Climate change has arrived in Sask. And it's 'ugly.'
As Saskatchewan experiences severe heat and dryness, CTV News spoke to John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and director of the Global Water Futures Program at the University of Saskatchewan, to learn what's behind it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To what extent can we quantify how dry and how hot it has been compared to historical averages?
In Saskatchewan, of course, we've broken records many times this summer, and probably will a few more times. The dryness, it's not the driest year ever. But it's the extensiveness of the dryness. It was quite severe early in the growing season. And then now, the combination with drought, makes it a very exceptional year, and I think we're looking at something worse than the early 2000s, maybe as bad as 1988 or even 1961.
What does it look like then, if it's that bad?
Well, the problem in Saskatchewan is, deep soil moisture is already depleted. This drought has been evolving over some time. We had a bit of rain in early June which helped but didn't break it, but it did allow crop growth to start. Combined with the extreme heat, this is too much for the crops. They don't have the moisture depth. The heat is too much for many of them. Even crops that have grown well are not germinating. Generally you get a situation where harvests are likely to be very, very bad.
Because of the extra energy the drought we've also had extreme storms, the heavy flooding that hit Regina and areas a few weeks ago and some other storms. So if farmers did get moisture it came down too hard, too fast and too disruptively to be useful in many cases.
What's causing this?
This is global warming. I'm sorry but this is what it looks like and it's ugly. We're in what people call the North American Mega Drought. We're just on the fringe of it so we're seeing bits of it. The hardest mega drought is the southwestern United States where, over the last 12 years, it has the driest conditions in over 1,000 years.
This drought extends from British Columbia right into eastern Canada. We've got fires going on because of the drought throughout B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario. We've got flooding in the Yukon, because of extreme heat melting the glaciers. And then of course the agricultural crops in B.C. are just ruined by this. I've heard of fruits literally baking on the vine, the tree and become useless. So, this is a continental disaster. The drought extends right down into southern Mexico.
Why are you able to say so definitively that this is due to global warming?
Because we've not seen an event like this since records began in North America. Not from its spatial extent, not from its areas of local severity, and now there are also attribution studies showing that this would be impossible otherwise. And remember that we have already warmed up by over 1 C in Western Canada. And so our heat records, many of them were set by a degree so you can definitely attribute the global warming just to that average signal, let alone the extremes moving forward.
John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan, lead author of a new study on the Arctic, is shown in a handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Saskatchewan)
Can we expect more extreme heat and dryness in the future? And if so, how can we adapt to that?
Yes, the models we have are showing warmer and wetter conditions on average over Saskatchewan but the extremes become larger. We're already getting greater clustering of days of rain in the summer, and greater clustering in days without rain that's been occurring over the last few decades because of climate change and will continue to occur in the future. The models are showing more droughts in the future and we certainly have more droughts and in the last 50 years. The last 20 years have been very, very high - a lot of mini droughts and flash droughts of areas. Unfortunately, precipitation when it comes will come down hard and fast, and often destructively.
Adaptation will mean, we need to tap into reliable water supplies, where they're available the South Saskatchewan and the North Saskatchewan River and irrigation schemes where they make sense. We also need better prediction of the future weather, future climate on a seasonal basis to help farmers plan for the crops to plant, or some years and you're better to leave things follow or go to forage, things like this. It's manageable but right now we don't have those medium term and seasonal predictions and so a lot of farmers were caught out by this or ranchers have to deal with more cattle than they feed and it's a terrible situation for them.
Does this lead to broader concerns about Saskatchewan's water security?
Yes, our water security as we know, controls the economy and our livelihood in Saskatchewan. We had water insecurity in the 1930s and lost three quarters of the population southwest of Swift Current. Areas like that were heavily affected by the Dirty Thirties. So, we've got to get a handle on this, and this means better modeling. We have to reduce and play our part with the rest of the world to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
But we have to be more prepared for floods and for droughts, and remember that the heaviest rainfalls, the most intense rainfalls in Saskatchewan's history have always occurred in drought. So exactly a year like this when you're worried about droughts, you should be really worried about intense rainfall as well. And so that means better forecasts and better predictions. Better preparedness in communities, and farmers will have a range of crops to adapt to this really challenging situation.
I'm glad you brought up the Dirty Thirties. What makes this period different than then?
This drought extends over all of North America and in Canada it extends from Vancouver Island right to the Quebec border. The heatwave associated with it extends from the Yukon and Northwest Territories down into southern Mexico. And remember that this has been persisting for 12 years. In areas to the southwest of us it's the most severe in over 1,000 years. We don't have that level of severity in Saskatchewan right now, but we're part of this whole system, and we're not through it yet.
You mentioned we have to do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What's the best way to do that?
Well, we have to. What we're doing is wildly inadequate in the province and federally. We have to really move quite radically to reduce emissions from our vehicles, from our power supplies in Saskatchewan. We're largely greenhouse gas emission dependent for our power sources of coal and natural gas. We have to move away very rapidly. The technology's there, the economics aren't quite there. To survive, we've got to make the economics work through the government showing some leadership. And we've been stalling. We've known about this scientifically, for years. I was an Environment Canada scientist 25 years ago and I gave a warning about exactly these things to Environment Canada in 1996. And here we are.
What goes through your mind when you look back on that warning 25 years ago and knowing we weren't able to avoid this, how does it make you feel?
Makes me feel sick to my stomach. We had the time to work with the rest of the world to get some of this sorted out. We also had time to improve our ability to deal with droughts and floods, and we wasted it. We wasted 25 years and now we have very little time to sort this out, and we've waited until it's become a crisis.