Salt has been mined in Windsor for more than 130 years. Will climate change shift that?

10 Apr 2024 7:05 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

Salt has been mined in Windsor for more than 130 years. Will climate change shift that? | CBC News

Last week, the owner of a Windsor mine that produces road salt laid off 150 people. The company said warmer weather meant less demand for road salt, and thus they would be idling production.

So how might climate change impact the salt mining industry?

Peter Crank, an urban geographer, climatologist and professor at the University of Waterloo, says it's not time to panic just yet.

While it's challenging to predict the weather conditions of the next few winters, Crank says snowier winters than this one might be in store for southern Ontario.

Crank spoke with CBC Radio's Windsor Morning host Amy Dodge. Here is part of their conversation.

How would you classify the winter we just had? 

This past winter has been exceptionally warm here for us in southern Ontario. We haven't had quite as much snow as we typically tend to see here in this part of Canada.

What should we expect when it comes to winter weather because of the climate change in the years and the decades to come?

One of the things that makes this a really tricky question, particularly for us to answer, is that climate and weather aren't always perfectly in sync.

One of my colleagues back in the U.S., Marshall Shepherd, [says] climate is like our personality, but weather is like our mood. Maybe we're a really optimistic person. That doesn't necessarily mean that every single day we're going to walk into work or into our home and have a positive mentality. The weather is oftentimes like that. It changes much more quickly, whereas climate tends to be a bit more stable.

A line of trucks waits on the right side of the road. One truck in the distance drives up the left side of the road. The sky is hazy with precipitation.

A long line of trucks waiting for a load of salt at the Ojibway Mine in Windsor, Ont. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

If we think about Ontario and our winters coming up in the next decades, we can certainly expect to see some warmer winters. But there also is a good chance that we'll see some colder winters that will have just as much snow as we used to have.

And what difference would warmer, less snowy weather make when it comes to how much salt is needed for city streets and highways?

So if we see a decrease in snow, then we might need less salt to make sure that our roads are safe within the city.

One of the challenges that we find here in southern Ontario is that if our temperatures warm, that means that the Great Lakes don't freeze over, which means that we could see lake effect snow for longer periods in the first half of the winter. And if they never freeze over, there's always a threat for lake effect. So that could result in us having more snow, even, as the climate warms.

I'm also wondering how this ties into the salt industry, at least for ice melting purposes. Do we expect the industry to decline?

This is [happening] not just with salt mining, but in a lot of different sectors within society. They're utilizing climate science to support decision making.

This, I think, is going to become a case-by-case basis, where economies, sectors and individual businesses are going to have to really start to talk more with climatologists, learning the specifics of their location as well as their sector within the economy to begin to make these decisions.

It may be something where, in the future we see climatologists and other climate change experts being either hired to be able to make these decisions.

Right now, it's hard to say what the future will look like in terms of the use of salt. But these are definitely things that companies are considering.

There's also been quite a bit of study about the harmful environmental effects of road salt. Might this be an upside of climate change if less is used?

We typically think of [climate change] in negative terms, and there certainly are a lot of negative impacts from climate change. 

However, that certainly could have benefits to our water quality here in southern Ontario, as well as potentially creating fewer potholes, which means we don't have to repair our roads as often. We may see longer growing seasons as well.

But we certainly cannot forget that there are still negative impacts and that there are lots of other places across the globe that are being more negatively impacted than here in Canada.

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