As climate change warms the globe, Manitoba may be well poised to become an agriculture superpower because of its proven ability to adapt, says the senior climatologist with Environment Canada.
“I am optimistic about the future of agriculture in the Prairies because I have always been fascinated and intrigued with the ingenuity, resourcefulness and survivability of Prairie farmers,” Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said at a presentation to Ag Days in Brandon last month. “You are always willing to do something different, take risks, believe in science and take advantage of the situation.”
Phillips said the presence of climate change can be seen through the increasing number of erratic weather events Manitoba farmers are all too familiar with.
“Between the droughts and floods, the Prairies had the only EF-5 tornado in Canadian history. Winds of 420 km per hour that sandblasted the bark off of trees and took transport trucks and twisted them into pretzel shapes. It was in fact the most powerful tornado we have seen in Manitoba,” Phillips said.
Severe weather has been more frequent and intense across the globe. Phillips said those who depend on the land or the environment for a living have been experiencing what he calls “weather whiplash.”
“We are seeing weather whiplash, from one extreme to another. It is almost a Dr. Jekyll and Hyde situation,” said Phillips. “One farmer said to me, ‘I could have had flood insurance and drought insurance on the same field in one year. I had military helping to sandbag in June and we were praying for rain in July.’ Those are the kinds of things that are really difficult to deal with.”
Phillips says that a saving grace for Manitoba is that Alberta has had it worse.
“The West has had summer snows, multibillion-dollar floods, wildfires, tornadoes, multiple-million-dollar hailstorms and that’s just the forecast for Calgary,” said Phillips. “We have made the statement that, ‘this is the costliest disaster in Alberta history,’ and have amended that five times in 10 years. So, there is no question we are seeing more and stronger events.”
In recent years, Environment Canada has reported many broken records.
“Stick a thermometer in the planet and what do we see? Since the year 2000 we have broken 37 monthly temperature records globally. The last time we broke the record for cold temperatures was in 1916. Clearly, as a planet we are warming,” said Phillips.
Phillips says there is no point in arguing about the presence or cause of climate change, but to rather focus on how the industry can not only survive but also become stronger in order to feed the ever-growing population on less land with less water.
“We can debate for days about what is causing these changes but who cares what is causing it.” The reality is that it is occurring. It is not something that we have to wait for,” Phillips said. “We can’t think that this is fluctuation, bad luck or just a little rough road. This is change and it needs to be taken seriously.”
At the rate the global temperature is rising, Phillips says that by the end of the century southern Manitoba will have a similar climate to that of Nebraska or Iowa.
He warned that with warmer temperatures will come challenges for the water supply and from different insects and weeds, but it certainly won’t mean a complete departure from the land of snow and ice.
“It doesn’t mean a frost-free period. It means the season may be 24 days longer, so there is the potential for growing things that you couldn’t grow now. And, it’s not all bad news. We know that in a warmer world with higher CO2 levels, crops will flourish, as long as the temperatures are not too excessively warm.”
Phillips believes Manitoba to be well poised for temperature and moisture conditions to adapt to the warming globe and could come out as an agriculture superpower, even compared to our Canadian Prairie partners.
“We have a lot of cold to give up and so that positions us well,” said Phillips. “And, in southern Manitoba, you get on average 25 per cent more precipitation than Alberta but you also get maybe 10 per cent more heat units, so there are crops that you can grow here that you couldn’t grow there.”
In order to capitalize on their geographical good fortune in the coming years of climate change, Phillips encourages Manitoba producers to continue to do what they have always done — seek out better ways of producing food in an evolving environment.
“Be open minded. Be willing to take a few risks. Invest in technology and in science,” Phillips said. “And, we will need to do something that we are good at as Canadians, we have to learn to adapt to our weather. To change our ways to take advantage, mitigate the effects and capitalize on the advantages.”