The coming storm: preparing Saskatchewan for climate change

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 21 | March 18 – 24, 2010

“Avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.” It’s the mantra of the United Nations and scientific organizations on the issue of climate change management: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation has received a lot of exposure in the media, as various methods of reducing climate emissions have been floated. Carbon-capture solutions, nuclear power, mass transit strategies, cap-and-trade, etc. have made the rounds, but questions of how to adapt to the unavoidable often go unasked.

Part of this silence may be because adaptation seems to sound a note of resignation; another is that it deals with the details. Adaptation is about detailed policies for particular problems. It’s about flood plains, ice roads, crop management strategies, and animal migrations. It’s often boring. Unfortunately, the boring details are often the most important. The boring details mean life or death for entire communities and industries. Climate policy is where the precarious meets the pedantic.

Saskatchewan’s Environment Ministry is in the process of developing a green paper that will address some of the challenges of mitigating climate change, although details remain sketchy, said Kim Graybiel, director of the Ministry’s Climate Change and Strategic Planning Branch. “We have not really publicized it yet, the minister hasn’t made any announcements about it yet, and it’s still in the works,” he said.

“We really want to get people involved in thinking about the issues and helping start planning these long-term strategies. I think this is the best way to start dialogue in the province, because a lot of people don’t take the long-term impact seriously yet.

“We need to … get people thinking more about it, and then really start them actively looking at solutions or getting them involved in things they consider important, rather than the government driving the whole thing.”

While rural and northern regions will experience the worst effects of a changing climate, urban areas are also likely to suffer, even excluding the geopolitical nightmares that are likely to emerge internationally. Towns and cities may face water management problems in the future, with either too little or too much, said Graybiel.

“If there’s reduced water flow from the major rivers, there may be a need for allocations of water to make sure that priority users can get access to water supplies, but also people will need it in their homes and businesses. So clearly there will be water issues in the cities. One of the issues I think is how communities can manage risks.”

When there is too much water, the problem moves from allocation to inundation. The flooding of parts of Saskatoon in 2007 is an example that could have been addressed through careful foresight, Graybiel said. “There was severe flooding as the result of heavy rains, and a lot of the community was actually submerged because it’s built just on the edge of the flood plain there. It created some serious problems that possibly could have been avoided if zoning bylaws had been adjusted to the fact that weather events would probably occur more frequently than they have in the past.

“Minimizing risk is one area I think will … have to be addressed, for different communities around the province to be prepared. Contingency plans, if you will. If there is flooding, or high winds, they may occur more frequently, and to be more prepared to deal with those issues rather than to be acting when they occur.”

Graybiel declined to make any predictions about when Saskatchewan may see severe climate effects. “It’s very difficult to hazard a guess. With freak weather events, you never know. You could get a multiple-year drought; we could get one starting this year … It could happen suddenly, or it may be that we’re looking at more of those kinds of recurring events more frequently than we did in the past. I’m actually pretty cautious about making any detailed predictions.”

The science of climate change is insufficiently exact to make specific predictions about particular areas or timetables, Graybiel said, but the general trends are unmistakable. “The science is always evolving. Certainly there’s overwhelming evidence that you’re going to see warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns. For example, they’re now saying it will be likely there will be less snow pack, there will be more rain in the spring.

“I think it goes without saying that there are going to be impacts; it’s just difficult to be really accurate or precise about when they’ll be felt … though it’s safe to say that all studies are showing that the prairies are relatively better off than any other region of North America.”

Copenhagen and controversy

Public confidence in climate science has taken a palpable hit in recent months, after the Climatic Research Unit e-mail controversy, scientific slip-ups by the International Panel of Climate Change, and the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

“People are extremely critical right now of the so-called science, and so-called projections, that they’ve made,” said Graybiel, who attended the Copenhagen conference. “They said that the Himalayan glaciers would be all melted in 2035, but it’s been proven that nobody can substantiate that with hard evidence.” He still asserts that climate change is occurring, but that the political repercussions of faulty projections are making an international consensus less likely.

“I would say that the failure of the Copenhagen conference means that it’s not clear when we’re going to get a legally binding international agreement, when we’re going to have all the countries working together.

“I was quite discouraged that there really didn’t seem to be much political will to move forward, especially in many of the developing countries. You have to take a very hard look at that and say, well, China, India, Brazil, they’re not prepared to seriously [limit emissions] and they’re accounting for an increasingly large share of total world emissions. As those issues start becoming a much bigger deal, you’ve got to start figuring out how we can manage some of those impacts.”

The challenge that we now face is to move forward, even with imprecise climate models, Graybiel said.

“The models are of course useful, they are predictive models, but I think you have to be a little bit cautious and exercise some good judgment in just how they can be applied and how seriously we should be taking them … Because of all this controversy about climate science, I think it’s set back some of the planning to deal with these longer-term issues.

“There were always a fairly significant number of people who were very skeptical about whether climate change was a big issue, and I think that’s still the case in Saskatchewan … With all the publicity that those science reports have received, it may well have set back those efforts for some time. We may be in a period of trying to better understand those impacts and where they might be, and maybe if we can plan more realistically, deal with it at the community level.”

Fortunately, he said, with Saskatchewan’s infrastructure and natural resource wealth, the province is in a good position already. But the devil is in the details. “I think the real challenge will be making changes to zoning bylaws … it’s going to be preparing communities to minimize risks and help planning and management.”

Dust Bowl memories on the farm

The prairies were the setting of a perfect ecological storm between 1930 and 1936, as a severe drought combined with decades of over-farming. During this period, known as the Dust Bowl, the soil turned to dust and travelled on the wind in large black clouds. Crops were completely destroyed as the dust moved across the continent.

The Great Depression serves as a chilling example of how ecological and economic factors can collide. Today’s farmers are much more aware of environmental issues than their predecessors, and it seems unlikely that another Dust Bowl will sweep away the province’s arable land. However, climate change still poses serious challenges to Canada’s breadbasket.

Norm Hall is one of the directors of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) and the chair of the organization’s environmental committee. He recently attended a foresight workshop on climate change policy impacts and adaptation in agriculture, hosted by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). The focal point of the workshop was to ask what “a world challenged by climate change [will] require of the Canadian agricultural system to assure resiliency, sustainability and adaptability.”

“There’s going to be winners and losers,” said Hall. “There are areas that are going to warm up and dry up, cool off and get wet, but … some will warm up and get wetter, and nobody knows where those places are going to be.”

Saskatchewan’s farmers have always had to be adaptable, he said. “Considering the fact that no two years are the same … we adapt every year … We work with nature; we have to.”

Nevertheless, farmers who work delicate land are walking on a razor’s edge when the temperatures rise and the rainfalls change. Southwestern Saskatchewan is in danger of becoming a wasteland.

Palliser’s Triangle, a semi-arid steppe straddling Saskatchewan and Alberta, became a Dust Bowl after being overgrazed and overused, but recovered after a series of rainy years and the implementation of new farming techniques. The Triangle is still a perilous place for crops, and farmers in the area have often needed government subsidies during drought conditions.

“If we get much warmer or much drier, Palliser’s Triangle … there could be nothing growing there,” said Hall. “We’re a semi-arid province, and saving as much moisture as we can has always been what we’re aiming for … That said, what if we become wetter?”

Saskatchewan is fortunate in this regard, Hall said, since flooding conditions rarely move beyond localized flooding in some low-lying areas. “We’re not the Red River Valley. We don’t get tens or hundreds of thousands of acres flooded from one river. There will be one creek that does maybe 5,000 acres here or there, but generally we don’t have that problem.

“Two springs ago, when we had all that rain, there were areas that got flooded out … but it was just the fields were mucky and they couldn’t get onto them.” Beyond improved drainage, he said, there is little anyone can do about flooding. “You just have to persevere.”

Hall was hesitant when asked about whether the warming temperatures might open up new areas for agriculture in the north of the province. “I’m not sure how much further north we could get. You get much north of Prince Albert and there’s a lot of sand under the trees. I’m sure there would be a few acres that could be opened up, but a lot of that isn’t opened up now because of the soil type, not because of climate.”

Hall said that he’s seen little action by the provincial and federal governments to prepare for the onset of climate change. Provincial programs are based on long-term profit margins, he said, “but if those long-term margins go negative, how can you even work on getting a margin? If you don’t have that profit there to have a margin to cushion the dips in your income, then it’s a death spiral.”

A number of initiatives and policies have to come into place to avoid a potential crisis, said Hall. The Western Grain Research Foundation, a non-profit organization funded and directed by farmers, has been examining possible courses of action. “They’re working on varietal research, and that’s going to be something that’s key … crop varieties and different crops.”

“We need more research on plant systems and livestock as well. Animals that make better use of drier grasses and drier areas. Maybe there’s something better than the bovine.”

It would be easier to develop policies, Hall said, if there were more certainty about what and where changes could be expected in the province. Unfortunately, that’s close to impossible. “If you knew that for a fact, it would be easy to put forward those policies and that kind of research, but nobody knows from year to year what it’s going to be like … I think what we have to do is just have a better safety net, one that isn’t [based] on the long-term averages.”

Hall said that Saskatchewan would likely still be Canada’s breadbasket in 2050, although there may be some significant changes by that time. “We do have 50 per cent of the arable land in Canada. It’s very possible that we will, because if we warm up, we’ll still have two-thirds of Saskatchewan to produce food.”

Hall worries that Canada’s total agricultural output may decline, despite Saskatchewan’s relatively fortunate position, as other regions may not be so lucky. At the end of the day, he said, we have to pursue the options that allow farmers to be most adaptable and most able to deal with a destabilized climate system.

Hunger, fire, and bugs in the North

Northern communities will likely face the worst effects of climate change, as warming temperatures bring about massive ecological and infrastructural shifts. The delicate balance of fire and ice will move away from stable transportation and towards flammable forests. Migration patterns will change, as beetles will migrate further eastward, while large prey animals may decide to move elsewhere. As a result, northern communities may face increased infestations, wildfires, hunger, and isolation.

Alien insect invasion

Climate change will likely encourage the eastern progress of the mountain pine beetle, a nightmare scenario for Saskatchewan’s forests. Milder winters and large areas of mature pine trees have fuelled the infestation in British Columbia, which has ravaged an estimated 25 per cent of the province’s pine trees.

The insect lays eggs under the bark and introduces a fungus that suspends a tree’s natural defences, which together effectively kill most attacked trees. The death of pine trees en masse can impact entire ecosystems and increase the risk of higher-intensity forest fires.

“The mountain pine beetle has devastated large areas of British Columbia and Alberta. As temperatures warm, it’s expected that mountain pine beetles will migrate further east and get into Saskatchewan before very long. Our forests could really be at risk,” said Graybiel.

As a 2008 article in Nature pointed out, climate change and the mountain pine beetle may be elements of a positive feedback loop. “During outbreaks, the resulting widespread tree mortality reduces forest carbon uptake and increases future emissions from the decay of killed trees,” the article said. Carbon, instead of being held in the trees, is released into the atmosphere, and forests become carbon polluters.

“Climate change has contributed to the unprecedented extent and severity of this outbreak. The article estimates that “the cumulative impact of the beetle outbreak in the affected region during 2000–2020 will be 270 megatonnes [of] carbon” released into the atmosphere.

Beyond the apocalyptic powers of this five-millimetre insect, other pests, such as mosquitoes and ticks, may increase in numbers and distribution. They may become scarcer in some areas, while more prolific in others. Stagnant water will stand longer in warmer, wetter weather, and pest management regimes will have to adapt to uncertain circumstances.

When the larger animals begin to move, however, northern communities may suffer more than a few dead trees or mosquito bites.

Missing migrations

Deer, elk, caribou, and moose move according to the seasons. During their herd migrations, caribou travel up to 5,000 km annually. Caribou feel the urge to migrate when the snow begins to melt and the days become longer, and continually move about their summer ranges.

First Nations and Métis people in the north, who rely on hunting, may find that traditional practices become increasingly divorced from ecological realities in the face of a changing climate. Wildlife may adapt to new conditions by migrating earlier or later, and may move to different areas.

This would have serious economic and cultural impacts to northern aboriginals. Native hunting, trapping, and fishing rights are a major source of nourishment in isolated areas, but changing climate pressures could mean lower or even absent prey populations at key areas and times. Hunting rights are meaningless when there are no animals around.

Declines in hunting stock would chisel away a significant aspect of northern aboriginal culture, and would increase reliance on external supplies for all northern residents. The bitter truth, however, is that warmer winters may stretch supply lines further than ever before.

Goodbye, winter ice road

Mild weather across Manitoba recently proved disastrous to dozens of northern native reserves, as more than half of the province’s ice roads were forced to close early, according to the CBC. The roads are too dangerous to travel without an adequate build-up of ice and snow over the winter, and without these roads, supplies must be flown in at a high cost. Aboriginal chiefs are asking the federal government for funding so that supplies, such as building materials, groceries, and gasoline, can be flown to at least 20 communities.

“The length of time when they can use these winter roads – these are isolated native communities in Manitoba – they used to have almost three months when they could get access to these communities by road,” said Graybiel. “They could bring in a lot of freight like tools, fuel, supplies, even building materials, by road.”

However, with ice deteriorating less than a month after the roads were opened, the supply window was unexpectedly narrowed. Mild winters and increasing average temperatures are becoming more common in Manitoba, endangering the lives of truck drivers and threatening to isolate aboriginal communities. Graybiel worries that Saskatchewan’s northern communities may soon fall victim to a similar fate.

These isolated communities are also vulnerable in the summer as the weather becomes hotter and drier.


Small forest and grass fires are natural and have been occurring for as long as there has been flammable plant life. Small fires are essential to a healthy forest, as they thin out small areas and release nutrients into the environment.

However, when fires spread and get out of control, they can move at ferocious speeds, with such intensity that they can easily leap over rivers, roads, and firebreaks. Entire habitats are destroyed and lives may be endangered. With increased human presence, the risk of sparking wildfires shoots up, from tossed cigarette butts, to neglected campfires, to power line arcs. Smokey Bear was right: only we can prevent forest fires. This has as much to do with effective forest management as it does with mixing water into our ashes.

“There are huge forests in the north, especially north of the Churchill River, and it’s very difficult to get access to that area,” said Graybiel. “It’s expensive to get water bombers in there, and firefighting crews. So if those fires become more frequent and cause more extensive damage, they could have significant financial impacts as well.

“The cost of fighting fires … we have to prepare communities for that, especially communities in the north surrounded by forests, just like what happened in British Columbia, those fires out by Kelowna. I’m not saying we’ll have anything similar happening in Saskatchewan, but there’s always a risk, and if the temperatures warm then we’ll very likely see more fires as forests dry out.”

Full Feature Credits
Written by Alex Colgan
Graphics by Mason Pitzel
Photos: Marc Messett,,


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