AAFC launches Drought Outlook

File photo of a trickling culvert in May 2021.

TECHNOLOGY | The 30-day drought forecast tool promises to give producers more information before making management decisions

Drought-stricken farmers will now be able to get an idea of where their moisture will be sitting in the next month.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has launched its Drought Outlook tool, to run alongside the regular Drought Monitor, which keeps a running watch on drought across the country.

Long-term drought forecasts may help producers make management decisions such as how much to invest in inputs or whether it’s time to pull the trigger to sell cattle.

The Drought Monitor, a long-standing AAFC feature, provides a human assessment of drought conditions. That assessment is based on a wide range of data, from saturated soil moisture values and drought modelling to rainfall in the previous month, precipitation percentile over the season and precipitation indices over several timeframes.

The Drought Outlook, in contrast, will combine past Drought Monitor reports with indices drawn from forecasts coming out of Environment and Climate Change Canada. That data will then be fed into a model built to learn from itself, according to AAFC agroclimate specialist Trevor Hadwen.

“We’ve taken, basically, what we’ve learned from 20 years of doing the Drought Monitor and basically allowed the model to built itself using that expertise,” he said. “The modelling is basically looking at what has occurred in the past history. When we get a precipitation forecast or some of our precipitation drought indices or temperature indices that show that ‘this’ is going to happen at the end of the month, ‘this’ is what the current conditions are like right now, it looks back at the history and says, ‘OK, given those two inputs, what is the likely outcome in the Drought Monitor the following month?’”

The tool provides a stratified map, side-by-side with the image of the last Drought Monitor map, with a forecast of where meteorologists expect conditions to fall 30 days into the future. Regional drought conditions are marked as likely to have drought removed, drought improving, no change, drought developing and drought worsening.

“Improving,” according to Hadwen, means an area is expected to move up at least one classification on the Drought Monitor’s scale. Where there is drought analyzed, coloured regions under that scale run from “abnormally dry,” through to “moderate,” “severe,” “extreme” and “exceptional” drought.

The agroclimate specialist expects the tool to be of most help for areas that are just going into drought.

The first local outlook has drought improving along the U.S. border and north towards Brandon and the southern basin of Lake Winnipeg, while parts of the east are forecast to emerge from drought conditions altogether. The rest of agro-Manitoba, however, is expecting no reprieve.

As of the end of May, much of that area was classified as in severe or extreme drought.

The Drought Monitor, and now the Drought Outlook, are purposefully cautious in forecasting improvement, especially at more severe levels, Hadwen noted, since the team is very aware they are servicing different aspects of agriculture.

Crops, for example, may get enough rain to stave off disaster, while livestock producers in the same area are still reeling from lack of moisture early in the season on pastures, perennial forage and dugout levels.

How accurate?

There will be some guesswork in the outlook, Hadwen acknowledged.

It is not unusual, after all, for even a two-week forecast to change dramatically and for different weather models to predict very different outcomes across the long term.

At the same time, he said, the tool’s general forecast will provide a gist of where things are going over the next month.

“Most 30-day forecasts at least provide some semblance of direction,” he said. “They’re not going to provide exactly how much rain you’re going to get in a certain time period, or those types of things.”

The tool compares “all 21 forecasts” used by Environment and Climate Change Canada, looking for areas where indicators converge and, “kind of rule out some of those layers and try and increase the accuracy of our forecast,” he added.

The tool is also a work in progress. Hadwen’s team hopes to eventually integrate more types of data and higher resolution forecasts.

“But this is our first step and we didn’t want to hold it back in an academic or developmental mode when we think there is some value to it,” he said.

“We’re always open to comments and criticism,” he added. “We know that this won’t be the perfect model. As all forecasts are, the longer timeframe between when you do the prediction and when the event happens, the atmosphere can change and all things can happen. In some months this model is going to work really well. In some months it’s going to fail and we know that.”

Dovetailing?

The Drought Outlook marks the second announcement on water forecasting in recent weeks.

On June 15, AAFC announced funds for a hydrological forecasting tool, to be developed by the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA). That tool, the association has said, will eventually provide producers with real-time seven-day forecasts on groundwater, soil moisture and surface water flow in the Assiniboine River Basin.

The tool will be built off of the MFGA’s work on the Aquanty hydrological model and has a tentative 2022 launch.

The association has said they expect both tools to add planning capacity for farmers.

Steve Frey, senior scientist with Aquanty Inc., noted that the tools have vastly different scopes, with the AAFC tool targeting regional and longer-term insights, while the MFGA tool will focus on real-time and localized data that covers both hydrological forecasts and ecological goods.

“The MFGA tool assimilates real-time sensor data — where available — to help guide the forecast modelling, and the MFGA tool also takes into account groundwater and surface water flow conditions, in addition to soil moisture,” Frey said. “This makes it very well suited for southern Manitoba where there is a good network of provincial soil moisture sensors providing real-time data.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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