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Change Of Plains

A Sask scientist lays out the Prairie climate scenario

by Paul Dechene


We sure had a disappointing summer. Chilly, damp days broken up by torrential downpours and the odd sunny spell. It was like the weather gods got confused and thought this was Vancouver. (I hear they have a bad sense of direction.)
This makes two less-than-summery summers in a row and I’d like to console myself by figuring the next one just has to be better.
But from what I’ve read in The New Normal, a book the Canadian Plains Research Centre will be launching on Nov. 16 at the University of Regina, we’d better get used to being soggy. What we’ve just experienced represents a new trend on the Prairies: record-breaking summertime precipitation with much of it coming in the form of severe storms.
“We’ve just gone through the wettest summer on record. And the records go back to the 1880s,” says David Sauchyn, one of The New Normal’seditors (along with Harry Diaz and Suren Kulshreshtha).
“And yet, until March there was a severe drought in western Saskatchewan,” he continues. “In central Alberta and over in western Saskatchewan, conditions were drier than they’d ever been.”
So, from the driest conditions on record to the wettest all in the same year. Any doubts about why we saw such bizarre extremes?
“We can’t say this is caused by global warming,” says Sauchyn, who’s also a geography professor at the U of R and a senior research scientist at the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. “We can’t say for certain. But it is consistent. It’s what you would expect with a warming climate.”
In fact, Sauchyn says many of the weather patterns we are experiencing now are thanks to global warming — of the human-caused variety — and we can look forward to many more changes in the near future. His book takes a detailed look at how those changes in the global climate are going to affect the Canadian Prairies and outlines the challenges and opportunities we can expect to face.
So, beyond stormier summers, what else do climate scientists anticipate for the Prairie provinces?
Sauchyn says that one of the most noticeable trends is that the low end of the Prairie temperature spectrum is shifting upward faster than the high end. That means that while we’re not getting many more really hot summer days, the number of extremely cold winter days is shrinking.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But Sauchyn is cautious.
“You could think of lots of advantages to having fewer really cold days,” he says. “But we’re losing the advantage of a cold winter.”
Advantage? Never thought of it that way. But Sauchyn says there are many pests and diseases we don’t have to deal with because of our bitter winters.
“The prime example is the pine beetle,” he says. “There has been this massive and devastating outbreak of the pine beetle starting in BC but now heading across the Prairies, and it’s been attributed to the warm winters where the pine beetle has been able to survive and propagate.”
Up north, meanwhile, many industries and remote communities rely on frozen ground and frozen rivers and lakes to get around. Fewer days with viable winter roads could be devastating for them.
Beyond all that, though, the most important advantage of cold winters is snow.
“Something like 80 per cent of all the water that we use comes from melting snow,” says Sauchyn. “That’s because it’s a natural way of storing water.”
And as for all the increased rain we can expect to see in summer, because it’s coming in the form of intense storms, it’s unlikely to offset the water we lose from reduced snowfall.
Storm water is difficult to manage and much of it will be lost to evaporation and runoff. Plus, there are other problems that come with getting our water this way.
“You’ve seen the headlines about the flooding and the damage,” says Sauchyn. “Hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance claims. And in particular, about the condition of crops. So much crop couldn’t be seeded because the ground was too wet. Or, in some cases, the crop was put in the ground but you couldn’t get at it because the ground was too wet to harvest.”
And while Sauchyn speaks about the Prairies’ changing climate with confidence, he concedes there’s a lot of uncertainty about the details. But that doesn’t change the fact that science knows in broad terms where we’re headed. And that’s good, because with that knowledge we can begin to prepare for the future.
As such, a sizable portion of The New Normal is devoted to looking at strategies for how we can adapt to climate change. From digging deeper dugouts, investing in improved irrigation, to researching the feasibility of zeppelins in northern Manitoba, the book examines a whole range of options either being considered or implemented in the Prairie provinces.
“Adaptation is not a foreign concept to people on the Prairies,” says Sauchyn. “You wouldn’t be able to live here without adaptation. The problem is we are adapted to a past climate. We are adapted to the climate of the last hundred years, which is not the climate of the next hundred years.”
Fortunately, according to Sauchyn, we should be in a good position to weather the storms to come because we have a surplus of adaptive capacity. We have natural resources, money, an educated populace and universities and institutions that, all together, can drive innovation.
“But there’s one extremely important ingredient,” he points out, “and that’s the will to do something. The political will. And unfortunately, that seems to be lacking.”
The Canadian Plains Research Centre will launch The New Normal and two other new books Thursday Nov. 16 at the Terrace, 10 University Dr., University of Regina. A podcast of the David Sauchyn interview will be posted on on Thursday, Nov. 5.