Drought and wildfire concerns rise as Canada navigates a shift from El Niño to La Niña

Faculty of Engineering
Research and innovation
Civil Engineering
Climate change

By Bernard Rizk

Media Relations Agent, uOttawa

Drought and wildfire concerns rise as Canada navigates a shift from El Niño to La Niña
The winter of 2024 was characterized by various unusual climatic events that set new records.

We spoke with Associate Professor Hossein Bonakdari, from the Department of Civil Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, who is an expert in climate change and environmental engineering. He shared his insights on the upcoming climate anomalies, extreme weather changes in Canada, and the potential impacts on future seasons.

The conversation covered topics such as the record-breaking warmth, risks of droughts and wildfires, and the effects of transitioning from El Niño to La Niña – a climate pattern that results in drier, warmer conditions in the Southwestern US, but heavy rains and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, with periodic cold spells in various parts of North America – offering a detailed overview of recent weather patterns and forecasts for Canada.

Q: What were some notable climate anomalies that occurred during the winter 2024?

Professor Bonakdari: The winter of 2024 saw record-breaking warmth globally, with Canada experiencing its hottest winter on record and Europe having its warmest February and second-warmest winter. These anomalies were influenced by factors like the El Niño phenomenon, higher ocean temperatures, and the broader effects of climate change.

Canada witnessed dramatic weather shifts with periods of dry, warm conditions abruptly transitioning to intense cold spells. The season started with low snowfall, leading to an exceptionally warm January across many regions. Ottawa even experienced a remarkable 28-degree temperature swing in just 10 hours, setting a record for rapid temperature variation.

Q: What do your AI-supported tools tell you about weather for Canada in 2024?

Professor Bonakdari: The forecast indicates above-normal temperatures across much of Canada from March to May 2024, raising concerns about prolonged drought conditions that could exacerbate wildfire risks. In 2023, wildfires affected an unprecedented 18.5 million hectares, and with ongoing droughts influenced by El Niño, Canada faces a serious wildfire threat in 2024.

Forecasts suggest an 80% likelihood of shifting to ENSO-Neutral conditions, meaning neither El Niño nor La Niña, by mid-2024 (April-to-June), followed by an almost 60% chance of transitioning to La Niña in June-to-August, which could further influence global climate patterns. The transition from El Niño to La Niña is expected to lead to cooler temperatures during the final months of 2024, especially across the Prairies, and a change in the jet stream that could lead to increased precipitation for western Canada, Ontario and Quebec. 

Hossein Bonakdari

“With ongoing droughts influenced by El Niño, Canada faces a serious wildfire threat in 2024”

Hossein Bonakdari

— Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

Q: What are the initial outlooks for spring and summer 2024 in terms of precipitation and temperature across Canada?

Professor Bonakdari: British Columbia may experience drier-than-normal conditions, heightening wildfire risks, while Alberta faces concerns about drought and potential late-season wildfires.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba may see a transition to wetter conditions in May.

Ontario and Quebec are likely to face dry conditions as the season progresses. Temperature-wise, several provinces are forecasted to experience warmer-than-normal temperatures with occasional colder spells interrupting the mild patterns.

The Maritimes should also see near-normal or slightly above-normal temperatures with the potential for an active storm track early in the season, which may lead to a shift towards drier conditions later on. Newfoundland and Labrador might see typical rainfall but with a chance of early storms, leading to drier weather, and the north could be warmer.

Members of the media may directly contact:

Hossein Bonakdari (English and French)

Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

[email protected]