Albertans can expect to see more extreme weather as climate change reshapes the landscape of the Prairies.
“There’s quite a bit of strong scientific evidence that, in a warming climate, you can expect extreme weather events to occur with increased severity, in particular flooding and wildfire,” said Dave Sauchyn, director of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, a climate research centre at the University of Regina.
“This is probably the most challenging scenario we face on the Prairies — as these events occur with greater severity and greater cost, how do we deal with it?”
That’s the focus of a new climate impact report from Natural Resources Canada that specifically looks at the Prairies.
Recent research on the floods in southwestern Alberta in 2013, the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, and the seasonal droughts across the province found these 100-year weather events “occurred with somewhat greater severity because they were occurring in a warmer climate.”
“All of these costly extreme weather events have occurred in the last 10 years,” Sauchyn said during a virtual panel discussion on the new report. “And of the 10 most costly weather events since they’ve been documenting, six of the 10 occurred in Alberta.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story because “drought doesn’t make the list” as the cost of destructive weather is typically measured in terms of property insurance payouts — even though the financial losses to farmers can be huge, said Sauchyn, pointing to drought-prone areas such as southern Alberta.
“If you can cast your memory back to the early 2000s, it really was devastating,” he said. “There were millions of hectares of land that did not produce a crop. In 2002, there was negative farm income in Saskatchewan and zero farm income in Alberta.
“But because these weren’t insured the way property is insured, it’s difficult to compare the cost of drought to the cost of other weather hazards.”
Those “infamous drought years” didn’t just affect farmers, said another speaker on the panel.
“Drought represents a risk to agriculture of course, but it also has ripple effects across the economy not only on the Prairies but also to all of Canada,” said Elaine Wheaton, a climate scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
Threats and opportunities
Governments respond to weather disasters but need to take a more proactive approach in preparing for them, said Sauchyn.
“Emergency preparedness for flooding, drought, and storms is important, but it’s not the total solution,” he said, citing the need for better collaboration and more regional planning.
But as the climate continues to change, it will be largely up to farmers to maximize the benefits of climate change (and there are some) while reducing the negative impacts, said another panel member.
“People think of climate change as only having a negative outcome. In fact, there may be opportunities — positive opportunities — arising from climate change,” said Mark Johnston, senior research scientist with the Saskatchewan Research Council. “One example is that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, under the right circumstances, may lead to increases in growth. That won’t happen everywhere, and it won’t happen all the time, but there may be some positive aspects of climate change.
“We have to identify those as much as we try to identify and reduce the negative impacts of climate change.”
The latter includes reduced water availability and more pests, diseases, and weeds, “which tend to do very well in some of these circumstances,” added Wheaton.
“If we want to achieve increased production from these benefits, we will need to really limit the impacts of all the climate extremes,” she said, adding farmers are already doing this to a large extent.
“We know that farmers are very adaptable. They’re very innovative and smart, and they’ve been coping with fluctuations in weather and climate for a long time. They know how to deal with a certain amount of weather variability and climate change.”
A shifting landscape
But the panellists, and the report, predict big changes to local environments.
“Ecosystems are made up of plants and animals, and all of those are sensitive to climate and will seek better conditions as the conditions where they’re located currently change,” said Johnston.
“As a result of that, ecosystems are likely to move around on the landscape over time.”
Drier areas in southern Alberta, for instance, could expand north, while forests could shrink.
“The Prairies are home to a number of economic sectors that are dependent on ecosystem decisions, agriculture and forestry being two of the most important ones,” he said. “Those economic sectors will need to start developing adaptation plans in order for them to reduce their vulnerabilities to these changes and continue to provide the economic values that they do.”
For now, this is largely a thought experiment to get “people thinking about where they’re vulnerable and how they’re vulnerable,” said Johnston.
“If I’m a farmer in southern Alberta or a forest manager in northern Alberta, if this is how the landscape is going to look in 2050, what does that mean for my ability to continue making a living? What effect will this kind of change have on my family?” he said.
“It may be the case in some places that climate change is going to require transformational adaptation — a complete shift from one economic system to another.”
The report, titled ‘Canada in a Changing Climate: Regional Perspectives,’ is available at the Government of Canada website.