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Is Alberta heading for another drought?

Early indicators suggest Alberta is in for another hot, dry summer. But that could all change with a spring downpour

May 2, 2016

by Michael Ganley

dry-soil
Low snowpacks and mountain runoffs mean most rivers in Alberta will have below-average flows this year
CPImages

Despite what might have been on the side of the mountain the weekend you were in Banff, there wasn’t much snow in the Rockies last winter. It arrived three weeks late and the past few months have seen below-average precipitation. In the south of the province, the snowpack was as little as 13 per cent of the average and throughout much of the province it was “well below normal,” according to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

The bad news continued through February, March and April, when unusually warm weather across most of the province melted what little snow there was and started to dry out the ground. All that lack of precipitation and moisture has Alberta Environment and Parks predicting lower-than-average mountain runoffs this year. The department predicts that parts of the Milk River basin, in the far south of the province, will see as little as 64 per cent of the average volume for the 30 years ending in 2008. The Oldman River basin, just slightly farther north, will see as little as 80 per cent of the average. Every other basin in the province – except for that of the Bow River, which flows through Calgary – will see lower-than-average volumes. At the same time, forecasters are predicting warmer-than-average temperatures throughout the summer, in part the result of a strong El Niño through the winter months.

These figures are cause for concern says Ralph Wright, the manager of agro-meteorological applications at Alberta Agriculture, but he cautions against reading too much into the early numbers. “The February normal is 15 or 20 millimetres of precipitation so if it goes to zero, so what?” he asks. “February is the driest month of the year, and having a dry dry month isn’t as bad as having a dry June or July.”

He says a few good rainfalls can turn things around and points to last summer, when drought hit Alberta and dozens of parched municipalities declared agricultural disaster. But better rainfall amounts in the late summer and early fall replenished aquifers and helped farmers to a decent year. (Prices helped too: ranchers, in particular, enjoyed record-high prices in 2015, but crops didn’t do too badly themselves.) “When it turned around I think it surprised a lot of people,” Wright says.

Weather patterns are as tough to predict as the price of oil, and precipitation between now and September could impact water supply and farm yields. But as a powerful El Nino wanes, meteorologists are predicting a La Nina weather event through the summer. La Nina is known to bring lower-than-average rainfall to North America, and if rainfall in Alberta is only average – or worse, below average – we’ll be in for another dry summer. And, in the grander scheme of things, the late winters and early springs, the loss of glaciers and snowpacks and the warm, dry weather indicate a changing climate. They’re why we dedicated the March issue of the magazine to an examination of our relationship with water in all its complexities. Visit albertaventure.com/water if you missed our series of stories, because it’s only getting more complicated.

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