Prepare for an unpredictable, volatile 2019, warn climate experts
- NC Raine | January 25, 2019
A new year means new question marks for climate and resources in Saskatchewan.
The recent effects of climate change in Saskatchewan have been significant, with floods, droughts, extreme weather events and forest fires, often causing the most devastating damage to northern communities and land owners. Experts say trends in weather point toward another volatile year in 2019.
“The only thing we can say with a degree of certainty is that it’s going to be unpredictable and highly volatile. We don’t know if we’re going to get a drought year or flood year,” said Greg Poelzer, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s (U of S) School of Environment and Sustainability.
The greatest climatic threat going forward in Saskatchewan, said Poelzer, is forest fires in the north. 2018 was particularly dry in the prairies, where just over half the average amount of rain fell between April and August. And nearly a third of northern Saskatchewan had to be evacuated due to forest fires.
“I expect a bad forest fire year. We might not get it, but on average we’re going to see increasing numbers and severity of forest fires. That’s our largest climatic threat,” said Poelzer. “We’ve had grass fires last year, which can be devastating for agriculture crops and livestock.”
In the last five years, Saskatchewan and western Canada has experienced the most extreme floods and droughts in its recorded history. Research indicates that minimum temperatures in winter have gone up four to five degrees, with average annual temperatures up two to three degrees. Winters are now as much as two months shorter than they were in the 1970s, and as such yield less snowpack.
“Specifically, in Saskatchewan, what we’re worried about is planting crops. The last few years have been pretty dry, but we try to rely on that snowpack that accumulates over the winter and melts in the summer, helping grow our crops,” said Colin Laroque, Professor at the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
“But when it’s really warm, like it has been recently, you tend to lose all your snowpack. It’s quite terrible when you get to June or July because the moisture isn’t there to replenish your systems.”
This could lead to poor crops, drought, and low water levels, said Laroque.
“One year we might get incredibly high snowpacks and the next, really low, like we are experiencing right now. What it does is present a feast or famine type idea – or if you want to put in in climate-talk – drought or floods,” he said. “It gets so warm so quick at the wrong time, as all the waters just flood across the service.”
The small snow packs and warmer temperatures have serious implications for many northern First Nations and communities, who depend on ice-roads to transport necessary supplies. “
“The time you used to have to carry up gas, wood, and supplies to these remote communities has gone from months to short weeks,” said Laroque.
Earlier in 2018, Saskatchewan released their ‘Prairie Resilience’ climate strategy, including 25 measures to help monitor and enhance resilience to climate change.
First Nations and other northern communities, vulnerable to the unpredictable climate changes, do have measures they can take to increase security, experts say.
“We have to start building significant firebreaks around communities with critical assets,” said Poelzer. “This is where we have to work close in partnership with provincial and federal government to do firebreaks around those communities (...) we almost have to expect the worst to happen every summer. So, we should be getting First Nations more engaged into that kind of fire management.”
And due to these rapid and unpredictable changes in weather, land, water and vegetation is under increased pressure, posing challenges to farmer and others who rely on natural resources. Laroque said that it’s important under circumstances to remain flexible.
“Diversifying is important for First Nations. If one thing isn’t growing, perhaps another is. But it’s difficult because we find ourselves at the whim of mother nature. It’s harder to predict and understand what’s happening,” said Laroque. “We have to listen to the land as best possible and be ready to adapt and diversify.”