Adapting to Climate Change in Ontario Parks

Kirsten Feifel
Posted on: 2/06/2013 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

Climate change is expected to negatively impact the parks and protected lands in Ontario. To better prepare for these adverse impacts, 45 experts were convened and surveyed in order to identify the most feasible and desirable adaptation recommendations in a systematic fashion. In sum, over 1,000 recommendations were generated and later condensed down to nearly 160. Fifty-six of these recommendations were deemed “desirable” or “highly desirable” by panel experts but only two were considered to be highly feasible. This case study reviews the survey process and results developed to help Ontario Parks adapt to climate change.


It is generally well accepted that climate change will present unforeseen challenges and difficulties to protected areas across Canada. Canada has over 101.2 million hectares reserved as protected areas, roughly 9.92% of Canada’s total land area. In a survey of 35 protected areas conducted by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas, 89% of managers thought that climate change was a relevant issue necessitating management considerations and 91% felt that climate change will substantially alter protected areas policy and planning over the next 25 years; no one surveyed had yet incorporated climate change adaptation policies into their management strategies. Indeed, 86% of those surveyed felt that they did not have the capacity to properly deal with climate change issues (Lemieux et al. 2011). 

Instrumental records indicate that Ontario has, in general, experienced a warming trend since the Industrial Revolution. While the average global temperature has warmed by about 0.74°C over the past century, parts of Ontario have experienced double that warming trend over the same time period. These warming trends are projected to increase into the future due to the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases being emitted in to the atmosphere. For example, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium used 32 global climate models to project an increase in mean temperature of 3.1-10.6°C by the 2080s over terrestrial Canada and a +2.5 to +19.2% change in mean annual precipitation.

Ontario has over 621 protected areas – 329 provincial parks and 292 conservation reserves. Given the diverse landscapes housed within Ontario’s protected areas, the impacts of climate change will be place-specific and varied but may include:

  • Changes in biodiversity and species’ ranges based upon thermal tolerances;
  • Novel and invasive species in new geographic locales;
  • Altered recreational and tourism opportunities; and
  • Changing fire regimes and patterns.


In order to develop viable climate change adaptation strategies for protected areas in Ontario, a team led by the University of Waterloo, Ontario Parks, and the Parks Research Forum of Ontario (now the Centre for Applied Science in Ontario Protected Areas) was formed in 2004. Their research objectives were to:

  1. Evaluate the desirability of climate change adaptation options;
  2. Evaluate the feasibility of climate change adaptation options; and
  3. Prioritize climate change adaptation options for Ontario Parks.

The team used a seven-step iterative adaptation methodology to guide their study. The key steps were to:

  1. Engage stakeholders through workshops;
  2. Define the problems managers encountered when trying to assess sensitivities to climate change (see Lemieux and Scott 2005);
  3. Assess adaptive capacities of regions or organizations;
  4. Identify adaptation options including current and potential future policies;
  5. Evaluate adaptation options and select action items based upon desirability, feasibility, and implementation timeframe;
  6. Implement selected adaptation items; and
  7. Monitor and evaluate adaptation efficacy.

This process was presented to 45 expert panelists who collectively produced 1,130 climate change adaptation options. These strategies were then synthesized into 164 recommendations and further evaluated based upon their desirability, feasibility, and implementation timeframe. Lemieux et al. (2007) detail the ranking system and outcomes in their report; some highlights include:

  • Policy, system planning, and legislation:
    • Protected areas system planning should identify “representative” organisms/landscapes to protect in order to increase the likelihood that associated plants/animals/habitats will remain protected under climate change. 
    • The focus should shift from ecological “patterns” and more to ecological “processes.”   
    • Parks should adopt and employ a science-based adaptive management approach.
    • The concept of ecological integrity, a long-term mandate for Ontario parks, should be defined to include “acceptable rates of change” with climate change considerations. 
  • Management direction:
    • Climate change should be integrated into parks’ management plans and statements.
    • The role and value of protected areas and their associated “zones” needs to be reevaluated every ten years to better assess the impacts of a changing climate.
    • Species-at-risk translocation and active management may be undesirable activities. 
  • Operations and development:
    • Parks should strive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and identify alternative sources of energy and waste reduction strategies. 
  • Research, monitoring, and reporting:
    • A monitoring program specific to climate change should be established to assess the impacts and trends of climate-related changes, especially in regards to regionally-threatened species and other ‘target’ species.
    • A volunteer-based monitoring system could reduce the costs and labor requirements of an effective monitoring system, but participants need to be properly trained and educated to validate observations. 
  • Corporate culture and function:
    • Internal capacity should be built within the park’s system through internal training sessions and science workshops to foster an informed and climate aware staff.
  • Education, interpretation, and outreach:
    • Ontario Parks should develop interpretation and outreach materials and activities to inform the public about climate change impacts to regional parks.
    • A national climate change working group should be established to address climate change and protected area issues.

To further refine and focus adaptation strategies, a ‘first-order’ list was developed based upon those recommendations that had been considered to be desirable or very desirable by 90% or more of the panel; this limited the number of recommendations to 56. Of the 56 highly desirable recommendations, half were evaluated as “definitely not feasible” to “probably not feasible” by the panel. Only two recommendations were listed as “definitely implementable”:

  1. Ontario Parks could develop a strategic and corporate policy on climate change and protected areas to provide sufficient direction for planning and management; and
  2. Future protected natural areas establishment could be focused on protecting the northern limits of species’ ranges and other highly vulnerable species. 

This survey was partially funded by the Government of Canada’s Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Program (CCIAP) (Project #A1393), the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The OMNR is actively pursuing ways to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Comprehensive reports and practitioner surveys are valuable tools to begin the process of climate change adaptation. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations developed through the survey process are currently unattainable according to a majority of experts; however, efforts are being made to help resource and park managers to feel more empowered and prepared to adapt to a changing climate. 

In 2007, the report Climate Change and Ontario’s Provincial Parks: Towards an Adaptation Strategy was released (Lemieux et al. 2007). It serves as a program-level strategy and action plan to implement a framework to help the OMNR prepare for the impacts of climate change. The framework is divided in to three themes: understanding climate change, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and adapting to climate change. Each theme has strategies and sub-strategies to support and better prepare Ontarians for adverse climate change impacts.


Feifel, K. M. (2012). Adapting to Climate Change in Ontario Parks [Case study on a project of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated October 2012)

Affiliated Organizations

The Ministry of Natural Resources works collaboratively with a wide variety of partners, environmental organizations, private resource sector industry, fish and game associations, researchers, and other government agencies of all levels, to name just a few. We conduct scientific research and apply the findings to develop effective resource management policies. The Ministry of Natural Resources also manages Ontario’s Crown land, promotes economic opportunities in the resource sector and enhances opportunities for outdoor recreation.