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Prairie rainfall: Too much and too little

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of big weather stories currently going on in our part of the world, but is that really true? Sure, the weather overall this summer has been fairly quiet, with no massive storms or heat waves, but there has been a weather story that has been slowly building and I was able to notice its impact as I drove across all three Prairie provinces earlier this month. This weather story is rainfall: either too much at the wrong time, or not enough over the long run.

Personally, I have lived on a rural property a little northeast of Winnipeg for over 18 years and on my property is a small pond. Usually, snowmelt in the spring and summer rainfall keep this pond fairly full, but once in a while, during a dry summer, I have to run water into it to keep the water levels up. I also have three decent-size gardens that have the classic Red River soil: rich, but with a large percentage of clay. This soil produces well, but not so much in wet years. Dry years can also be a problem, but as we all know, it is easier to add water than to try and take it away. Because of this I tend to get my best harvests in warm, dry years as long as I can water the gardens regularly.

Where am I going with this? Well, this year is the first time that my pond has basically gone dry. I just couldn’t keep up trying to fill it. Between trying to water the gardens and dropping soil moisture levels it just became too much. So, for my part of the world, it is extremely dry.

The map I included for this issue shows the amount of rainfall that has fallen across the Prairies over the last half a year. Sometimes you need to take a look at the longer weather view when dealing with precipitation. One average or above-average month won’t necessarily change or reverse a long-term trend in overall moisture. When I looked at the map I found it mirrored what I saw and heard on my trip across the Prairies. In Manitoba, most areas are dry. While timely rains in July helped with the crops, they tended to be too little and too late for hayfields and there is now a lot of talk about hay shortages. As I travelled westward, conditions improved a little bit in southwestern Manitoba as this region has seen a bit more precipitation.

Across Saskatchewan it was a bit tougher to figure out. Most of agricultural Saskatchewan had a very dry spring followed by above-average rainfall in June and July. From what I saw and heard, conditions looked OK, but to be honest, Saskatchewan always looks dry to me.

As I drove through Alberta what I saw and what I heard were two different things. I was on the Trans-Canada Highway, which meant I cut through the southern part of the province. According to the data, this region has been dry and parts of it definitely looked dry — but like Saskatchewan, there are regions which, to me, always look dry. It is also tough to tell just how dry it has been since such a large part of this region uses irrigation. I am always surprised at just how much irrigation goes on in this area. My route really didn’t allow me to see what the conditions were like over central and more northern regions where precipitation amounts were much higher. What I did hear, listening to different news stories, was that while most areas have seen good growing conditions, too much rain or bad timing of rains has created problems with the quality of at least the hay crops, either as farmers struggle to get the hay off the fields or their bales have rot and mildew.

I will continue to keep an eye on the precipitation trends over the next month or two and see how all the different regions stand as this year’s growing season winds down and we prepare to move into winter.

A July for the ages

On to a different topic to finish off this issue. Earlier in August, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), based out of Europe, ranked July 2019 as the hottest month in recorded history. At the same time, the University of Alabama in Huntsville ranked July as the second warmest in its database of satellite-based temperature records. Now, three more agencies have released their July numbers and they are all singing the same tune: globally, July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded.

NOAA ranked July as the warmest month in absolute terms — meaning actual temperature, not how much above the global average the temperature was — since accurate records began in 1880. The Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) ranked July 2019 in a tie with July 2016 for the warmest month on record, and NASA found July 2019 was in a virtual tie with August 2016. These small differences in rankings between NASA, NOAA and JMA are usually due to how they handle data-sparse regions such as the Arctic, where few surface weather stations exist. Of particular interest was that, according to NOAA, global ocean temperatures were the warmest on record even though there is currently no El Niño taking place, which usually helps to boost temperatures. Global temperatures over land were the second warmest on record.

It is looking more and more likely that 2019 will be one of the top five warmest years on record globally.

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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