Spectre of drought remains over much of the Prairies

Trevor Hadwen does not like what he sees when he looks at the drought map for the Canadian Prairies.

“If the current trend continues there’s going to be a problem in terms of lack of soil moisture,” said the manager of Agriculture Canada’s National Agroclimate Information Service.

“But again, we’re still fairly far off from spring.”

The drought map as of Jan. 31 shows that southeastern Saskatchewan and almost all of Manitoba’s agricultural area is experiencing severe drought.

“We typically don’t see severe droughts at this time of year. We’re pushing those limits that we would normally see,” said Hadwen.

Winter is typically a time for replenishing soil moisture, so it is worrisome that about half of the growing region is experiencing some level of drought heading into spring.

But the heaviest snowfalls usually occur in February and March, so there is time to address the shortfall before spring thaw.

Hadwen puts little faith in seasonal forecasts. Monthly forecasts tend to be more accurate and the February forecast is calling for normal precipitation.

Terri Lang, meteorologist with Environment Canada, said there is a weak La Nina event in place that should be exerting its influence on the winter weather but that hasn’t been the case.

“It’s supposed to be colder than average and wetter than average,” she said.

“And so far for this winter it has been neither of those.”

Long-range precipitation forecasting is an inexact science at best and a coin toss at worst.

“Especially with the changes coming with our changing climate it’s getting more complicated to try and forecast into the future,” said Lang.

That said, there are signs that La Nina might be “sorting herself out,” which should result in more winter and early spring precipitation, which would be a good thing for most farmers.

There is a lot of conflicting information circulating around about just how dry it is and what are the problem areas.

Analysts at winter crop meetings have been using Agriculture Canada’s soil moisture map to show farmers where it is dry and how severe the shortfall is.

That map shows that Saskatchewan is in big trouble. A large part of the south-central and southeastern part of the province has less than 40 percent of its usual soil moisture, while much of the remainder of Saskatchewan is in the 40 to 60 percent range.

The map is at odds with the drought map, which indicates that most of the problem is in Manitoba.

Hadwen said the soil moisture map can be a little misleading during winter. It is a model that gauges the water level deep down in the root zone of the soil but does not account for the snowpack sitting on top of the soil.

It does not factor in the giant November storm that dumped a huge amount of snow on western Saskatchewan, so it makes the province look worse than it is.

The drought monitor map is not a model. It is an analysis that factors in soil moisture levels, snowfall, temperature, wind and evaporation.

“It’s a lot more comprehensive,” he said.

“It should tell the bigger story.”

The drought monitor map should give farmers a better picture of the conditions they are facing as they prepare for spring.

Unfortunately, it is an ugly picture for those in the western half of the Prairies.

“We’re falling further behind on our accumulated precipitation throughout the winter period,” said Hadwen.

The good news is that it has also been dry in central Alberta around Edmonton, an area that desperately needed a break from the wet conditions.

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