Canada’s best-known climatologist always knows when he’s lost a crowd of producers he’s presenting to. It’s usually right around the time he starts talking about climate change.
But he gets it.
“Farmers have been beat up a lot — they’ve been accused of causing climate change,” said David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s senior climatologist.
“But I don’t think they’re the problem. I think they’re the solution.”
Across Canada, farmers range from indifferent to in denial about the realities of climate change, said Phillips. But whether they realize it or not, they’re living with its effects every day, he added.
In the past, farmers used to be able to pinpoint those years where they had a wreck. Now, different wrecks happen from year to year, and even sometimes in the same growing season.
“Now they’re seeing back-to-back extremes,” he said. “They’re seeing one season that’s the wettest on record, followed by the driest on record the next year.”
Fifty years ago, you could almost set your watch by the growing season, he said.
“You knew summers were hot and winters were cold. You got extremes, but they were familiar extremes — nothing out of the ordinary. There were fewer surprises.”
But now they’re faced with “weather whiplash.”
“That’s the issue that most Canadians don’t understand, but it’s what most farmers deal with on an annual basis,” said Phillips. “They know there’s this increased variability — these wild swings that are occurring.”
This year is a good example of that, he added. Farmers in Western Canada had a dry start to spring — on the heels of back-to-back droughts in much of the province — and then the taps wouldn’t turn off. That, followed by the harvest from hell, has made for one of the worst growing seasons in memory.
But then again, that’s what we said last year, said Phillips. And the year before that.
“They farm for normal, but normal isn’t occurring anymore, and that’s a real challenge for farmers.”
Threats, challenges, and opportunities
And it’s not likely to get easier.
“I dare say that 40 years from now, farmers will not recognize the climate that they have today,” said Phillips. “That’s how much of a sea change we’re going to see.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all doom and gloom, he added.
Climate change isn’t entirely black and white, good or bad. For some countries, the changing climate could be catastrophic, with increased risk of flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events. But for others, climate change could present an opportunity.
“I like to take a balanced approach,” said Phillips. “I like to say that climate change will present threats, challenges, and opportunities. It depends on how we want to view that change.”
Canada is likely to see warmer temperatures, especially on the Prairies.
“I think being warmer is good. I think the growing season will start earlier and go later,” he said, adding growing degree days could increase by up to 60 per cent and corn heat units by 50 per cent.
“You’ll be able to grow crops that are 600 kilometres to the south, and you know the productivity that comes from those crops. These things will not be a pipe dream. They’ll be a possibility.”
That’s already happening for crops like soybeans and corn, which were almost unthinkable in certain parts of the Prairies even a decade ago.
“Farmers will tell me that they’re growing crops that their grandparents could only dream of. I’ll say, ‘Well, yeah. That’s climate change.’”
A century of change
But it’s not just a recent trend. These changes have been happening in Alberta gradually over the last century.
Murray Hartman, retired provincial oilseed specialist, reviewed historical data from weather stations at Lacombe, Fort Vermilion, and Lethbridge, going through every monthly record from the last 112 years to determine what, if any, effect the changing climate could have on producers.
He found that, in the central and northern parts of the province, the change has been generally positive.
“I’ve got the impression that the weather changes that have happened in Alberta over the last 110 years have been a good news story for agriculture,” said Hartman, who presented his findings at a recent Alberta Canola Powering Your Profits event.
“We’ve got a lot of things that would be very favourable if the temperature trends are going to be warming up.”
Both the Lacombe and Fort Vermilion data showed that, while the daily maximum temperature has decreased slightly in both regions over the past 100 years, the daily low temperatures have increased — by 1.9 C in Lacombe and an incredible 7 C in Fort Vermilion.
“Seven degrees. That’s just remarkable,” said Hartman. “Our days are not hotter — if anything, they’re slightly less hot — but our days are much less cold. And the far north has been a bigger benefactor of the 100-year trend than Lacombe has been.”
In agriculture, though, the growing season itself is perhaps a better metric.
For Lacombe’s May through August temperatures over the past 100 years, the daily highs have dropped slightly, while the nighttime lows have increased by 1.6°. In the north, the summer daily highs have had a slight negative trend, but the nighttime lows are 5° warmer
“If I had to order the weather from Sears, this is what I’d be ordering,” said Hartman. “We don’t want it hotter, but we want the nights less cold.”
But the length of the growing season is perhaps the biggest difference Hartman found.
“If you look at climate limitations in Alberta, that’s probably our big one — our window between our spring frost and our fall frost,” he said.
In Lacombe, the first fall frost has been “getting later and later and later over time,” by about 18.7 days over 100 years. That trend is also consistent with the final frost of the spring, which is about 12.5 days earlier over 100 years.
“That’s a 31-day wider window between spring and fall frost over 100 years,” said Hartman. “You can’t fathom what a month’s difference would make.”
In Fort Vermilion, the fall frosts have been getting later by 21 days, while the spring frost has ended earlier by 34 days over 80 years (not 100 years, like in Lacombe, due to a gap in the data).
“We talked about a month’s difference in Lacombe, but getting close to two months’ difference in Fort Vermilion? That’s just remarkable.”
Stormier storms, droughtier droughts
But while climate change may have some benefits for Alberta producers, the impacts won’t be all good.
“There will be challenges for all farmers across the country,” said Phillips. “It’s a huge country, and not everybody is going to be affected in the same way. But there’s no question about it — no one is going to be left out.”
People tend to focus on temperature when talking about climate change, but its other effects could have “enormous impacts for farmers.”
“When you live in the second coldest country in the world, it’s tough to see climate change as a concern,” he said. “But it’s not about slushier winters and earlier springs. It’s about greater extremes — those wild winds when they come, the size of hailstones. Storms might be stormier. Droughts might be droughtier.”
Then there are multiple weather events, such as a hailstorm and a windstorm forming together, or a wildfire that destroys vegetation followed by a rainstorm that creates a landslide.
“One begets the other,” said Phillips. “So the challenge will not just be one weather calamity. It could be two or more.”
The availability of water is also likely to be an issue in the future, he added.
“I think there will be more discussion and debates and arguments over water between the three Prairie provinces than any other issue in the years to come.”
A more inviting climate
Even so, Phillips is hopeful about how Alberta farmers will respond to the changing climate.
“I’m optimistic about farming in Canada because of the resiliency of farmers, the adaptability of farmers, the ingenuity of farmers,” he said. “Farmers are great adapters. They are risk-takers. They wouldn’t be in this business if they weren’t.
“They’re not just doing what they did 20 years ago. They have changed with the times, and people don’t recognize that.”
Economists have predicted Canada will be one of the few global agricultural powerhouses in the future, said Phillips, and while some of that may be a result of a “more inviting climate,” it will also be driven by Canada’s sustainable production practices.
“Canadian farmers don’t take enough credit for what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re some of the most efficient farmers in the world. Our inputs for growing crops or raising livestock are much less than what they are in other parts of the world, and the outputs are far greater and more efficient.”
But the world is still changing, and as it does, it will be increasingly important for farmers to continue to change with it.
“Governments are going to mandate burning fewer fossil fuels, and your customers are going to insist on it — it’s going to be market driven,” said Phillips. “You’re not going to save the world from what you’re doing, but you’re going to make your enterprise more economical and more attractive to the marketplace.
“If there’s anybody who can turn a bad into a good, it’s farmers.”