Top ten weather stories for 2010: story three

Table of Contents

3. From Dry to Drenched on the Prairies

A map of Canada that shows areas of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba that first faced dry and then wet conditions.

Before the growing season started Western ranchers said they had never seen such a dry spring. In Camrose, Alberta a drought was declared before April and, across the Prairies, agricultural producers hoped and prayed for rain. A decade-long drought, however, had most convinced it would be another dry growing season. With minimal snow cover and record low precipitation between January and March, winter 2010 gave growers little optimism.

Flood waters crossing Highway #1 just west of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan  Kevin Wingert © Saskatchewan Watershed Authority 2010.

Above-normal temperatures in spring meant an early start to planting in southern and western growing areas, and in mid-April – almost miraculously – it started to rain. But when the precipitation refused to let up, drought worries became flood worries. By mid-May, farmers were begging for dry weather so they could at least get onto their fields. There was twice as much rain and snow as normal during April and May, making 2009 (the driest spring in 51 years) and 2010 (the wettest ever) complete opposites. The weather circulation over the West was sluggish and monotonous, with one or two storms a week keeping the southern Prairies cool and moist in a northwesterly flow. As the rains persisted into June, farmers grew more concerned. Nearly a quarter of the Prairie grain crop had yet to be sown or was under water by mid-month. The Canadian Wheat Board estimated that between 3 and 5 million hectares went unseeded – the largest abandoned hectarage in Western Canada since 1971. Summer brought no change. If spring was too wet to seed, summer was too wet to grow. With a scarcity of hot days and sunshine, water was not evaporating and crops were not maturing. But lukewarm temperatures in July offered just enough warmth to trigger thunderstorms and hailers. Calgary had just one day above 30°C and that didn’t happen until August 26. Edmonton had only one day above 30°C and it was on May 18.

Never-ending rains continued into the critical harvest months with huge tracts of land receiving double the average rainfall between mid-August and mid-September when the spring wet weather pattern was re-established. To some producers, September was the cruelest month. Heavy trucks and combines couldn’t manoeuvre waterlogged fields. Never had so much crop been out so late into the harvest. To add more woe, in mid-September a severe frost with temperatures dipping as low as -5°C struck Alberta and western Saskatchewan. The freeze lasted for over 10 hours, severely downgrading the quality and value of the crop. Fortunately, growers finally got a break on the first day of the fall season when warm, dry and sunny conditions set in and prevailed through October. The perfect weather enabled farmers to make up for time lost earlier. Almost every day over four weeks had maximum temperatures above normal and it was thankfully dry. Growers worked night and day and, incredibly, harvested a record 70 per cent of the crop in three weeks.

While most of the southern wheat-growing area was a soggy mess, Alberta’s northwest experienced a prolonged drought that left many growers with bone-dry pastures and stunted crops. Because of critically low precipitation, a third of normal since mid-May, the County of Grande Prairie declared itself an agricultural disaster zone for the third straight year – only getting this dry once in the last 25 years. The river gauge at the town of Peace River showed water levels in July at its third-lowest in 70 years.

In Saskatchewan, growing season rainfall totals were unbelieveable in places – none more incredible than at Saskatoon where the total April-to-September precipitation was 645 mm. The previous wettest period was in 1923, when 420 mm fell, making 2010 an astounding 54 per cent wetter than the record with observations dating back to 1892. Rosetown also had the wettest April-to-August period on record with double the norm. Regina’s total rainfall was 517 mm compared to a normal of 287 mm, which beat the record wettest growing season of 503 mm set in 1954 (records date back to 1883).  Along with the rain, it experienced five consecutive months of cooler than normal temperatures. Not to be outdone, Winnipeg recorded its wettest growing season ever at 630.5 mm with records dating back to 1873.

Crop yields were down and so was the quality. Statistics Canada reported 15 per cent less wheat harvested than in 2009 (21 million tonnes and an average yield of 40 bushels per acre). Nearly 40 rural municipalities declared themselves agricultural disaster areas, and the entire farm economy – from fertilizer, seed and pesticide sales to farm equipment purchases – suffered. To top it off, bank economists projected that wet weather could wash away up to $3 billion from the pockets of Prairie farmers.

Date modified: