The gentle decline of the West is a bad omen

It used to be the case that a gentle fall was a welcome blessing for most Albertans. But after a summer of wildfires, droughts and other climate-related catastrophes, the record heat has a foreboding quality that’s hard to ignore. In November, the city of Edmonton I didn’t see snow for the first time since 1928, while Calgary simply enjoyed the Warmest December on record in more than 141 years of data.

As a result, scientists (and, belatedly, the Alberta government) are warning that this summer could be even more difficult, as the absence of moisture makes the forecast for wildfire season even more ominous. “These regions still don’t have snow cover,” said John Pomeroy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. said global news. “Soil moisture levels are less than 40 percent of normal. This year the snowpacks have not accumulated. And we know that snow was the reason we got into trouble last year with the drought: the snowpacks were below normal and then they melted early.”

Pomeroy, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, says this is what the new normal looks like in a rapidly warming world. “We are going to continue seeing these effects year after year. Alberta was more than five degrees above normal in December. If we have those conditions again in the spring, we will fall into an agricultural disaster again.”

Believe it or not, there are still wildfires in Alberta right now because there hasn’t been enough precipitation or cold to help the province’s firefighters put out fires that started last summer.

The province’s environment minister, who seems to spend most of her time advocating for new oil and gas development, has finally woken up to the magnitude of the threat. In the coming weeks, the Alberta government will apparently award a contract for drought modeling work and a drought advisory committee will be created. “Our province has been through droughts before. “We have a long and proud history of coming together in difficult times and together we will get through this,” Rebecca Schulz said in a statement.

Schulz’s comments make it seem like business as usual and that there is nothing new or unusual about the scale and scope of the threat facing his province. Residents of southern Alberta, which is in the midst of its worst drought in half a century, I probably wouldn’t agree. There is also no mention of the role climate change plays here. Under the leadership of the United Conservative Party, the truth is what we dare not speak out loud.

But as a recent review of more than a century of scientific literature by a team of academics at the University of Alberta makes clear, climate change can no longer be ignored. Their data shows a steady trend of rising air temperatures, less snowfall, and more disruptive and destructive weather events. Most worrying was the increase in the minimum air temperature, which went from 1 C to 4.5 C. Emmanuel Mapfumo, associate professor at the University of Alberta, describe that as an “important finding”, since it means that winters are becoming less cold. “That can result in mid-season snowmelt, lower snow levels and less moisture in early spring, which is important for sustaining crop growth in the early stages.”

Yes, in theory higher temperatures could allow crops like corn and wheat to grow at higher latitudes, but those gains can quickly be subsumed by the spread of diseases and pests like the wheat gnat. As we saw in the forests of British Columbia and in the catastrophic spread of the mountain pine beetle, relatively small changes in temperature can have enormous impacts.

Ironically, the rural and remote communities where resistance to climate science is most widespread are the ones that will be hardest hit. As a team of academics. noted in a 2019 survey of attitudes among Alberta meat and grain producers: “Even compared to samples of the general public, farmers also stand out for their particularly high levels of climate skepticism, preferring to attribute observed changes in climate to natural causes.” .

Last summer’s wildfires in Western Canada were brutally severe. Thanks to a historically warm fall, this year’s could be even worse, and yes, climate change is the driving force behind it all.

In those circles, you can bet that this year’s drought will be attributed to El Niño, the weather pattern which causes warm water in the Pacific to push the Pacific jet stream south of its natural position and create a warmer, drier climate in the west. But of course, climate change is exacerbating this natural phenomenon and making its impacts more intense than they might otherwise be. Sounds familiar?

Not everyone is determined to miss this particular forest for the trees. Paul McLauchlin, mayor of Ponoka County and chair of Rural Municipalities of Alberta, seems to understand the challenge that climate change poses to people in his community. “We’re probably going to have to have some difficult conversations that we’ve probably never had across the province, unlike our localized droughts that have happened historically,” he said. he told CBC. These include the enormous impact of agriculture and the oil and gas industry on water use, and how they can better coexist with the needs of ordinary people.

But with the United Conservative Party in power and fringe elements like Take Back Alberta holding the reins, those conversations won’t include climate change or Alberta’s disproportionate role in moving it forward. This is an area where conservative politicians, who dominate rural areas of this country, could play a leadership role. They could help spur a more productive conversation on the topic, one that avoids polarization and partisanship and instead attempts to help educate and inform. Unfortunately, these conservatives simply aren’t interested in any of that, and it’s their rural voters who will pay the biggest price for it.

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