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How farmers can adapt to the new weather abnormal

The stable weather patterns of the ’80s and ’90s are gone, so we ask three climate scientists how to farm when the weather is unreliable

For many western Canadian farmers this is the fourth consecutive year with harvest progress seriously stymied by weather issues. Fall rains and snows have resulted in significant loss of crop quality and/or an increased reliance on costly drying of crops in each of those years. For some farmers, inclement weather has even resulted in crops being left out over winter.

It hasn’t been a picnic in the east either, of course, with its combination of non-stop rains and drought.

The question in the minds of many harried farmers anxiously waiting for a break must be: “Is recent weather the new normal?”

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It is a critically important question that farmers need to ask themselves. If the answer is yes, stressed out producers in the west, for instance, need to start planning how to adapt their harvest operations for wetter falls. This may mean looking at investing in a continuous flow hot air drying system, or adding heaters to ambient temperature fan systems in bins.

And since drying of grain is only possible once the grain has been combined, it may even require increasing harvest capacity so the crop can actually be taken off in fewer days.

For the most part, these are major changes which cannot happen overnight or in the middle of a wet fall. To remodel your harvest system takes planning, time, and lots of dollars.

Like you, I have listened to climate change proponents tell farm audiences that farmers will have to adapt to climate change. And in the same gatherings, I have heard others deny climate change is happening, that the weather we are seeing has happened in the past, and farmers have always adapted for weather.

It is a debate as contentious as religion or politics. But the point of this article is not to come out pro or con climate change but rather to ask: what do farmers need to adapt. This is the question I posed to three climate scientists.

Dr. Stefan Kienzle, professor of hydrology and GIS in the geography department of the University of Lethbridge said: “Climate change is not just a gradual warming. Climate change is increased climate variability. There will be an increase in heat waves. And there will be an increase in cold spells.”

Kienzle has actually documented climate change in Alberta. He has compiled 60 years of meteorological data from across the province to develop trend lines for a wide range of climatic factors including temperatures, frost-free periods, growing seasons, etc. Alberta residents are able to pinpoint their location on an online Alberta map and see how the climate has changed for that farm/area from 1950 to 2010. The map can be found at albertaclimaterecords.com.

Kienzle’s work shows the growing season across Alberta is now three to five weeks longer than it was in 1950. He found there has been a consistent trend of higher average temperatures throughout Alberta. (This should not come as a surprise to Alberta farmers as they continue to try new longer-season crops such as soybeans, and have switched to longer-season varieties of most crops in the quest for higher yields.)

However, Kienzle was surprised to discover that over that same time period, in spite of the warming, there has also been an increase in cold spells (defined as five consecutive days where the temperatures are 5 C colder than average). But in retrospect, Kienzle says this goes hand in hand with climate variability.

In fact, Kienzle predicts disruptive weather events will likely happen more often over the next 50 years because of climate change. “There will be increased chances of more up and down temperatures and precipitation, especially in the fall when there is hot tropical air to the south and when deep troughs of cold air form in the Arctic.”

Kienzle said the stable weather of the ’70s and ’80s is a thing of the past and growers must prepare for more severe weather disruptions such as droughts, floods, hail, and wind storms. Unfortunately, he says there is no easy answer as to how farmers can adapt to these events because there is no way to predict if, where, or when such weather disruptions will occur on a particular farm or even area.

The best advice he can give farmers is to be flexible. Plant early, select crops that have good stress tolerance to both summer heat and spring and fall frosts, and be prepared for volatile weather throughout the growing season.

Barrie Bonsal, is a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, in Saskatoon. He replied: “Science is pretty confident the Prairies will experience a warmer climate in the future.” He suggests farmers could use increased season length and more growing heat units to grow different crops, and some farmers may be able to plant earlier so crops mature before the hottest part of the summer. Early planting also reduces the risk of crop damage from early fall frost.

So climate change sounds great for prairie agriculture. Or is it?

Bonsal pointed out most of the warming we will see on the Prairies as a result of climate change will happen in the winter, not during the growing season. He expects prairie weather to be very variable, with temperature fluctuation ups and downs. He said there will be really warm temperatures, really cold snaps, and still there will be risks of late-spring and early-fall frosts.

Weather will be quite different from area to area and region to region. Bonsal said: “Farmers should expect surprises. We might see weather we have not seen before, on a global scale!”

Bonsal said science is not as confident predicting the possible changes in precipitation due to climate change. He notes warmer temperatures typically increase precipitation, and since the most significant amount of warming is occurring in the winter, spring, and fall, this is when we may see increased precipitation. And in the winter this may mean more rain events rather than more snow.

Bonsal further pointed out climate change cannot be simplified as meaning hotter temperatures everywhere. Warming of the oceans can change jet streams and wind patterns which change weather patterns. This can have impacts on not only local temperatures but on flooding and droughts.

Perhaps the most striking point Bonsal made was: “Weather is never normal.” Weather is simply that daily event which, when averaged over a season or year, gives us a way to determine if conditions were close to previous average weather for the same time period. Climate, on the other hand is a 30-year or longer average of temperatures and precipitation. It provides the basis for long-term comparisons.

Then, in answer to my initial question, Bonsal replied: “Science is not clear on how farmers should adapt to changes that we already see happening.”

David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, Toronto, was much more direct when asked what weather factors farmers will need to adapt for. He listed four criteria: extremes, severity, variability, and uncertainty.

Phillips agreed with Bonsal’s assessment that climate change could enhance Canadian agricultural production because of a longer growing season, new crops, or by enabling farmers to expand farming to areas which were not previously farmed due to climate limitations. “Climate change will be both good and bad for agriculture on the Prairies. There will be winners and losers. We have seen both positive and negative changes already.”

Phillips said, “There is no question about it, we are seeing more extreme weather events; in terms of number of events, of out-of-season events, and out-of-region events. Some growers have even experienced both floods and droughts in the same growing season. Normal weather does not exist anymore.”

While most people equate climate change with hotter temperatures, Phillips pointed out there are “lots of things that create weather.” For example, Phillips described the jet stream as the weather directing system. The jet stream divides the colder northern air with warmer southern air. It is this contrast in temperatures which creates weather. But because the Arctic is warming faster, the jet stream is actually slowing down and changing shape. It is now more rollercoaster-shaped so weather patterns that used to travel quickly from west to east across the Prairies have now slowed. We see more blocking patterns and stagnant air masses which are leading to more extreme wet or dry events.

As for predicting future fall weather patterns, Phillips admitted fall is probably the least studied season as to the impact climate change will have. It is the period of transition between winter, which climate change impacts the most, and summer where there is the least impact of climate change. At the same time, the jet stream becomes more pronounced as it moves into winter, which thereby raises the possibility of more variable weather. And fall tends to be the shortest season and is not as easily described by dates as summers and winters can be.

Phillips suggested flexibility is key to farmers successfully adapting to climate change. Be prepared to seed early. Seek crops that have drought and heat resistance. Wet falls may require drying harvested crops. Expect more severe storms and weather that damages crops.

“Farmers will have to be willing to change the way they farm,” Phillips said. “They will not be able to farm the way their parents and grandparents did.”

Whether you believe we are responsible for climate change or it is entirely caused by natural events, there is no denying that Canada’s weather today has changed and we will have to adapt to the change. As we have seen this fall, adaptation cannot begin at harvest. We need to plan now how to adapt for the potential of even more disruptive weather events.

Resources

In addition to Dr. Stefan Kienzle’s actual documentation of climate change in Alberta, Environment and Climate Change Canada has recently released “Canada’s Changing Climate Report 2019” which documents climate changes across Canada. It provides documentation, graphs, and charts to show how climate has changed since Canada instituted national weather keeping in 1948. It also provides forecasts for future climate change. The executive summary of this report is available online at as a PDF at nrcan.gc.ca.

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