Top ten weather stories for 2009: story five

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5. Cold and Drought Combo Wreak Havoc with Prairie Farmers

Map of Canada highlighting regions in the Prairies that experience a cold and dry growing season

Close-up of frost covered grass. Photo: Corel Corporation © Environment Canada, 1994

In sharp contrast to their counterparts in Manitoba, agriculture producers in Alberta and Saskatchewan faced one of the most challenging growing seasons in years with drought, cold, floods and hail. Farmers rarely confront the dual threats of frost and drought at the same time, but parts of the Prairies experienced their driest spring in 50 years and their coldest in 35 years. Cool weather delayed crop development by three to four weeks, and with the risk of frost continuing into July, producers never caught up even when killing cold and the first snows came much later than usual in mid-October. Until the first hint of warmth in mid-June, all the talk was about the cold, especially its duration of six months and counting. When the temperature approached 30°C for a day or two around mid-June, growers realized they were also in the midst of an invisible drought. June always brings some hope because it is often the wettest month. And growers and ranchers were going to need every drop of moisture they could get because 80 to 90 per cent of Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C.’s Peace River region faced some of the driest conditions in years. Sadly, June rains never came. In a perverse way, maybe it was fortunate that sustained heat didn’t happen: increased evaporation would have robbed the soil of even more moisture. Before the first day of summer, dire pronouncements were made on the upcoming growing season. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada claimed spring 2009 was the driest in 70 years of records, comparable to the drought of 2002, except that this year was larger, more widespread and more severe in places. The Canadian Wheat Board projected lower crop prospects by 20 per cent across the Prairies. With livestock producers already feeding hay to cattle and starting to cull their herds, a dozen counties and municipal districts in Alberta declared a state of drought emergency or disaster.

Alberta and Saskatchewan were especially dry. For example, Saskatoon had less than one-quarter of the usual amount of spring precipitation, making the months of March, April and May the driest since record-keeping began in 1892. Even during the terrible dry years of 2001 and 2002, the spring was wetter and the drought less widespread. However, it wasn’t just spring that was dry. The soil moisture recharge period between September 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009 had less than 60 per cent of normal precipitation. To the west in Alberta, conditions were even drier, as illustrated by precipitation amounts in Edmonton, where the 12- month total rain and snow from July 2008 to June 2009 was only 234 mm, less than half of normal and the driest such period with records dating back to 1880. Making matters worse, eight of the last ten years in Alberta’s capital of Edmonton had less rain and snow than the 30-year average total, but no year was as scanty as the most recent. Not surprising, the flow of the North Saskatchewan River was at its third lowest level in nearly a century. Rains in July and August helped in parts of Saskatchewan. It was just too late to save parched crops in parts of the western Prairies.

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