How warmer temperatures impact Prairie lake ice

Rising temperatures could affect the ice on our prairie lakes. Warming air temperatures are reducing ice cover by an average of 31 days. 

First, I am grateful for your time and attention as we journeyed through the world of 100-year-olds in my three-part series on centenarians

I hope you enjoyed reading about these women’s remarkable lives and stories as much as I did writing about them.

It’s been an honour to share these stories with you and to have the opportunity to shed light on the wisdom, challenges and experiences of people who have lived for a century or more. 

As one Flatlander reader Brenda, wrote:

Your segments on Centenarians has been uplifting and extremely interesting.

My father was not lucky enough to reach that milestone. Due to a lifetime of noxious working conditions and some bad life choices (smoking a pack a day for over twenty years) he died relatively young compared to other members of his family.

All his siblings, his parents, aunts and uncles lived well into their 90’s. We are all Manitoba/Saskatchewanians. I personally plan to live until at LEAST 100. 

Local, independent, in-depth.

Our Prairie stories.

I hope these stories have inspired you to cherish the moments you have with your loved ones and to appreciate the value of a life well-lived.

If you missed the series, you can find it here

Finding joy in aging, despite challenges

The women we talked to used walkers, wheelchairs and hearing aids but were still able to find joy in life. 

Some, like Jean, actively gave back to the community at large by doing people’s taxes. In fact, when she was 97, she received a letter from Canada Revenue Agency asking if she would be interested in coming back to work. She wasn’t.

But living a long life can be productive and enjoyable despite the challenges.

“We saw 100-year-olds doing really amazing things,” said Heather after she finished all the research interviews for this project.

She continues to do research into the experiences of aging because she wants to help nurses learn better ways to support older adults.

Heather is using the documentary I created in the classroom with her nursing students to help them understand the experience of aging. 

Screenings of the documentary

Heather and I screened the film for the residents at the three assisted living homes we visited in January because, as a journalist, I believe it’s important that people get to see themselves in the media.

The residents laughed, cried and cheered because the issues the centenarians talk about in the documentary are very relevant to them.   

We are doing another screening for residents of Regina Village Town Cente in April. 

The plan is to take The Flatlander on the road and do some public screenings in communities across the Prairies and host a discussion about aging. I just need to organize some sponsors and community hosts. More information to come. 

Residents at Harbour Landing Village in Regina watch the documentary Looking Forward at 100. PHOTO BY KELLY-ANNE RIESS

The impacts of COVID-19

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Unfortunately, three of the participants from this project from Qu’Appelle House in Regina passed away in the fall after COVID-19 made its way through the residence. 

The documentary is dedicated to their memory:

Mary Clementina Ripplinger (1920 to 2022)
Christine Adams (1919 to 2022)
Elizabeth (Betty) A. Petersen (1920 to 2022)

When we did the interviews last spring, the research team and the film crew were required to test for COVID every day and wear masks.

The residents did say they found the pandemic to be boring during the period when family members were prohibited from visiting.

At present, some of the residences still require masks, while others have made them optional. Visitor testing is no longer required.

More from The Flatlander mailbag:

Readers wrote in on the issue Rural transportation before snow plows

Craig wrote:

I saw the Metis display at the Smithsonian years ago. It included Red River cereal, lol.

Best Flatlander article, thx.

Diane wrote: 

I take issue with your statement about fishermen losing weeks of their season. I’m a commercial fisherman, and I fish in the winter on Lake Winnipegosis, which is the next lake west of Lake Manitoba. The weather has always bounced back and forth for making ice. Some winters, we could set nets before November 1st, which we did even though the season wasn’t legally open. Other years we didn’t get on the ice until early December. These examples were back in the early 1970s and in the early 1960s, so as you see, using the climate change causing the lost of the season length is not legitimate.

Thanks for your email Diane.

I spent some time reading up on what’s been going on with our lake ice in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and it was fascinating, so I thought I would share my findings. 

A lot of scientists and policymakers keep a close eye on what is happening with our lakes and rivers because we use them for hydroelectricity, tourism, fishing, agriculture and more.

I also want to pick up on a point you raise that many of us can get confused about.

As we know one winter season is different from the next. One year can be abnormally cold, and the next can be mild and bring a lot of snow. 

If it’s a brutally frigid fall like you say, a lake can be solid by November, but the next year, you might have to wait until December.

So if scientists are saying the world is getting warmer, how does that fit in with the seasonal temperature swings?

The answer is it’s complicated.

It is about long-term incremental trends.

The long and the short of it is there is a fundamental difference between seasonal weather and climate.

The difference between seasonal weather and climate

It’s understandable to wonder if the weather is like climate, because, in a way, it is, and in a way, it isn’t.

Weather refers to the day-to-day conditions in the atmosphere, like temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind. 

It’s what you check on your phone or TV before deciding what to wear in the morning.

Climate refers to the long-term patterns and trends in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

It looks at the patterns in average temperatures, precipitation levels, and atmospheric conditions over periods of decades or even centuries.

So this year’s winter here on the Prairies is like a single chapter in a book, while climate is the whole book. 

Weather can change rapidly and unpredictably. 

Next winter could be mild and the year after that unseasonally cold. 

The climate is about the long-term average, which is saying the Earth’s temperature is going up.  

How do scientists study climate change?

Scientists have been studying climate change for decades, using temperature records from weather stations, satellites, and ocean buoys to track changes in temperature over time. They also analyze ice cores from glaciers and polar ice caps to see how temperatures have changed over thousands of years.

Changes in plants and animals are also being observed, along with the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. 

For instance, more wildfires are being recorded in Northern Saskatchewan. In 2021, the wildfire count in the province was more than double the five-year average. 

So this is why it is said most scientists agree on climate change because many different disciplines of science are finding evidence of it.

Texture of lake ice. GETTY IMAGES.

Climate change and prairie ice

We’ve all heard about the ice caps melting and sea levels rising because of climate change. But rising temperatures could also affect the ice on our prairie lakes.

A 2020 study showed that Canadian lakes are warming twice as fast as other lakes around the world due to climate change. 

Researchers found that lakes ice-covered for some part of the year are experiencing significant changes. 

Warming air temperatures are reducing ice cover by an average of 31 days over the past 165 years. 

In the last 25 years, scientists have found ice cover has disappeared six times faster than usual. 

This is causing water temperatures to rise, which can create problems for cold-water fish species such as walleye or lake trout. The fish are beginning to be crowded out by those that prefer warmer environments, like bass. 

The threatened fish species are trying to adapt by moving to new areas, but some scientists think they may have reached their limit in how much they can change to the conditions.  

Young fish may not have enough food to survive since earlier ice melting can throw off the timing of when food becomes available for newly hatched fish, which could reduce populations. 

Scientists are monitoring the situation to see how it develops.

More algae 

Warmer lake temperatures increase blue-green algae, which can be poisonous to the lake’s ecosystem, as well as our pets and livestock. 

When our lakes freeze over in the winter, the ice plays a crucial role in keeping blue-green algae in check. 

Basically, ice acts like a lid, stopping water from evaporating and preventing the algae from growing out of control. But evaporation will leave less lake water and better algae conditions if the ice isn’t completely “sealed.”

Higher winds also increase evaporation and the decline in relative humidity.

Summer rain storms transfer nutrients into the lakes that encourage algae growth.

If the algae blooms get too thick, they can block out sunlight, which means less photosynthesis happening down below. 

I hated biology in high school, but I remember photosynthesis is the process by which plants and algae can use the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.

So less photosynthesis happening in our prairie lakes means less dissolved oxygen available to support aquatic life. 

Scientists are finding this change is happening much quicker than they predicted 15 years ago. 

In Canada, we’re seeing an increase in these algal blooms much later in the season, even in remote lakes, which is unprecedented. 

An increase in drownings

A group of experts from different fields around the world investigated how climate change has impacted the number of winter drownings in northern countries. 

The study found that Canada had the highest number of winter drownings each year.

The researchers found the number of drownings is highest at the beginning and end of winter when the ice is thinnest and most likely to break.

Increasingly, ice conditions can be more deceptive.

For instance, it might be cold outside today, but it was warm and sunny last week. This can cause the lake ice to thaw and refreeze multiple times, which makes the structure weaker and more dangerous. 

This can be more true when the winter is not as cold as it used to be, which is happening more and more because of climate change. 

The ice might look solid, but it’s weaker and can break more easily, which can be dangerous.

This could cause the number of winter drownings to increase and may impact Indigenous communities more. Places with a strong ice-fishing culture have a high rate of winter drownings.

Poorer populations that depend on hunting and ice fishing for sustenance are especially affected.

Water use policies 

Increased lake evaporation that reduces lake levels could impact water use policies in the future. Scientists actively monitor the big lakes we use for agriculture and hydroelectricity, like Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan, and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

More from the mailbag

Ashley wrote:

Hi Kelly-Anne, not sure if you have thought about this or interested in it, but there is an area south of Lac La Ronge that a Quebec company wants to start harvesting peat. I know the people around that area are against it & of course, it would release a lot of stored carbon into our atmosphere. The gov’t of Sask seems to be strangely silent on this topic, but they should be the ones reacting to this too. Might make for an interesting story! 

For those who missed it, I did write a story on peat moss mining a long while ago, which you can read here. I recently applied for a research grant to explore the issue further.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. Bankruptcies rising in Manitoba
  2. Restorative justice programs showing positive results in Manitoba
  3. Manitoba’s $10-a-day childcare has some exclusions
  4. Just 15% of Manitobans are happy with the province’s climate efforts 
  5. Manitoba’s minimum wage to rise this weekend, but some say it still lags living wage

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. Cattle rustling on the rise across the Prairies
  2. ‘A crazy experience’: Sask. American Idol contestant thankful for opportunity to show his abilities
  3. Saskatchewan one of the safest places to ride out zombie apocalypse, survey finds
  4. Saskatchewan to spend $1.3 million to hire new physician assistants
  5. Sask. politicians united in opposition to recommendation that RCMP change training model

Our Prairie stories matter too.

The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.


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Life on the Prairies


Stories about the Prairies, from the Prairies.

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