used to connect communities in the winter with each other and the province and bring in diesel fuel, food, and building materials. However, weather to support winter road building remains highly variable in northern Ontario. In addition, extreme wildfires and flooding have resulted in emergency evacuations of some communities. 

Scientists understanding of how climate change may affect nature and people in the future is based on mathematical models using information about emissions from industry as well as natural systems. We also consider the effectiveness of policies aimed at changing our individual and societal activities and behaviours to reduce emissions and mitigate and adapt to climate change.  

Climate change models and recommendations for policy in Ontario were released in 2015 and indicate that in the next 25 years or so, the north will likely be much warmer and will receive slightly more precipitation than it does today. Despite the increased precipitation anticipated, however, warmer temperatures which actually increase the loss of moisture from the soil and freshwater lakes and rivers contributing to drier conditions and more extreme events like wildfire and flooding. The most recent versions of these global models developed by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change are now available. 

However, there are few tools to support decision-making about impacts from projects and climate change and almost no policy at the provincial or federal level that addresses adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the Ring of Fire region. For example, Ontario’s Wetlands Conservation Strategy has no commitment to wetland protection in the north, particularly the Hudson Bay Lowland.  

Federal and provincial guidance on how climate change is addressed in impact assessment of projects has been developed. However, there are no assessment tools that consider the climate implications of industrial development like mines and roads in the Ring of Fire on the carbon-rich ecosystems like the peatlands in the Hudson Bay Lowland. 

In 2020, the Ontario government initiated a multi-sector provincial climate change impact assessment which is being led by a consulting team and the Climate Risk Institute. The study uses the best available science to understand where and how climate change is likely to affect communities, critical infrastructure, economies and the natural environment. The Assessment is also intended to help strengthen these sector’s responses to climate change. 

Protecting peatlands and wetlands as well as intact forests must figure substantively in Ontario’s efforts to address climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

Sunset near the Attawapiskat

White Birch

Celebrating Indigenous-led conservation at the ICCA consortium in 2013

Solutions

As early as 2009, the Ontario Expert Panel on Climate Change identified wetland peats in the “Far North” as an important area for the Ontario government to consider in addressing both mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The Expert Panel on Climate Change, Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario all recommended Ontario protect the resilience of peatlands as a mitigation strategy in response to climate change because it would limit the release of greenhouse gases and maintain the natural ecosystem functions (adaptation) that benefit all of us through climate regulation.

To date, the provincial government has not taken up these recommendations nor has it developed policy solutions and planning approaches in the region. In addition, there is no evidence that decision-making in the region considers climate change mitigation and adaptation despite the government’s own recommendations to do so in the 2011 Growth Plan for Northern Ontario. 

In 2018, the Global Commission on Adaptation was launched to catalyze action on climate adaptation solutions. In response to the 2019 report, Canada and Mexico are co-leading one of eight “action tracks” on Nature-Based Solutions. Nature-based solutions, defined by the IUCN-led effort, are actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems to support people as well as nature. 

More recently, WCS Canada and the Smart Prosperity Institute developed a policy brief describing the challenge for Canada in meeting its climate commitments as well as the lack of emissions pathways in national scale reporting associated with northern peatlands similar to those in the Ring of Fire and offering solutions and recommendations for prioritizing peatland protection, including the important role of Indigenous Peoples in addressing climate change.