Climate Change on the Prairies

The prairies are semi-arid with flat landscapes and grasses being the dominant vegetation. The soil is highly productive and the region has been an agriculture hotspot for over 100 years for staple crops such as wheat and canola. However, climate change threatens the region’s ability to effectively grow crops. 

The biggest concerns associated with climate change in the prairies is the increase in temperature by 2.0 to 3.0 degrees celsius. With this increase in temperature, there will be more frequent and more severe droughts which can then lead to more crop failures. The impacts of climate change are increasingly felt by the farming community and they are adapting practices to adapt and mitigation its impacts. 

Water availability for the South Saskatchewan River Basin

The South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) is one of the main agricultural river basins in Canada. The SSRB runs from the Rocky Mountains through southern Alberta and south-central Saskatchewan. Overall the SSRB is mostly supplied through spring snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and its foothills (70%). This means that the SSRB is at a particularly high risk of being severely impacted by climate change. With expected warmer winters in the latter half of the 21st century, most of the models predict an increase in precipitation by 15-20% but an overall decrease in the average streamflow. Spring snowmelt will also be early resulting in decreased summer flow – when water is most important for landowners in Saskatchewan. 

This is bad news for people living and farming in the SSRB area. With expected decreases in the amount of water running through the basin, restrictions on water amounts being drawn will likely need to be implemented, along with other conservation methods and adaptation measures, in order to prevent excessive water shortages. 

What Climate Change Means for Producers and the Economy

With considerably warmer summers and milder winters, there may be opportunities for producers to have longer growing seasons that would support more valuable crops like corn. Parts of the prairies could also see more beneficial precipitation, also aiding producers. However, these precipitation increases might only be realized in Alberta and possibly western Saskatchewan with the remainder of the prairies seeing little to no change in precipitation levels. With most of the prairies experiencing the same amount of precipitation but warmer temperatures, more frequent severe drought conditions are expected, which will negatively impact production. More severe storms are also expected, which will again negatively impact production. Overall, climate change will pose more risks to producers then benefits.

One of the steps farmers can take to reduce the effects of a changing climate is to plant shelterbelts. Shelterbelts supply more moisture for the fields, prevent soil erosion, and mitigate carbon emissions along with many other ecosystem benefits.