Lack of moisture raises drought issues in parched province

For 17 consecutive months, Winnipeg received significantly less precipitation than normal. This stretch covers the whole of 2020 – the driest year since the records began almost 150 years ago.

“We’ve had 305 millimeters of rain and sleet all year round,” said Rob Paola, retired Environment Canada meteorologist and volunteer climate observer. “That’s against an annual average of 515 millimeters.”

Paola said the lack of precipitation and snow is partly due to heavy precipitation that has moved south in recent times, causing wetter conditions for our neighbors to the south and drier conditions for Manitobans.

On top of that, he said, drought can be a self-aggravating problem.

“There is a saying: drought breeds drought,” he said.

One of the driving mechanisms for precipitation on the Prairies is surface and soil moisture, Paola said. This moisture evaporates and promotes precipitation. However, long months of low precipitation left much of southern Manitoba parched.

With spring comes an important moment.

“It is of crucial importance that we achieve a lot of this precipitation, or that we achieve some precipitation, in April and May,” Paola said.

On the one hand, he said, the dry weather makes Manitoba vulnerable to forest fires. And with the lack of leaves and vegetation to help block the winds blowing our open landscapes, the risk of fires spreading is even higher, he said.

In fact, on Thursday, a grass fire near Carberry forced around 20 people to evacuate their homes as several fire departments battled the blaze, which they ultimately put out.

Following the fires, the Manitoba Wildfire Service tightened restrictions in southern Manitoba. Among the restrictions, campers will be required to stick to serviced campgrounds and put out their campfires between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Farmers in the area will have to go through strict inspections to get special approval for burning permits. This is just one problem among the many droughts imposed on farmers.

“Everyone in agriculture is very concerned about the dry conditions right now and are hoping we will have showers in April,” said Charles Fossay, vice-president of Manitoba Canola Growers.

The timing of the rain is also important, Fossay said. Without spring moisture, the topsoil dries up, creating a poor seeding environment. This is especially true for “small seed crops” like canola, which do best when planted close to the surface. When it is dry, farmers have to plant these seeds deeper to achieve moisture. Crops like canola, Manitoba’s main agricultural export, have a harder time growing. The result can be lower yields.

“I’ve seen canola crops under twenty bushels in really bad dry years,” Fossay said. The average annual yield is around 40 to 45 bushels, he said.

For farmers with a litany of expenses – fertilizer, seeds, chemicals, fuel, equipment loan debts – it can mean the difference between paying their bills or ending up with new or refinanced loans on their head, said Fossay. There are a number of supports, he said, such as crop insurance and the AgriStability program, that can mitigate a percentage of a farmer’s losses. The risk is however always present in the dry season.

Many farmers grow a variety of crops to cover losses if one crop fails, Fossay said, but of course all crops depend on good rainfall at the right times. Bean crops, vegetable crops and potatoes in particular need large amounts of moisture, he said.

While retired meteorologist Paola was hesitant to say climate change is causing Manitoba’s dry spell, he said it fits the list of problems expected with rising global temperatures.

“Climate change indicates an increased likelihood of more extremes in precipitation regimes,” he said. “You may see a more frequent occurrence of drought – or heavy torrential rains.”

This period could simply be the result of the “chaotic nature” of the weather conditions. Many in southern Manitoba are hoping these chaotic winds will change soon and bring rain clouds.

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