Global Warming Effects Around the World

Manitoba, Canada

Top Impact

Ecosystems (Lakes and rivers)

Other Impacts

Temperature (Air)

People (Costs)

Warming temperatures threaten water fowl in Manitoba, Canada

The Prairie Pothole Region of the central Canadian prairies and north central United States is the breeding ground for 50 to 80 percent of the ducks in North America. A hotter climate threatens to dry out these essential wetlands.1

Key Facts

The Prairie Pothole Region, which stretches through the central Canadian prairies to northwestern Iowa, includes 5 to 8 million small wetlands.2,3 These wetlands provide abundant ecosystem services, including flood control, groundwater recharge, water for agriculture, water for domestic uses, and recreation.2

  • The region—breeding ground for 50 to 80 percent of the ducks in North America—is considered the single most productive habitat for waterfowl in the world.4,5
  • Average annual temperatures in both the Canadian and U.S. sections of the Prairie Pothole Region have risen significantly.6,7
  • Further warming threatens the entire region, unless precipitation also rises, as wetlands dry up more quickly in hotter weather.6,8,9

Details

In Canada, the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) includes southwestern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan, and southeastern Alberta.9 In the United States, it includes parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.9 The area originally boasted extensive natural grasslands, interspersed with millions of shallow temporary, seasonal, or permanent wetlands and river systems.10 This rich ecosystem, considered the single most productive habitat for waterfowl in the world, is the breeding ground for 50 to 80 percent of the ducks in North America.4,5

However, the Prairie Pothole Region has seen a significant amount of destruction stemming primarily from pressures to use the land for agriculture, cities and towns, and industrial activities. Canada lost at least 40 percent of its prairie wetlands in in the twentieth century to drainage, according to a joint report from the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Interior.11 Losses in the United States have been even greater: the Dakotas lost more than half of these wetlands, and Iowa more than 99 percent.10

Although attention has focused on saving the ecosystem for waterfowl, prairie potholes—geological indentations left behind by glaciers3—help in a variety of other ways. The wetlands reduce flooding by capturing large amounts of water during snowmelt or heavy rain. The precipitation then recharges groundwater instead of flowing away from the area as runoff. The groundwater is then available for drinking and irrigation in drier times.3

The Prairie Pothole Region also absorbs carbon from the air and stores it, a process known as carbon sequestration. Uncultivated grassland soil stores up to 26 percent more carbon than cultivated soil.12

Finally, people use the region extensively for recreation, including camping, wildlife viewing, fishing, and hunting. Tourists pursuing these activities bring a lot of funds to the region through spending on items such as food, lodging, and equipment rentals.13

Part of a Larger Pattern

Temperatures have been rising throughout both the Canadian and U.S. sections of the Prairie Pothole Region.6,7 Scientists found significant increases in average air temperatures from 1961 to 2003.6 Daily minimum temperatures rose at a slightly faster rate than maximum temperatures, while winter temperatures increased at more than twice the annual rate.6 These trends are consistent with climate change, especially in high–latitude regions around the world.14

In the United States, temperatures in the Prairie Pothole Region vary, because it covers a wider area. However, the average temperature rose in all five states throughout the region during the twentieth century.7

Annual precipitation in the Canadian region remained about the same from 1961 to 2003.6 However, winter precipitation in the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine river basins, which include the Canadian Prairie Pothole Region, declined significantly.6 Winter precipitation is critical, as spring snowmelt dominates the hydrological cycle in this region.15 Snowmelt runoff is more efficient at recharging groundwater and filling wetlands than typical rainfall events.

In the United States, precipitation already varies sharply across the Prairie Pothole Region, with the western parts drier and the eastern parts wetter. This difference rose over the course of the twentieth century. While southwestern Minnesota received almost 20 percent more precipitation at the end of the century than at the start, northeastern Montana received about 10 percent less.16,17

What the Future Holds

Prairie potholes are particularly vulnerable to climate change because, unlike waterfowl that migrate through the region, potholes remain fixed, forced to endure environmental stressors and climate change.18 As temperatures rise even further, evaporation of water from the wetlands could occur more quickly. Unless a large enough increase in precipitation accompanies rising temperatures, the region will get drier.

Waterfowl depend on the semi–permanent wetlands for breeding. They allow enough time for ducklings to mature, so they can fly to find water when the wetlands dry out seasonally. A study of mallard ducklings in North Dakota found that their survival rate was more than seven times lower when fewer seasonal wetlands were available during drought than when water was abundant.19 If spring arrives earlier and summers are hotter, wetlands may dry up too quickly, becoming a trap for migrating ducks raising their young.9

Scientists found that temporary and seasonal wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region would remain wet for a shorter period of time without an accompanying 2.7 to 3.8 percent increase in precipitation per degree F (5 to 7 percent per degree C) of warming.9 Another study found that when precipitation declined or even held at historic levels, the region became critically dry. Only if precipitation rose by 20 percent across the region would the Prairie Pothole Region remain as it is today.4

Scientists using three models of the impact of high global warming emissions on the region show an annual temperature increase of 3.9 to 5.0° F (2.1 to 2.8°C) by the 2050s, compared with the 1980s.20,6 The models also show a modest 5.5 to 7.7 percent increase in precipitation by the 2050s—not enough to replenish the wetlands.6

The choices we make today can help determine our future climate. Making significant cuts in our heat-trapping emissions, and developing cleaner energy technologies such as solar and wind power, would help us avoid the worst effects of higher temperatures.

Credits

Endnotes

  1. Photograph courtesy of Delta Waterfowl. Online at http://www.deltawaterfowl.org/media/images.php. Accessed January 9, 2013.
  2. U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division. 2006. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center: Prairie wetlands and climate change—Droughts and ducks on the prairies. Reston, VA. Online at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/products/factsheets/Climate%20Change%20FSsm.pdf. Accessed January 10, 2013.
  3. Millett, B.V., et al. 2009. Climate trends of the North American prairie pothole region, 1906–2000. Climatic Change 93:243–267; doi: 10.1007/s10584–008–9543–5. Online at http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/volunteer/online_extras/sepoct09/climate_trends.pdf. Accessed September 6, 2011.
  4. Johnson, W.C., et al. 2005. Vulnerability of northern prairie wetlands to climate change. BioScience 55(10):863–872; doi:10.1641/0006–3568(2005)055[0863:VONPWT]2.0.CO;2. Online at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1641/0006-3568%282005%29055%5B0863:VONPWT%5D2.0.CO%3B2. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  5. Loehman, R. 2009. Understanding the science of climate change: Talking points – impacts to prairie potholes and grasslands. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/NRR—2009/138. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. Online at http://www.nature.nps.gov/climatechange/docs/PrairieGrasslandsTP.pdf. Accessed July 31, 2011.
  6. Dibike, Y.B., T. Prowse, R. Shrestha, and R. Ahmed. 2011. Observed trends and future projections of precipitation and air temperature in the Lake Winnipeg watershed. Journal of Great Lakes Research doi:10.1016/j.jglr.2011.04.005. Online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0380133011000748. Accessed September 3, 2011.
  7. National Climatic Data Center. 2011. U.S. statewide analysis: Climate at a glance—Annual temperature 1900–2010 trend for Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Washington, DC: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Online at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/cag3/state.html. Accessed September 6, 2011.
  8. CMIP3–B. As cited in U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2009. Global climate change impacts in the United States, edited by T.R. Karl, J.M. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson. Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Online at http://downloads.globalchange.gov/usimpacts/pdfs/climate-impacts-report.pdf. Accessed July 31, 2011.
  9. Johnson, WC et al. 2010. Prairie wetland complexes as landscape functional units in a changing climate. BioScience 60(2):128–140 doi:10.1525/bio.2010.60.2.7. Online at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1525/bio.2010.60.2.7. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  10. Tiner, R.W., et al. 2002. Geographically isolated wetlands: A preliminary assessment of their characteristics and status in selected sreas of the United States. Hadley, MA: U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region. Online at http://www.csu.edu/cerc/researchreports/documents/Geographically IsolatedWetlands2002.pdf. Accessed September 6, 2011.
  11. Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 1986. 1986 North American waterfowl management plan. Cited in Cortus, B.G., et al. 2011.The economics of wetland drainage and retention in Saskatchewan. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics/Revue Canadienne D'Agroeconomie 59 (1):109–126; doi:10.1111/j.1744–7976.2010.01193.x. Online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1744-7976.2010.01193.x/abstract. Accessed September 3, 2011.
  12. Gleason, R., A. Murray, K. Laubhan, and N.H. Euliss, eds. 2008. Ecosystem services derived from wetland conservation practices in the United States prairie pothole region with an emphasis on the U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation reserve and wetlands reserve programs. Professional Paper 1745. Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey. Online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1745/. Accessed July 31, 2011.
  13. Travel Manitoba. 2009. 2009 Western Manitoba regional profile. Online at http://www.travelmanitoba.com/ti/IndustryToolbox/ResearchMarketIntelligence/ StatisticsandIndicators/ManitobaRegionalProfiles/&node=5074. Accessed September 6, 2011.
  14. Trenberth, K.E., P.D. Jones, P. Ambenje, R. Bojariu, D. Easterling, A. Klein Tank, D. Parker, F. Rahimzadeh, J.A. Renwick, M. Rusticucci, B. Soden, and P. Zhai. 2007. Observations: Surface and atmospheric climate change. In Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller. Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Shrestha, R.R., Y.B. Dibike, and T.D. Prowse. 2011. Modelling of climate–induced hydrologic changes in Lake Winnipeg watersheds. Journal of Great Lakes Research doi:10.1016/j.jglr.2011.02.004. Online at http://www.narccap.ucar.edu/doc/pubs/JGLR_291_in_press.pdf. Accessed September 3, 2011.
  16. National Climatic Data Center. 2011. Minnesota precipitation plot time series, 12 month accumulation as of December, January–December 1895–2010. Washington, DC: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Online at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/temp-and-precip/time-series/. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  17. National Climatic Data Center. 2011. Montana precipitation plot time series, 12 month accumulation as of December, January–December 1895–2010. Washington, DC: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Online at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/temp-and-precip/time-series/. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  18. Ojima, D.S., J.M. Lackett, and Central Great Plains Steering Committee and Assessment Team. 2002. Preparing for a changing climate: The potential consequences of climate variability and change—Central Great Plains. A report for the US Global Change Re¬search Program. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University. Online at http://www.nrel.colostate.edu/projects/gpa/gpa_report.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  19. Krapu, G.L., et al. 2006. Mallard brood movements, wetland use, and duckling survival during and following a prairie drought. Journal of Wildlife Management 70:1436–1444. Cited in: Johnson, W.C., et al. 2010. Prairie wetland complexes as landscape functional units in a changing climate. BioScience 60(2):128–140; doi:10.1525/bio.2010.60.2.7. Online at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1525/bio.2010.60.2.7. Accessed July 27, 2011.
  20. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SRES A2.
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