Monday, December 27, 2010

The Coming "New Normal" for Prairie Farmerrs

By Hanneke Brooymans
December 26, 2010

Camrose, Alberta-area farmer Larry Selin in a parched canola field in
June 2009.Photograph by: John Lucas, file,
In April this year, farmers in large swaths of Alberta were staring morosely at dusty, parched fields. A few months later, some of the same farmers were coping with floods.

Welcome to the “new normal.” It’s a world where nature takes on a Jekyll and Hyde personality, twisting from one extreme to another in a mind-bogglingly short time.

“When people describe the new norm, it is almost as if what we haven’t seen in recent years is weather that seems to be normal,” says David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada. “It seems to be that it’s out of sync. We’re seeing more extremes.”

And it’s not just that we’re seeing more wet days or torrid temperatures or stronger winds, he added. Instead, we seem to be getting droughts and floods in the same year.

Now, Canadians are not wimps, Phillips says. We’re used to dealing with one of the most variable climates on the planet. But the extremes were not usually delivered as frequently. The problem is that when everything is averaged out, as climatologists tend to do, you still get pretty close to the climate normals that we’re used to seeing.

“Everything is based on the normal,” Phillips explains. “You wouldn’t build California-style homes in Edmonton. You wouldn’t grow cotton around Edmonton. We make decisions based on the normal and that’s why we have climatic numbers, so we don’t get ruined and trapped and clobbered by nature. We go along with what conditions allow in that area.”

But now, though things may seem close to normal, they’re really not.

Insurers can testify to that. They are being burned right, left and centre, Phillips says. “They have a good data set. They look at weather data over many, many years. They spread the risk and the risk is based on the past.” But now, if they pick the norm, they’re going to be in trouble. “They’re going to be facing more payouts than what they’re going to get in premiums.”

Climatologists base their climate normals on 30-year chunks of data. For the last decade, we’ve been comparing our daily and seasonal weather to what we experienced from 1971 to 2000.

But as soon as they do some quality control for this past year, we will all be comparing our weather to the 1981 to 2010 data.

It snowed a lot in the ’70s, so the new normal will average less snow. There is also a trend toward fewer colder days each year, says Phillips, who defines a cold day as anything below -20 C.

There were an average of 45 cold days a year between 1961 and 1990. In this most recent 30-year set, assuming an average number for this December, there were 37 of those days, Phillips says.

“When you look just at the shift in temperature ... it looks favourable for Canada,” says David Sauchyn, co-editor and author of The New Normal: The Canadian Prairies in a Changing Climate, released earlier this year.

“But that’s not the problem. The problem is not the shift in the average, it’s the shift in the extremes. And that’s going to be the most challenging consequence of global warming in our region.”

Fewer cold days means lower heating costs and less hazardous weather for people outdoors, says Sauchyn, senior research scientist at the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative and a geography professor at the University of Regina.

But it also means problems with winter roads in the north, more insects surviving the winter, and less snow building up in the winter. More than 80 per cent of our water is snow melt that fills our rivers, lakes, sloughs and dugouts in the spring, he says.

Like Phillips, Sauchyn said the new normal means we need to change policy and planning decisions.

“We in Canada, and I guess especially Western Canada, have been fairly sloppy in our use of water. ... A lot of the adaptation that’s going to be necessary to sustain our economy and our communities with a little bit less water, a lot of that can be realized simply by more conservative or judicious use of the water supply. It’s entirely possible that we could see droughts — dry years or even a sequence of years — that are quite a bit worse than anything we’ve experienced, because most of us were born after the 1930s.”

Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, says climate change will bring opportunity. It may be a change in crop rotation or the types of crops they grow, or their ability to grow farther north.

But he also recognizes that water is going to become a bigger issue.

“Farmers now are going to have to start looking at prolonged droughts like we had from 2005 to 2008. Or heat waves, or rains like we had this year. Things are a little bit more on the extreme. So we’re going to have to start looking at adjusting practices.”

Crop genetics, for example, are going to be more important because farmers will need drought-resistant crops that can survive when rain fails to arrive at opportune times, he said.

It also means that programs, such as crop insurance or other financial assistance, will be needed to make sure farms don’t fail when those extremes happen.

Phillips says it would be wise for everyone — from farmers to city planners — to base decisions more on recent weather patterns from the last 10 years than the last 30 or 40 years. And that holds equally on whether they’re worried about droughts or floods.

“You can’t hide from nature. But what you can do is to prevent it from becoming a disaster by planning accordingly. The new norm means we don’t do what we did 50 years ago.”

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