Alberta website reveals how climate changes

The site shows how the province’s climate has changed since the 1950s and how it is projected to change in the future

What’s the weather going to be like in Alberta in 2041? Or 2070? What is the average rainfall for Fairview or Red Deer or Aden in the decades from 1951 to 2017? Will there be more frost-free days in the future? More rain or snow?

Answers are now available through an interactive website recently updated by University of Lethbridge geography and environment professor Stefan Kienzle.

The initial website, albertaclimaterecords.com, was developed four years ago but now includes observed weather records from 1951 to 2017 and three future climate projections for 2041 to 2070. It offers data on 55 different climate variables, such as number of frost days, amount of precipitation and length of growing season.

“The original website was really about the change in the climate indices that I had calculated,” said Kienzle. “(This) is just an updated website with much more information.”

Kienzle added numerous maps and there are now more than 100 of them available for download.

Perusing the site shows how Alberta’s climate has changed since the 1950s and how it is projected to change.

For southern Alberta, as an example, projections indicate steadily warmer temperatures, fewer frost days and more summer days with highs at 25 C or more.

The data “is really an indicator for climate change because the long-term climate and long-term weather observations that we see every hour are changing, on average,” Kienzle said.

As he worked with the data, Kienzle said he encountered a few surprises, among them indications that both the number of hot spells and the number of cold spells are projected to increase. If the climate is warming, as data indicates, one might expect there to be fewer cold spells, but that is not the case.

“The cold spells are actually a really good testament for how (much) more extreme and more variable the climate is becoming. So instead of having steady summers with a small envelope of maximum temperatures for weeks and weeks and weeks, now … it’s either very, very hot or very, very cool and we actually have fewer days where it’s normal, when we just have a regular day. Most days are either above or below those normals.”

Another surprise was that the average dates of the first and last frost show very little change, even though the number of frost days is projected to decrease in many parts of the province.

“I was expecting that the last day of frost would be earlier and earlier and again the reason for that is that we have fluctuations,” Kienzle said.

The website has details on the sources of weather data, which was gathered by various federal government departments over the years since 1950. However, that data was in a format Kienzle described as “very, very inconvenient” so he assigned five students to crunch it, a process that took more than 1,000 hours.

With that done, he realized a user-friendly, accessible format was needed so the public could find and use the information. That’s where Christine Clark of the U of L new media department entered the process.

“Once I was sitting on the data I started to get a sense how important this would be to share these maps and this knowledge with the public, with anyone who was interested in this,” said Kienzle.

“I was really, really lucky that I met Christine, who was at the time a graduate student in the department of new media. She became an expert in web design and basically using websites for scientific communication. She did a fantastic job of designing the website. That was a key thing. We must make something that is intuitive and easy and not confusing, or as least confusing as possible.”

A user-friendly site is the result, designed to allow Albertans to see how weather patterns have changed, anticipate future changes and perhaps plan accordingly. Users can pinpoint locations and check desired data for that particular location.

“It is clearly getting warmer in Alberta and it’s getting warmer much faster than most of the rest of the world,” Kienzle said in a news release about the latest update.

“The average annual temperature in southern Alberta has gone up by one-and-a-half to two degrees and by two to over three degrees in northern Alberta.

“Winters are the key driver of this average annual warming. They have warmed by four to five degrees in the south and by six to seven degrees in the north since the 1950s.”

The updated website has Alberta data only, but Kienzle said there is scope to expand it across Canada now that the necessary code has been developed to convert weather data into a usable format.

Four years ago, “I offered this to the various ministers and not a single one has responded with an interest,” said Kienzle. “Of course I was disappointed, but I was really surprised that not a few would say ‘yes, we want this’, or at least, ‘let’s stay in contact and discuss how this could be done.’ There was nothing.

“I will try again. I will wait a little bit here, a few weeks … and then after that I will contact the environment ministers again.”

The website with Alberta climate and projections can be found and explored at albertaclimaterecords.com.

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