Prairie climate already changing

A five-year study of Western Canada’s climate and hydrology reveals that farmers better be ready and willing to adapt.

“Climate and landscape in Western Canada are changing probably faster than anywhere else in the world,” said Howard Wheater, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We are undergoing the most rapid warming of the planet’s cold regions in the history of humanity.”

Research conducted by the Changing Cold Regions Network shows winter minimum temperatures have gone up four to five degrees in the last 50 years, while average temperatures have risen two to three degrees.

Winters are as much as two months shorter than they were in the 1970s across the region and there is reduced snow cover and depth.

There are many implications for prairie agriculture. In the last five years the region has received the most extreme floods and droughts in recorded history and there has been a shift in the timing and location of those floods.

Wheater said farmers should brace for more of the same in the future, although the floods and droughts will be increasingly intense. There will also be an increase in wildfires.

There is going to be more rain, less snow and earlier snow melts. Some water basins will experience increased water flows, while others will have decreased flows.

Farmers can expect intense, extreme multi-day summer rainfalls and more days of above 30 C weather.

The warming trend will continue, bringing heat stress to crops and animals in the southern portion of the Prairies.

“A big unknown is with the warmer climate, where do we go in terms of pests and diseases?” said Wheater.

Farmers will be growing different crops than they are now and farming different land as crops and grassland expand north into the southern boreal forest.

Researchers are still pulling the data together and don’t know yet how it will be used.

“This is raw information and we need to digest it and we need to turn it into products that would be useful to farmers,” said Wheater.

The network is working with Environment Canada and Agriculture Canada to create better models for predicting floods, seasonal water flows and soil moisture conditions.

It also intends to work with Agriculture Canada on another project.

“To improve not only their reporting of drought but forecasting of drought,” he said.

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