Manitobans can expect a warmer-than-normal winter due to El Niño, and a warmer-than-normal future thanks to climate change, says David Phillips, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist.
In fact this El Niño, which refers to warm water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific, is a “super” one, Phillips told the Harvest Gala, a fundraising event for the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame and Red River Exhibition Association in Winnipeg Oct. 15.
There have been seven super El Niños in the last 50 years and during six of them Manitoba had a warmer-than-normal winter, but just one colder.
“You wouldn’t bet the family farm on it but the dice seem to be loaded to give you a milder-than-normal winter — (though) not every day,” Phillips said.
Manitoba and the entire world are getting warmer due to climate change, he said. While there will be negative consequences, Canada and Manitoba are among the places best able to adapt.
“The future is anything but bleak here in Manitoba and in Canada,” Phillips said. “A well-known Bank of Canada economist said Canada is one of five of 163 countries in the world that could significantly boost agricultural production during warmer times and become an agricultural superpower. An already-changing climate has made it possible for Manitoba growers to grow crops that they haven’t heard of before.”
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Manitoba now accounts for half the soybeans grown in Canada outside of Ontario, while corn acreage is up in the province too, he said.
“We’ve seen here on the Prairies the growing season has advanced by three weeks (over the last 100 years) and growing degree days for crops have improved quite dramatically,” Phillips said.
Since 1945 average winter temperatures have increased 3 C.
“Old timers are right — winters are not what they used to be,” he said. “They’re not as cold and they’re not as snowy. Clearly we have seen winters are different here on the Prairies. Summers are about 1° warmer, but clearly the winters are where most of the change occurred. In the years to come there is good reason to believe the weather will in fact more dramatically change.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says September 2015 was the world’s warmest month on record, beating the previous record set last year by 0.19 C.
Climate models of 20 years ago correctly predicted today’s climate, Phillips said. Today’s models forecast that by mid-century, the frost-free growing period in Manitoba will be 18 to 26 days longer than now.
“If climatologists are right… the climate of southern Manitoba will be like the climate of Nebraska now by the middle of the century and Iowa by the end of this century,” Phillips said.
Warmer weather, on average, means more extreme weather.
“I think there’s growing evidence to suggest storms are getting stormier,” he said. “It’s Grade 9 science. It’s not complicated to say storms develop in a warmer, moister world. They have more energy, more power, more to deliver the kinds of extremes that we have seen. And there’s more and more observational evidence… that storms are getting larger. We’re seeing events happening out of season. It used to be extreme weather was unpredictable but it was at least foreseeable. And now what we’re seeing are events that are beyond the experience of most people.”
A warmer Manitoba will be able to produce more food so long as there’s adequate water, Phillips said. But farmers will have to protect soil vulnerable to washing away during massive rainstorms, or blowing away during droughts.
With world population expected to hit nine billion by 2050, food production needs to double. Some predict there will be 25 per cent less arable land.
“The majority of agronomists and climatologists believes that climate change will have significant if not catastrophic effects on food production around the world,” Phillips said. “It is estimated for example that global yields of the three biggest crops — rice, corn and wheat — will in fact decrease by 20 to 40 per cent because of heat stress and drought conditions.
“I think it’s important we invest in agricultural sciences and services in order to develop more heat-tolerant and drought-resistant cultivars. And also learn to do even more with the limited water we have. I think there will be more discussions between Canada and the United States over water than any other commodity in this century to come.”