Dry, dry Western Canada braces for hot and hard-growing summer

After a warm, dry winter and the driest spring on record, Western Canada is expecting heat waves through the summer. Farmers from B.C. to Western Manitoba are worried about what it will mean for their crops.

Crops falling to driest spring on Prairies in 68 years: heat waves forecast through to September

Farmer Kent Erickson shows a tiny canola plant that has failed to grow in extreme dry conditions. Ideally canola is in full vegetation and starting to flower by the end of June. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

There's a crunch under Kent Erickson's shoes as he walks onto his canola fields in Irma, Alta., 175 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. You can practically hear the dry with every footstep.

He stops and kicks the dirt to demonstrate how little rain has fallen this month. "We're at roughly an inch of moisture when we're normally at five to six inches of moisture," he says.

Farmer Kent Erickson also serves on the board of the Alberta Wheat Commission. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

He picks one of the tiniest canola plants out of the dusty earth. Thin roots and tiny leaves tell the story.

"We want that crop really bushy and with as much vegetation as possible," Erickson, a farmer who serves on the board of the Alberta Wheat Commission told CBC News. "You look around today, and there's not a lot of vegetation." 

Only a scattered few plants are leafy and beginning to flower. As far as the eye can see, there is brown between the rows of undergrown canola crops. Erickson's wheat crop across a dusty gravel road may not be faring much better.

They can't deal with these kind of weird, wild, and wacky kind of changes.

The stressed, failing crops are falling victim to the driest spring on the Prairies in the 68 years of national record-keeping.

"June is typically the wet month, the month where crops are growing feverishly, and it just hasn't happened," said David Phillips, Environment Canada's senior climatologist, in Barrie, Ont.  "So people are using the D-words: dryness, drought, no question about it."

Compounding the problem is that the dry spring came on the heels of one of the warmest, driest winters, particularly in parts of British Columbia and Alberta.

These dry conditions are a stark contrast to a wet spring last year and the heavy rains and run-off from melting snow pack in the Rocky Mountains that led to damaging floods in Alberta in 2013.

A stressed canola field near Irma, Alberta. A record dry spring has given crops across Western Canada a failing start. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC )

The wild swings in weather have even inspired a new term in climate circles called "weather whiplash," Phillips said.

"It has been one extreme to another, and it has been a tremendous challenge for farmers, ranchers and growers. They can't deal with these kind of weird, wild, and wacky kind of changes."

But it's the long-term forecast that is even more worrying for the immediate future. It predicts more dry conditions coupled with heat waves through to September. 

Erickson

Temperatures are expected to be six to 11 degrees higher than average in most of Western Canada.  

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, western Manitoba and parts of Yukon and Northwest Territories can all expect areas of extreme dryness or drought if that forecast holds. 

Erickson knows that unless there are some timely rains, heat will slowly bake his crops, dramatically reducing the yield of some and destroying others. 

"It would be lovely to wake up in the morning to a nice soaking rain," he said. "That's what this area needs for our pasture, for our crops."

Instead, the forecast is for more heat and more sunshine that will inevitably dry up profits for farmers across Western Canada.    

"I just hope the weather man is wrong," Erickson said with a knowing shrug. "There's one thing that you can't control in farming, and that's the weather." 

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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