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Environment

Climate change is increasing winter drownings: study


A new study argues rising temperatures could be responsible for an increase in winter drownings reported in northern nations.

Research published in the scientific journal Plos One looked at more than 4,000 winter drownings in 10 countries – Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

When researchers compared records of drownings with air temperatures, they found the number of fatal drownings increased as winters became warmer and lake ice less stable.

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“I just don’t think we have appreciated that one of the costs of changing winter conditions is increased drownings,” said Stephanie Hampton, director of the US National Science Foundation’s division of environmental biology.

“There’s a very powerful message here.”

The study’s authors found the largest number of drownings happened when winter air temperatures were between -5C and 0C, when ice is less stable. Drowning numbers were also high in regions where activities related to travel, livelihood, or traditional Indigenous practices required more time on the ice. 

Canada had the highest number of winter drownings among the countries examined. The three northern territories had the greatest number of drownings per head of population.

Countries like Italy and Germany – which closely regulate who can go on the ice, when, and for what purpose – had a low incidence of drownings. 

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The study found rates of winter drownings were highest across the world late in the season. In Canada, most drownings occurred in April.

Globally, almost half of drowning victims were children under the age of nine, while the majority of drowning victims in vehicles were young adults under 24. 

The likelihood of drowning was lower when temperatures dropped below -10C, the study found, except in Canada’s territories where there were a high number of drownings per capita despite very cold conditions.

Madeline Lake begins to freeze over in October 2020
Madeline Lake begins to freeze over in October 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Researchers suggested that could be due to heavier activity on the ice and factors like increased exposure or poorer visibility. 

“Even if you have very cold winters, if you just have a lot of people out on the ice, a lot of the time you’re going to see more drownings just because there’s so many people out,” explained Catherine O’Reilly, an associate professor at Illinois State University and one of the study’s authors.

“There’s something else happening in those communities where public safety could probably be addressed in a different way to reduce the number of drownings that happen.” 

According to the Lifesaving Society, 15 people drowned in the Northwest Territories between 2013 and 2017 – though those occurred largely between June and September. Fourteen of the 15 people who drowned were male.

The melting Dettah ice road on April 19, 2020.

O’Reilly hopes the study will encourage communities to consider climate change in devising public safety measures. Hampton suggested that could mean rescheduling winter ice activities like ice fishing, skating and snowmobiling as conditions change over time. 

“The best advice that you hear – which I’m reminded of when I read this paper – is if you’re not prepared to go through the ice, don’t go on the ice,” she said.

Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, author of The Right to Be Cold, has noted that as Arctic sea ice weakens, hunting for traditional food is becoming more dangerous.

Watt-Cloutier noted Inuit are no longer able to travel across the ice on some of the routes they’ve used for years because of climate change.  

According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, a major federal document released in 2019, lake ice cover has declined across Canada due to later ice formation in the fall and earlier spring breakup.

By the middle of this century, the report expects lake ice breakup to be taking place 10 to 25 days earlier and freeze-up five to 15 days later.

There have also been significant reductions in sea ice cover in the Canadian Arctic, particularly in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic archipelago. 

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