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Canada's prairie provinces becoming hotter and drier

By Jean-Paul McDonald

The University of Alberta's research, published in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science, reveals a significant climate change in Canada's Prairie provinces from 1901 to 2021.  The study shows a consistent increase in winter and spring temperatures, less snowfall, and more disruptive weather patterns, including frequent and intense rainfall. 

Led by Emmanuel Mapfumo, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta and an associate professor at Concordia University of Edmonton, the research scrutinizes the effects of climate change on the croplands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.   

Mapfumo notes, “Our report highlights the state of knowledge about the Prairies and where we can go from here.” 

This study, one of the first to focus specifically on the Prairie provinces, reveals a significant rise in average, minimum, and maximum daily air temperatures, with some areas recording increases up to 6 C higher.  Of particular concern is the increase in minimum air temperatures, ranging from 1 C to 4.5 C.  

Mapfumo explains the implications, stating, "That is a significant finding because it means winters are getting less cold." This leads to mid-season snowmelt, reduced snow levels, and diminished early spring moisture crucial for crop growth. 

The research identified trends towards drier conditions across Canada, including the Prairies. Since 1950, there has been a decline in yearly snowfall and snow cover duration, with a notable rise in the number of frost-free days since 1900. Off-season precipitation between October and April, crucial for maintaining soil moisture, has also decreased. 

These climatic changes not only threaten crop yields but also pose broader economic challenges, as the Prairie provinces are integral to Canada's economy. In 2022, crop production in these regions contributed $30.6 billion to Canada's gross domestic product and employed 118,300 workers. 

Research is crucial for developing adaptation strategies in Canada's National Adaptation Strategy, aiming to create safe communities in the face of climate change, requiring knowledge of local and regional impacts.  

This study serves as a foundation for future Prairie-specific agricultural research and policy formulation, highlighting the urgent need for localized data to effectively combat the challenges posed by climate change.  

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