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Don’t Shoot The Messenger

If you happen to be one of those people who likes to complain about the weather, and you spent the summer in the western Prairies, chances are you hit the mother lode. For producers trying to “mud in” late crops, or bale soggy forages, the challenges were many. In many areas, it was just one cold, wet, cloudy and all-around crummy summer. Weather models failed, forecasters found themselves on the most-wanted list and people were left wondering whether that elusive global warming had disappeared.

The problem is that most global warming models don’t just tell us that the climate is getting warmer; it is also becoming more variable. Unfortunately not all those variables are controlled by mankind, nor are they all here on Earth.

Japanese tourists flocking to Alaska to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) have been sadly disappointed for the past two years. Northern lights are created by energy particles (protons and electrons) from solar winds reacting with the Earth’s magnetic fields and they have been in a serious lull for some time. Researchers in Finland and Norway have also noted decreased activity all over the Northern Hemisphere well into September of this year when the aurora are generally very active.

Solar winds travel towards the Earth through space as a result of sunspot activity that creates solar flares capable of exuding out thousands of miles beyond the sun’s surface.

Solar flares typically occur in 22-year cycles, 11 positive years with increased activity, and 11 negative years with decreased activity. The latest negative cycle should have ended in 2009, but has extended well into 2010. This lull is one of the longest on record and has extended from early 2008 until recent weeks.

While we are currently experiencing sunspot activity almost daily now, there has been 45 days with no sunspot activity in 2010, and there were 260 days in 2009. A small comet from the Kreutz family of sungrazers also crashed into the sun on Nov. 14, which could fuel activity that was already on the increase. Solar winds are predicted to once again give us a 50 per cent chance for geomagnetic storms this week. It typically takes about two days from increased solar flare activity for the particles to reach the Earth’s upper stratosphere and create the aurora.

The question now is whether the extended lull is going to affect how we come out of the negative cycle. Will we simply return to a more normal cycle? Has the sun extended its historical cycling time? Or will we enter an exceptionally violent period of sunspot activity now that the lull is over? Which scenario we enter will have not only profound effects on agriculture and our weather, but on society in general.

The northern lights work much like a giant neon sign. Charged particles react with the magnetic field releasing radiation in the form of light. What colour that light is, depends on the type of atom that is moving through the atmosphere.

Intense displays can cause problems for electrical transmission, oil pipelines (increased corrosion from charges on long pieces of metal) and radio communications, if the particles affect the ionosphere. They have been known to disable satellites, solar panels and other forms of electronic communications. Weather patterns are also affected by the amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun.

If the aurora are our neon sign, it may well be time to heed what they are telling us. While this year’s weather seemed very exceptional, we could well be heading into a new cycle of patterns where the exception becomes the norm.

How we deal with flooding, excessive moisture, or excessive drought patterns could determine how we farm in the future, or where we farm in the future. Obtuse weather patterns that give us colder, or hotter-than-normal temperatures at unusual times of the year may well change the way we farm and ultimately how we feed ourselves.

The challenge is here to develop the tools we need to be prosperous in difficult and trying times. Les McEwan farms

near Altamont.


Whilethisyear’s weatherseemedvery exceptional,wecould wellbeheadingintoa newcycleofpatterns wheretheexception becomesthenorm.

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