Canada meets climate change

It’s time to stop unscientific denials, and to get on with the job of preparing our farms for the real changes that are coming

How will climate change affect Prairie agriculture in the future? This was the question the Alberta Institute of Agrologists presented to a trio of University of Manitoba (U of M) researchers last year, including Brian Amiro, a soil scientist specializing in agricultural meteorology and climatology; Christine Rawluk, research development co-ordinator with the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment; and Karin Wittenberg, dean of agricultural and food science research at the university.

The three responded by compiling and presenting the green paper “Moving Toward Prairie Agriculture 2050” to the Alberta Agrologists annual meeting in April 2014.

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Wittenberg believes the university’s focus on sustainability, combined with the number of researchers at the U of M who are studying the effects of climate change on agriculture, enabled the team to assemble the expertise needed for a science-based projection of what Prairie agriculture may look like down the road.

“Climate change has been described scientifically and technically. This (green paper) was a good opportunity to present how climate change is relevant to farmers. It gives farmers a handle as to what to expect,” Wittenberg said.

Most importantly, the green paper not only presents an overview of expected climate change by the year 2050, it is also a compilation of short papers by 23 agricultural scientists and educators. Not all are university researchers; some come from industry and government. Most are professional agrologists and work directly in the agricultural sector.

In spite of the diversity of these 23 writers and their fields of expertise, they shared a consensus that governments, educators and farmers need to plan for change if prairie agriculture is to continue to thrive.

Climate change projections

No one can be absolutely certain what the Prairie climate will look like in 2050. However, most climatic models point to a warming of the Prairies, with winter temperatures increasing more than summer temperatures.

More troubling is the prediction that while temperatures will go up, precipitation won’t. At least, it won’t go up as much, and as a result the Prairies will become drier due to evaporation from warmer temperatures exceeding additional precipitation.

Even more troubling, however, is the expectation of more weather extremes in both temperature and precipitation.

The chart from the green paper summarizes the expected climate changes for the Prairies.

chart of projected climate changes by 2015

Projected climate changes by 2050 for the Canadian Prairies and globally, compared to the 1985 to 2005 period.

Many readers will look at this chart and wonder what all the fuss is about. They will argue that a warmer winter and longer growing season would be good for the Prairies. After all, how bad can a 2 C increase in temperature really be? Furthermore, a 2 C change in temperature is nothing compared to the wide temperature variability we see in temperature and weather on almost a daily basis.

But consider this: The average annual difference in temperature between Medicine Hat and Edmonton is about 2 C.

Consider the current difference in agricultural practices and growing conditions between Edmonton and Medicine Hat. Would agriculture as we know it today in the Edmonton area continue if the Edmonton climate became that of Medicine Hat? What adaptations would farmers have to make in the Edmonton area for agriculture to thrive?

This is why farmers need to consider the opinions and projections made in this green paper.

Below are some more highlights from the paper:

Bruce Burnett, weather and crop specialist with CWB Market Research writes: “Climate change will have both positive and negative impacts on the selection of crops that farmers can consider planting.” Burnett discusses the potential for an increase in acreage of corn, soybeans, sorghum, millet and pulse crops as the climate warms, plus a corresponding drop in barley. However, he warns: “One of the biggest concerns will be the variability of the climate in 2050. Extreme weather events (floods or droughts) are difficult for agricultural systems to adapt to.”

John Haneslak, professor of atmospheric science at the U of M, writes of the potential changes to the jet stream. He notes Alberta aleady has the greatest number of hail storms in Canada, and that on the Prairies alone there are an average 221 severe weather events even now.

Ron Depauw, researcher with the federal agriculture department writes: “Abiotic stresses under dryland farming scenarios may be both persistent stresses such as dryness and/or above average temperature, but also a period of heat shock coupled with very high evaporative demand. These shocks are considered to be extremely damaging and have been underestimated by previous crop models.”

Given the prediction of a warmer, drier climate coupled with increased frequency and intensity of weather extremes, plant breeders need to be working on new cultivars now. After all, it takes eight to 10 years to develop a new cultivar.

Ron Currie, entomologist at the U of M, discusses the impact of climate change on pollinating insects. He writes: “Under some scenarios, pollination by managed honey bees is predicted to decline by about 15 per cent (without management intervention).”

This could not only have an impact on honey production but on crops which rely on honey bees for pollination.

Rob Gulden, plant scientist at the U of M, looks at the impact of climate change on weeds. He writes: “Northward range expansion will result in the introduction of new weeds, many of which are already resistant to one or more herbicides.”

Dilantha Fernando, also a plant scientist at the U of M, writes: “Global warming will not only act on pathosystems already present in certain regions but will facilitate the emergence of new disease.”

Paul Earl and Barry Prentice of the U of M’s Asper School of Business discuss the impact climate change may have on the transportation system:

  • “Greater variability in temperature and precipitation could cause more rapid deterioration in road and rail infrastructure.”
  • “More frequent extremes also generate more mudslides, snow slides, washouts, tornadoes and blizzards.”
  • “It has been estimated the sea level at Vancouver could rise by 28 to 98 centimeters by 2100.”
  • “The Great Lakes have already lost about 30 cm of their navigation depth.”

Charles Grant, agricultural economist at the U of M, looks at the impact of climate change on insurance. Given the increasing number of severe weather incidents since 1980 and increasing claims (property insurers paid out $3.2 billion in 2013 alone), Grant warns of the potential of higher premiums and increasing deductibles.

These and the other scientists contributing to the green paper believe Prairie farmers will have to adapt in order to thrive and remain competitive. Many of the adaptations needed will not happen overnight. Work needs to begin now to address the potential problems which will arise with climate change.

Farmers, industry and governments also need to be aware that climate change will not be all positive for the Prairies. All parties need to connect now to discuss the potential problems and begin to seek solutions.

As Wittenberg writes, “We need a new way of communicating and educating to build a better social environment.

The complete paper, “Moving Toward Prairie Agriculture 2050” can be found here.

Denying climate change

There is likely no industry more open to adaptability, change, science, and technology than agriculture. Farmers eagerly await new advances and line up to be the first to use new technology, be it a new variety, a new crop, new pesticides, new equipment, or new ideas. For example, consider how agriculture has jumped on GPS for everything from steering equipment to adjusting applications rates, and from levelling land to robotics.

Most farmers are firm defenders of science-based advances like GMOs or development of new pesticides.

Yet at the same time many of these same farmers question climate change. Part of the problem is Prairie farmers live in an area of the world which is second only to Siberia in having the most variable weather in the world. We are so far away from a moderating ocean we simply cannot see if the climate is warming or if it is just variability in weather.

The second problem is that climate is affected by many factors, including natural cycles, energy output of the sun, volcanos, changes in the composition of the atmosphere, and even man. Instead of accepting that climate change is happening, people are busy arguing a particular cause, such as anthropogenic causes.

However, there is ample scientific evidence that the climate is warming and the vast majority of scientists believe our climate is changing.

Geochemist James Powell surveyed 16,208 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject of climate change published between 1991 and December 31, 2013. Only 25 of those scientific articles refuted climate change.

The Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, a partnership of the federal and prairie provincial governments, describes the climate change that has already occurred on the Prairies and the science behind the change on their website. They also project the impact of further warming on the Prairies and describe the adaptations farmers will need to consider. Farmers should also be considering the information on the PARC website (www.parc.ca).

To deny climate change is no different than rejecting GMOs. The denial or rejection of either is simply not science-based.

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