Record-breaking heat in N.W.T., Nunavut, has 'scary' implications for land users

Satellite imagery shows the difference in the ice near Délı̨nę on Great Bear Lake. On the left is an image taken May 30, 2023 and on the right is an image taken on June 1, 2022.  (Sentinel-2/European Space Agency - image credit)
Satellite imagery shows the difference in the ice near Délı̨nę on Great Bear Lake. On the left is an image taken May 30, 2023 and on the right is an image taken on June 1, 2022. (Sentinel-2/European Space Agency - image credit)

There are two words being used to describe weather in the N.W.T. lately: hot and dry.

Data is proving those observations to be true — with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) meteorologist Terri Lang describing this year's spring conditions as "worrying."

ECCC doesn't have reliable, long-term data for every northern community but in places where it does — the data shows the month of May, specifically, was hot in parts of both the N.W.T. and Nunavut.

In fact, it was the hottest ever on record for the communities of Arviat, Baker Lake, and Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, as well as for Fort Liard, Fort Simpson and Yellowknife in the N.W.T.

Taking a step back and looking at the entire meteorological spring, from the start of March to the end of May — it was the driest ever on record for Fort Liard.

"We had that big ridge of high pressure that settled in for May, but that doesn't explain the earlier parts of spring when it was still warmer than average," Lang told Shannon Scott, CBC North's weather and climate change reporter.

"All answers are kind of pointing to climate change."

Lang said it's "unbelievable" how much warming in the North stands out compared to other parts of Canada.

Consider the communities where May was the hottest ever on record again. The margin of difference between what happened in May this year and what is considered average is wide: it was 7 degrees warmer in Arviat, Baker Lake and Yellowknife, 6 degrees warmer in Rankin Inlet and Fort Simpson, and 4 degrees warmer in Fort Liard.

Perspective from the land

The warm and dry conditions carry implications for those who rely on the land for food.

In Délı̨nę, N.W.T., Leroy Andre observed back in mid-May that ice on Great Bear Lake was deteriorating faster than normal and that its water levels were low — down by about a foot.

"We're seeing rocks that we haven't seen before, we're seeing things on the shore that we haven't seen before," he told Lawrence Nayally, the host of CBC's Trails End.

"We've seen that before, and usually when all the ice melts it comes up a little bit, usually balances out, so we'll see how it is this year."

Before going out on the land to hunt, Andre said his community members consult with elders on the conditions of the ice. But those conditions are becoming harder to read, he said, and this year elders advised against the risk.

"Our elders and the land users are saying, well, it's getting unpredictable even around the lake here in the community so no, don't bother, you know, trying to … do something that might be too dangerous."

Andre would like to see more attention paid to the environment, what's causing the changes, and what the solutions could be.

"It is getting scary," he said.

Low ice predicted for Northwest Passage

The Canadian Ice Service is predicting a year of "low ice" in the western inland Arctic, which includes both routes of the Northwest Passage.

Amanda Prysizney, an ice forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, said the prediction is based on the significant amount of ice that melted last summer and the fact the ice cover didn't recover over the winter. Though, she noted, the forecast comes with caveats — the outlook depends on predicted temperatures and winds, and there is still some old ice around that'll take longer to melt.

"Really important to keep in mind that it could become even more hazardous because it's more variable and we do have a lot of ice moments still."

Meanwhile, back at Canada's weather agency, meteorologists say the summer is expected to bring warmer than average temperatures for all of Canada — and Lang said the North is no exception.

"It's not a coincidence why Western Canada is on fire," she said.