Continued adaption will occur because of water availability in Western Canada

Dr. John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, was in Swift Current on June 13 for a presentation on Saskatchewan’s water future.

Both agriculture producers and governments should be prepared to make wide scale changes in the future in response to the continuing climate changes which are occurring in Saskatchewan and around the world.

Dr. John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, was in Swift Current on June 13 for a presentation on Saskatchewan’s water future. He points out there have been significant changes to temperature, precipitation and snow cover across Western Canada since the 1950s.

“Temperatures have already gone up quite a bit, especially in winter. A lot of that’s associated with Chinooks being somewhat more powerful, more frequent. And a general increase in precipitation, but an increase in the variability of it as well,” he said during an interview before his presentation.

“So while there might be some very wet years, periodically some extreme droughts as well. And that’s kind of what we’ll see more of with more intense, more winter warming.”

He said with producers potentially facing ground that’s not always frozen, combined with a snowpack that’s more irregular and where some winter rains will occur instead of snow, these factors will combine to have a significant impact on crops. He explained that the annual air temperature average in Western Canada has increased 6.5 Celsius from 1950 to 2012.

“Summer warming will be somewhat muted. There will be warmer summers for sure, but not to the extent that winter will and has warmed up already.”

“And we’re looking at how this plays out with soil moisture and water supply. The mid-winter melting and increasing of that, if the soils are thawed, will recharge soil moisture in mid-winter. So that’s potentially good. But the evaporation will start earlier and start to dry out those soils earlier. So it might be challenging for some crops in the area.”

Dr. Pomeroy sees more producers trying to irrigate if they can because of the reliability of getting the water to the crops. Also, with warmer winters, he anticipates a change in the nature of crops that can be successfully grown in Saskatchewan. He noted the province is already seeing some corn move into the province, along with growing acres of soy beans and pulse crops.

“Partly they’re being bred to handle the latitude and the sunlight hours that we have to take advantage of that. But we’ll have to sort out whether there’s really enough moisture to grow these crops here on a regular basis. We can get fooled by a few wet years and say ‘this works’. But it might work for a few years, but not in others.”

“Flexibility and adaptability is always going to have to continue to be the hallmark of a Saskatchewan farmers.”

Dr. Pomeroy said his efforts are also being directed towards an attempt to improve both climate and precipitation predictions. He would like to develop better flood forecasting models, plus improved seasonal forecasting of droughts on a more longer term.

“We’d love to get to a point where we could say with six months, and some credibility, whether we’re looking at drought or not. We’re not there yet, but there’s progress however.”

By having a multiple year forecast, the prairies would be better prepared for what to expect from the climate and the resulting water supply. That would be key information for dryland agriculture plus water conservation on river basins feeding the major rivers.

He has observed that climate changes have already resulted in weather systems that can stall, delivering either wet or dry weather.

“We’re seeing greater clustering of storms and precipitation now. Where we used to get a rain storm, and then a few weeks of dry, and another rain storm. Now we’re seeing storms cluster together over three or four days, and a greater frequency of that. And they tend to occur in May and June much more than before.”

He noted these multiple day events can be problematic. In 2014, much of the province was too wet to seed for an extended period. He also points to mid July flooding in Eastern Saskatchewan which resulted completely from rainfall over a large area, on occurrence which had never happened before.

Dr. Pomeroy said governments should be looking closer as taking action to controlling greenhouse gases.

“Yes. Reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And that has to be a major project for governments and society at large,” he said, noting carbon dioxide levels have reached over 400 parts per million, compared to only 270 parts per million when our grandparents were alive.

“It’s a dramatic increase in the gas concentration. So the atmosphere is behaving differently,” he said. “We’re also seeing changes because the north polar region is much warmer, much, much warmer than it used to be. And we have an open Arctic Ocean much of the time. The difference is the temperature between the equatorial regions and the polar regions is reduced. And so cold air and warm air can both move north and south more easily than before. And the flow from west to east is weaker. And so we’ll see warm air in winter occurring quite far north in parts of Canada, like we did in mid-January where the whole country was above freezing coast to coast. And then also periods of polar air being far south of the polar region, sitting for weeks in parts of Canada at a time. And April of this year is a good example of that.”

“But the variability is incredible. We’ve slipped from a near record cold April to a near record hot May,” he said. “That’s indicative of what we should expect more of in the future and what we have to cope with.”

Improved weather, climate and hydrological models would clearly be useful for governments in planning community water supplies, providing advice to producers what crops might be suitable for an area, and how to manage reservoirs if areas are planning for irrigation expansion.

“These changes are world wide. So the implications for Saskatchewan are more than just local. There are many parts of the world that won’t be able to produce food in the future. And it’s already happening with the droughts in California and other parts of the US Southwest and Southern Great Plains. And we’ll see more of this. So the value of our produce is going to increase tremendously, and the desire of people to live here will increase tremendously.”