Edmonton·CBC Explains

Why the Prairies get more sun than the rest of Canada

In Canada, the sunniest place to be, on average, is the Prairies. Why is that? We take a look at the factors keeping the sky clear in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Mountains play a big role in why Alberta, Saskatchewan see more sunshine on average than other provinces

Sunshine is a common sight on the Prairies, largely due to topography and geography. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change on the Prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how it impacts everyday life.


If you are looking to catch some rays in Canada, your best bet is to head to the Prairies.

Southern Saskatchewan and southeast Alberta lead the country in sunshine, with many communities in those provinces seeing more than 2,400 hours annually according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The rest of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are not far behind, racking up over 2,000 hours per year.

To put that in perspective, some areas along the Pacific coast see only 1,200 to 1,400 hours of bright sunshine per year.

While some communities, such as Yellowknife, may individually see quite a bit of sun, the region as a whole is the bull's-eye for sunshine in the country.

The two provinces enjoy more hours of sun because, simply put, the prairie climate is drier. 

Areas close to big bodies of water get much more cloud cover and precipitation with all of that moisture-rich air, such as the atmospheric river event we saw recently in B.C.

Edmonton sees an average of 446 millimetres of precipitation a year, with Calgary close behind at 419 millimetres. Regina and Saskatoon get 390 millimetres and 354 millimetres, respectively.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Vancouver, where it's normal to see 1,189 millimetres of precipitation in a year.

Without that consistent cloud cover and wet weather, the Prairies get a lot of sunshine.

That abundance of sun is the reason the Prairies are seeing a significant boost in a rapidly developing solar power industry. 

A number of large solar projects are already underway to meet this potential, including the Travers Solar Project in Lomond, Alta., and a proposed solar farm near the Edmonton International Airport.

WATCH | Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga explains what's behind those sunny Prairie skies: 

What makes Alberta and Saskatchewan the sunniest provinces

6 months ago
Duration 1:27
Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga explains why some cities in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan enjoy more than 2,400 hours of sunny weather every year.

Rain shadow effect

There are a number of reasons the Prairies are so dry, but at the centre, as in real estate, it's all about location.

The western Prairies are a long way from any significant source of moisture. The closest source is the Pacific Ocean, but that moisture has quite a journey to get to Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

Though Pacific moisture can make it to the Prairies, it has to pass a big obstacle. That brings us to the second reason for the Prairies' sunny weather.

The western Prairies sit in what's called a rain shadow.

When air travels over the mountains, it loses a lot of its moisture. (CBC News)

Looking at the topography of Canada, we see Alberta has the Coast Mountains and Rocky Mountains to the west and plains to the east. Moisture-laden air coming off the Pacific Ocean hits those mountain ranges and rises. As it rises, it cools, and we get condensation and rain or snow.

By the time that air descends on the lee side in Alberta, it is sapped of moisture.

Now, of course, Alberta and Saskatchewan do get rain, but rainfall trends on the Prairies differ from other areas of Canada, which brings us to the third reason for so much sunshine.

Fast-moving storms

The jet stream — the narrow band of fast-moving air in the upper atmosphere that directs our weather systems — often leaves the Prairies with a big ridge of high pressure.

Air in that high pressure sinks and usually means little to no cloud cover, giving Alberta and Saskatchewan that beautiful blue sky they are known for. 

When storms do happen, they are fast-moving. Prairie weather systems such as Alberta clippers or Colorado lows can generate a lot of water but then head on their way within a day or two.

The other big summer storms on the Prairies are convective thunderstorms, which usually come in the evening after a relatively sunny day, so though we do get those impressive cloud formations, most of the day still counts as a sunny one. 

Even though we can get a lot of rain and impressive cloud formations during thunderstorms, these storms often form later after a sunny day. (Submitted by Matt Melnyk)

How could climate change impact sunshine?

As our climate warms, you may be thinking, "OK more evaporation, more moisture in the air, that means more clouds and less sun."

That may not be the case, however. 

As our air warms, our relationship with relative humidity changes as well.

So even though we may have more water vapour in the air, because the air itself is warmer, the relative humidity may be comparable to what it is now.

That means we could still have the same amount of cloud cover, but when those storms do hit, we could see more precipitation because there is more water present.

So, more rain or snow, but the same amount of sun, even though that may sound counterintuitive.


Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christy Climenhaga

CBC Meteorologist

Christy Climenhaga, CBC Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatchewan's Meteorologist, covers weather and climate change stories for the prairies.

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