Farming on the southern Prairies has always been a risky business. In many areas, rainfall has historically been low or uneven, and farmers have traditionally relied on good years to carry them through periodic dry spells. But throughout this decade, rainfall has been so sparse that many farmers wonder whether the good years will ever return.
Since 1981, rainfall in parts of Saskatchewan,
Alberta and Manitoba has declined to between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of normal levels.
And climatologists say that extremely hot, dry weather on the Prairies could become the norm because of the so-called greenhouse effect, a global warming trend caused by chemical pollutants. Now, some prairie farmers acknowledge that agriculture must change to meet new climate conditions. Said Rodney Tondevoid, district representative for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in Shaunavon: “People are planning to stay.
But after five years of low precipitation, more are realizing that they can’t farm the way they did 10 years ago.”
Storms: Evidence of greenhouse-like alterations are strong in the drought-afflicted Prairies. Average monthly temperatures in southern Alberta last year were one to four degrees higher than normal. Normally wet months like April have been entirely without rain. Dust storms in some years have increased fivefold in frequency and severity. Winters are turning springlike, with little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures. Those variations are still within the natural range for prairie weather systems, but they are hitting the dry, hot edge of the scale. Said Elaine Wheaton, climatologist at the Saskatchewan Research Council: “It could well be a trial run for the greenhouse—we cannot say for sure. But it is one of the severest
weather patterns we have ever had.” Particularly hard-hit is the Paliser Triangle, an area in the southern Prairies where precipitation is significantly below normal even in good years. Lack of winter snow in the 1980s has resulted in inadequate moisture for the germination of spring crops. With little vegeta-
tion to anchor the soil, erosion caused by wind has increased. But, despite warnings from the scientific community, there is still little diversification of crops or intensification of water-conserving measures. Said Barry Smit, professor of geography at the University of Guelph in Ontario: “Generally, people are planting without looking to the future-more viable agriculture is needed to suit the changing environment.” Gases: Scientists generally agree that the warming trend in the Earth’s climate has already begun. The greenhouse effect is caused naturally by gases, including carbon dioxide, which trap the sun’s heat close to the Earth’s surface. With the increase of those gases caused by increased human activity,
more heat is trapped, creating a warmer and drier climate. Indeed, four of the past 10 years have set records for high temperatures in the Prairie provinces. And experts predict that between the years 2030 and 2050, the Prairies could be three degrees warmer in summer and six to eight degrees warmer in winter.
The growing season could be extended by 50 days from its present 110 days, with longer planting and harvesting seasons. However, even if precipitation increases, greater evaporation could cause droughts to occur more often and with more severity. As a result, spring and fall crops, including the winter wheat now grown in Nebraska, could replace the spring wheat in Saskatchewan. Northern areas with healthy soil but growing seasons that are now too short could become arable. Said Robert Stewart, climatic expert with Agriculture Canada: “It is not doom and gloom in any sense.” Bulk: A smooth transition to agriculture that is more suited to warmer, drier conditions ^ will depend on the
1 on the rate of climatic warming. Slower
2 change-over 30 or 40 g years—will permit the
development of new technologies. But in some areas, farmers may already have run out of time. Said Stewart: “We can’t stop it but we must delay it. If the change happens over five or 10 years, it could overwhelm our ability to cope.”
So far, the bulk of government spending in aid to western farming has taken the form of huge subsidies. Said Smit: “Government funds should go to something other than crisis situations—research instead of subsidies.” But it may take more than warnings to begin the far-reaching changes that agricultural experts say are needed. Before that happens, more—and more severe—droughts may become the rule rather than the exception.
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