Drought a concern for ag industry in Western Canada
February 7, 2024 By The Weather Network
After an exceptionally dry 2023, drought is on a lot of minds in Canada this winter.
As reported by Connor O’Donovan of The Weather Network, in Alberta, the provincial government has drafted an emergency plan to deal with drought in 2024 and has put together a “drought command team” that will be working with water license holders to develop new ways to share and manage water in the year ahead. After more than 20 municipalities declared agricultural emergencies in 2023, Alberta’s farmers are certainly eyeing the skies with concern as well, and its fire chiefs have expressed concern about the impact of dry weather on wildfires in the season ahead.
So, what is the environmental recipe for a severely impactful drought, and what ingredients are already in the climate kitchen as we move through 2024? We can look to 2023 for a hint.
“Low mountain snowpack, early melt then extreme heat, high evaporation rates and lack of summer rainfall,” says hydrologist John Pomeroy of the conditions that contributed to drought last year. Pomeroy is the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, and the director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for Hydrology.
“We’ve never seen a hydrological year quite like this in Western Canada.”
As Pomeroy says, 2023 saw “some of the lowest stream flows ever recorded” on water systems like the Bow River, record wildfire seasons in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan thanks to dry conditions, water use restrictions in major cities, shrinking water reservoir levels, early irrigation shutdowns and low agricultural yields in some parts of Alberta as communities across the province declared agricultural emergencies. In its December 2023 drought assessment, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada declared 70 per cent of the country “abnormally dry or in moderate to exceptional drought,” including 81 per cent of Canada’s agricultural landscape. Hydropower production was also affected in Manitoba and British Columbia.
Pomeroy’s University of Saskatchewan research team also recorded record-high ice melt in the Columbia and Wapta icefields, which could lead to longer-term water supply issues.
“It started with some record heat and rapid melt of the very low mountain snowpack in the spring,” Pomeroy says.
“Low snowpacks and low water storage in the Rockies will affect things right through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and of course British Columbia, and then down into the U.S. Pacific Northwest and north into the Northwest Territories.”
Parts of Western Canada then saw record heat in the spring and below-normal precipitation throughout the year.
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