Climate change on the prairies



Combined, the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba represent the epicenter of Canada’s agricultural and oil industries and climate change is already having impacts, both good and bad. These impacts are set to increase significantly and adaptation strategies will be required.

This second in a series of articles examines the existing and emerging impacts of climate change on the Prairie Provinces, as described by the Natural Resources Canada Report From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate.


Changing climate is, and will continue to be, reflected in the key variables governing the hydrological cycle: temperature, evapotranspiration, precipitation, and snow and ice. The natural health and wealth of the Prairies are intimately linked to the quality and quantity of the water.

Changes in winter precipitation, temperature and duration will have substantial impacts on surface water supplies. Winter warming will reduce snow accumulations in alpine areas and across the Prairies. This will cause declines in annual stream flow and a notable shift in stream flow timing to earlier in the year, resulting in lower late season water supplies.

Reduced winter snowfall in the latter half of the twentieth century contributed to the observed trend of declining stream flows and is already a critical issue for many rivers in the southern Prairies.

Continued glacier retreat will exacerbate water shortages already apparent in many areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan during drought years.

Groundwater is the source of potable water for about 21% of Manitoba residents, 23% of Albertans and 43% of Saskatchewan’s population. Future groundwater supplies will decline in some regions but may increase in others.

Increased rainfall in early spring and late fall will enhance recharge if soil water levels are high; otherwise, water will be retained in the soil, benefiting ecosystem and crop productivity. Drier soils due to higher rates of evapotranspiration result in decreased recharge, which would lead to a slow but steady decline in the water table in many regions.

Some studies suggest an increased probability of extreme conditions, including a greater frequency of flooding and severe drought. A likelihood of increased drought severity is also inferred from both recent and prehistoric conditions of the western interior. The recent climate (since the 1940s) has been characterized by severe droughts (large water deficits) of relatively short duration compared to preceding centuries.


Agriculture in the Prairies could benefit from several aspects of the warming climate, depending on the rate and amount of climate change and ability to adapt. Benefits could result from warmer and longer growing seasons and a warmer winter. Increasing temperature will be positive for crop growth and yield,

Negative impacts may result from changes in the timing of precipitation, increased risk of droughts and associated pests, and excessive moisture. Agriculture is Canada’s largest net consumer of water at 71%. Irrigated agriculture and large-scale livestock production are constrained by water availability especially in drought years.

Alberta has about 60% of Canada’s irrigated cropland and in 2001 the Prairies had more than 67% of the beef cattle, dairy cattle, hogs, poultry and other livestock in Canada.

Results from studies on the economic impacts of climate change on Prairies agriculture are highly variable from region to region and from study to study. Some studies suggest that overall economic consequences will be negative and small, whereas others indicate positive and large economic impacts.

Manitoba, the least water deficient province, has been projected to benefit from warming as producers shift to higher value crops, resulting in an increased gross margin of more than 50%.

Although mostly adverse impacts were initially predicted for Saskatchewan, this conclusion has been questioned by American studies using a land value approach which estimates an average gain in land values of $1551 per hectare (200%) over 1995 values.


Much of the southern boundary of the boreal forest in the Prairies is currently vulnerable to drought impacts, and this vulnerability is expected to increase in the future.

For the Prairies region, forest fires are expected to be more frequent, of higher intensity and to burn over larger areas.

Some coniferous species are inherently more flammable than hardwood species so increased forest fire activity will likely favour hardwood species over some conifers. As a result, wood supply to oriented strand board (OSB) mills in Canada, which generally use 90 to 100% hardwood as feedstock, would not be as affected by increased forest fires as saw mills that depend on fire-susceptible softwood species for lumber production.

Insect outbreaks are also expected to be more frequent and severe. Of particular concern is the mountain pine beetle, currently in a major outbreak phase in the interior of British Columbia. It is now beginning to spread east, with approximately 2.8 million trees affected in Alberta as of spring 2007.

The beetle is limited by the occurrence of -40°C winter temperatures: with warming, this limiting temperature is likely to occur farther to the north and east, allowing the beetle to spread into jack pine in the Prairies.


Some climate changes may result in economic savings, such as reduced need for road snow clearing, whereas other changes may require significant capital investments, such as improvements to storm-water management

Arguably, the most significant negative impact of climate change on transportation infrastructure in the Prairies is related to winter roads which are a vital social, cultural and economic lifeline to remote communities

In contrast, the warmer winters may result in substantial reductions in the costs associated with non-ice road infrastructure.

Maintenance of railway infrastructure is likely to cost less as a result of warmer winter temperatures. Extreme cold temperatures cause broken railway ties, failure of switches and physical stress to railway cars.

Northern railways with lines passing through areas of permafrost, such as the one serving the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba, will require frequent and significant repair, if not replacement, as a result of continued permafrost degradation.

Oil Sands

Oil sands operations in northern Alberta are expanding at a dramatic rate and produce more than 1 million barrels per day of synthetic crude oil. Production is forecast to be 3 million barrels per day by 2020.

Climate change will impact the petroleum industry in the Prairies by affecting exploration and production, processing-refining and transportation, storage and delivery. Shorter winters and the loss of ice roads will result in a shortage work season for northern oil operations occurring in remote locations. Conversely the melting of permafrost and recession of glaciers may provide access to new sources of oil.

Of greatest concern is water scarcity, as current production of oil from oil sands relies on significant quantities of water.

Oil sand mining, and oil extraction and refining, are water and energy intensive processes. Operations that produce synthetic crude oil or upgraded bitumen require 2 to 4.5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil. Assuming similar water/oil ratios in the future, production of more than 3 million barrels per day in 2010 would require 6 to 13.5 million barrels of water per day.

Tourism and Recreation

A study of the potential impacts of climate change on visitation to national parks in the southern boreal forest suggests that visitation would increase by 6 to 10% in the 2020s, 10 to 36% in the 2050s and 14 to 60% in the 2080s, based on a relationship between temperature and visitor days.

Lower lake and stream levels, particularly in mid- to late summer may reduce opportunities for water based recreation. Changes in water temperatures and levels will affect fish species distributions. Warmer springs would result in earlier departure of ice from lakes, limit the ice fishing season and increase the likelihood of unsafe ice conditions.

Banff’s ski industry could decline by 50 to 57% in the 2020s and 66 to 94% in the 2050s.

How are they adapting?

In Alberta the provincial government has established an Alberta Climate Change Adaptation Team, which initiated province-wide and multi-sectoral assessments of vulnerability and adaptation strategies.

Alberta’s Water for Life Strategy is the province’s plan to develop a new water management approach with specific actions to ensure reliable, quality water supplies for a sustainable economy.

The Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative is a partnership of the governments of Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba mandated to pursue climate change impacts and adaptation research in the Prairie Provinces. The objective of PARC is to generate practical options to adapt to current and future climate change.

Compared to other provinces, the prairies are in a position to see both significant positive impacts and negative impacts from climate change. The Prairie Provinces also contain an inherently high adaptive capacity having some of the most variable weather in the world.

Although a high adaptive capacity could reduce the potential impacts of climate change, it is unclear how this capacity will be applied. Capacity is only potential-institutions and civil society will play a key role in mobilizing adaptive capacity.

Recent adaptations, such as minimum tillage practices and crop diversification in the agriculture sector, water policy in Alberta, re-engineering of the Red River floodway, municipal infrastructure and water conservation programs, have enhanced resilience and increased adaptive capacity.

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