SASKATCHEWAN’S EXTREME WEATHER: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

It’s been quite a spring and summer so far. Due to near steady rain, only 55 percent of the farmland was seeded by May’s end. Even by June’s end, after the extended seeding deadline for crop insurance, it was only 70 percent, which left ten million acres unseeded. Extreme moisture will reduce germination and maturation of some crops, further reducing crop yield. By early July, two million seeded acres were also under water, and the input costs for these fields will add further to the cost-price squeeze of farmers.

One -third of Saskatchewan’s normally-cultivated land under water is unprecedented, but this was also an early warning. Powerful thunderstorms brought more heavy rains, more hail and more dangerous winds. We’ve had tunnel clouds and a few tornadoes and what are called “straight-line” or “plow- winds” which come from micro-bursts – downward rushes of wind from thunder clouds which can be as strong as from tornadoes. According to Environment Canada we’ve had the wettest spring and one of the warmest springs, 2.6 degrees C above “the normal”, since regional records were kept in 1948.  And we’ve had a record of extreme weather events, and there may be more to come.

EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS

It started April 9th with heavy wet snow and 100 km/h winds across many locations. Wind storms continued through May, and on June 10th a severe plow-wind did damage southwest of Regina. Things did not lighten up, for on June 22nd 100 millimeters (mm) or about 4 inches of rain fell abruptly in the Maple Creek area. Upstream, around Medicine Hat, even more rain had already overloaded the South Saskatchewan River and its tributaries. Soon, swollen rivers and creeks flooded Maple Creek and washed out the Trans-Canada highway west of town. Cypress Hills Park was closed for the first time ever. Saskatchewan made the national news.

This was just the start. A June 24th thunderstorm brought 27 mm (over 1 inch) of heavy rain and hail to Regina and area in less than half an hour. Underpasses flooded and there were power outages. Luckily the storm passed and sewers held. On June 29th Saskatoon was tested more; with 80 to 100 mm (3 to 4 inches) of heavy rain and hail over three hours, leading to flooding and power outages. Then on July 1st the Yorkton area had the super-storm; around 100 mm of rain in less than an hour. Some say 150 mm or nearly 6 inches fell. This deluge overwhelmed the storm sewers and more than half of the homes took in water. Some basements became swimming pools and some residents had to be rescued by canoe. This was not how local people expected to celebrate Canada Day, and Saskatchewan was on national news again.

The next day, July 2nd, a tornado hit the Kawacatoose First Nation, just north of Raymore, destroying several homes. No one was seriously hurt, but the damage will worsen the pre-existing housing shortage. Environment Canada reported that this may have been an F3 tornado, happening only once in every twenty of Canada’s one hundred tornadoes annually. F3 tornadoes have winds from 250-330 km an hour. Saskatchewan again made the national news. Then on July 2nd Prince Albert got a 36 mm heavy rain storm.

HARPER’S YORKTON TOUCH-DOWN

There were five news-worthy extreme weather events in just ten days! The national news likely got the attention of Prime Minister Harper’s handlers, and with the Conservatives holding every federal seat except Ralph Goodale’s, Harper likely had to make an appearance. On July 8th he and Premier Wall flew over the Yorkton area to see the damage first hand. Harper left without commenting or taking reporter’s questions; his next stop was the opening of the Calgary Stampede. Coincidentally, that morning federal Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz announced $360 million of federal-provincial spending for Saskatchewan’s flood-ravaged farmers. Not wanting to be upstaged Wall later stressed that $144 million of this, and other flood aid, totaling $283 million, was coming from Saskatchewan.  The federal-provincial spending amounts to $30 an acre; which Leader of the NDP Opposition, Lingenfelter, who had already called for $100 an acre, called “a slap in the face”. There will also be a massive $50 an acre payment in crop-insurance and perhaps other aid after harvest. According to Brad Wall there’s already nearly $300 million in home, business and infrastructure damage across the province.

Farm-based income could drop by $3 billion so the amount of domestic aid matters deeply to farm and rural Saskatchewan.  The political “numbers game” however obscures a bigger question. If Harper had been available for questions when in Yorkton, an informed reporter might have asked: “Mr. Prime Minister, after what you’ve seen are you starting to change your mind about climate change?”  An informed and courageous reporter might have asked: “Mr. Harper, will your government now stop obstructing international measures to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs)?” But, no, Harper was not available for any public discussion of the record-breaking rain and extreme weather events here, and I’ve seen no mainstream news report on his in-and-out trip which connects the obvious dots.

CLIMATE CHANGE ON OUR DOORSTEPS

Harper probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable discussing extreme weather. I would even bet that he and most cabinet colleagues have never opened the cover of the Government of Canada’s 2004 document, “Climate Change Impacts and Adaption: A Canadian Perspective”. In the section on agriculture several projected changes are listed, including “increased frequency of extreme climatic events” and “drier and wetter conditions.” These are not contradictory for extreme weather includes both droughts and flooding. I’ve heard climate science deniers say an especially cold spring, such as we had in 2002, disproves global warming. Not so! The indisputable warming trend which underlies the increasing extreme weather is measured in global mean temperature, which continues to rise as the GHGs in the atmosphere rise. The trend-line is clear. Of course there will be lots of continental and regional variation, including droughts and flooding in the same areas. The world after all is not flat and weather is not linear.

The 2004 report recognizes this uncertainty saying “increased moisture stress and drought are major concerns.” Most vital to us in Saskatchewan, it concluded that “climate change is expected to cause moisture patterns to shift.” One scenario says “precipitation is expected to increase”, though this will “not be sufficient to offset increased moisture losses from warmer temperatures…” Another has moisture levels the “same or higher than present day values” and highlights “areas of concern such as southeastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba where summer precipitation is projected to increase.”

Based on our record-breaking moisture and extreme weather events this year, the latter scenario seems more likely. Regardless, bouts of extreme moisture and then droughts will make farming and rural life much more difficult and perhaps, in some cases, unbearable. Time will tell, but there is nothing to be gained by the Wall and Harper governments keeping their heads in the sand regarding climate change, its cause and mitigation, for it’s now on our doorsteps.

Next time I’ll look at what we can learn from extreme weather events in Manitoba.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Ecology, Human Impact, Sustainability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.