Variable winter weather brings uncertainty

BRANDON — Late-season rain wreaked havoc on the 2019 harvest, but those conditions helped restore topsoil moisture to key growing regions.

However, since then snow coverage has been variable across the Prairies, causing some to wonder if the coming growing season will get off to a rocky start.

“If we take a look at rainfall over a three-month period, since Nov. 1, (the Prairies) have been drier-biased for winter precipitation,” said Drew Lerner, president of Kansas City-based World Weather Inc., at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon.

According to the Palmer Drought Index, there are two “pools” showing drier-biased weather conditions: one stretches from northeastern Saskatchewan into northwestern Manitoba, and the other in southern Alberta.

“That area continues to have significant moisture deficit and will continue to for a while longer,” said Lerner, although he mentioned it’s “not necessarily a crisis,” because many of those areas received some moisture before the ground froze.

“A dry winter is not necessarily an omen,” he remarked, emphasizing that many areas of the Prairies are free of drought conditions. Southern Manitoba, in particular, may be in store for a spring flood.

“There’s been a lot of moisture in southern Manitoba, and that’s a concern because of the Red River,” he said.

Substantial snowfall in the United States Red River basin could result in flood conditions north of the border come spring, particularly if the spring thaw occurs rapidly.

Springtime weather on the Prairies is expected to be cooler than average, based on the 18-year cycle and ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. 

“What happens on the West Coast is critical to our growing season.”

Warmer-than-average ocean temperatures affect the jetstream across the Prairies, which influences how weather moves from west to east.

“By looking at similar situations, we can try to predict what’s going on,” he said.

In 2005, the Gulf of Alaska showed similarly warm temperatures, and the Prairies had a cooler spring. In 2020, a ridge of high pressure could result in cooler weather, particularly in the eastern Prairies.

“Soil temperatures will not rise as quickly as we want,” predicted Lerner.

Lerner also cautioned prairie producers to “not get too far ahead” come springtime.

“We might get some nice weather in April, but there’s high potential for freezing in May.”

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