Editor’s Take: Living through history

Historic times are rarely comfortable times.

Ask your ancestors who, in the first half of the last century alone lived through two world wars, one economic collapse, and a mega-drought.

Or for that matter the millennials of today, who have so far survived one global financial crisis and a pandemic, with another economic crisis on the horizon.

Both generations are proof that you can survive, bobbing along on the current of the times, and even thrive.

Whether they like to admit it or not, some of Manitoba’s farmers are likely getting a similar taste of historic events. First in the southeast, and now southwest Manitoba, farmers and other rural residents have experienced torrential rainfalls and the resulting floods.

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Certainly big storms are nothing new to the region. They’ve always been a feature of its climate — but now they seem to be getting bigger.

As our Alexis Stockford reports in the front-page story of our July 9 issue, some farmers north of Brandon say they’ve received in excess of 300 mm of rainfall over three days (that’s a full foot for our Imperial readers).

There aren’t many ditches or culverts in Western Canada that have been engineered for that sort of torrential downpour and the results were simultaneously mind boggling yet inevitable.

One RM now says it’s faced with a list of transportation infrastructure repairs that’s over 100 projects long. Municipal leaders in the region have declared states of emergency and landowners are already pondering the logistical nightmare that will be the rest of the production season.

This isn’t far off the projections some of Canada’s best-known weather experts have long been making. Dave Phillips, of Environment and Climate Change Canada, is arguably Canada’s best-known weatherman.

Earlier this winter he spoke to Glacier FarmMedia’s Jennifer Blair on the topic of climate change and Canada’s farms. He was quick to say it wasn’t all doom and gloom, but also pointed out there were some very real ramifications that Canadian farmers should consider.

One of his key points that summed it up nicely was this handy little statement: “Storms might be stormier. Droughts might be droughtier.”

There’s a wealth of information jammed into those two sentences that’s worth unpacking.

First it acknowledges that climate change is going to look pretty familiar. The Prairies have always had droughts, storms and lots of climate variability. That won’t stop. We’ll still have winters with cold snaps, and hot summers with plenty of thunderstorms.

Climate change isn’t going to mean that it is suddenly raining toads on the Poverty Plains or fireballs will consume the Interlake.

But the changes we will see will be real, measurable and profound. That might mean a multi-year period of little or no rainfall. Or it might mean an entire season of ‘average’ rainfall in a single storm. It could even mean one right after the other.

In fact, that’s exactly what Phillips warned of during that conversation, saying farmers were now in the midst of experiencing “weather whiplash.”

“Now they’re seeing back-to-back extremes,” he told Blair. “They’re seeing one season that’s the wettest on record, followed by the driest on record the next year.”

That’s going to mean new challenges for farmers and local governments, who in rural areas administer vital transportation, flood and drainage infrastructure.

It could be an expensive proposition. One of the largest of such efforts surrounds Winnipeg, where a recent floodway expansion — total price tag in excess of $600 million — more than doubled its capacity.

Of course for local governments this challenge is both smaller and larger. It’s smaller in the sense that there aren’t likely to be any mega-projects of that size. But larger in that they’re responsible for all of rural agro-Manitoba, and the list of potential projects will quickly climb into the tens of thousands.

At the farm level, it’s going to mean adapting and moving forward. In the same article Jennifer Blair spoke to Murray Hartman, a now-retired oilseed specialist with the Alberta government.

He’d combed that province’s weather data, covering more than a century, and teased out some very interesting things. Mainly that in the northern part of the province, the daily highs had fallen slightly, while the overnight lows were higher. Near Lacombe that meant nights that were warmer by 1.6 C, and in the northern parts of the province, they were warmer by 5 C.

“If I had to order the weather from Sears, this is what I’d be ordering,” said Hartman. “We don’t want it hotter, but we want the nights less cold.”

As the climate changes around them, Canadian farmers must adapt, and here Phillips sees hope.

“If there’s anybody who can turn a bad into a good, it’s farmers.”

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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