The bad news for Western drought: 'monster' hot El Nino on the way

A scorching hot summer across Western Canada is taking a toll on farms and forests. But the bad news is that even warmer and drier El Nino conditions are still on the way, so next year may be even worse.

Western farms are parched and wilting, and warm, dry El Nino conditions are still to come.

An infestation of grasshoppers has added to the woes of Alberta farmers who are already dealing with drought. (Terry Reith/CBC)

In the dead of a Prairie winter, when cars won't start and exposed skin freezes in 30 seconds, people pray for a searing hot summer. But across Western Canada this season, many may be recalling the old adage, "be careful what you wish for" as forest fires, drought and pestilence invite biblical comparisons.

More worrisome, though, than the sight of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia wilting under 30 degree temperatures in June and July — and rationing scarce water supplies in some areas — is that this might just be the start of an even bigger problem.

Many meteorologists are chalking up today's weird and wacky weather in the West to the fact that this is an El Nino year, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean phenomenon that disrupts global weather patterns.

The problem with that, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips: "It's not even arrived in Canada yet."

"We don't see the effects of El Nino until late fall, winter and early spring," he says. 

What that likely means is at least three more consecutive seasons of warmer, drier weather when farmers are already, quite literally, tapped out in the moisture department.

As for what that could mean for drought conditions next summer and beyond, Phillips says it's "not looking good."

Feeling the heat

Canada's Prairies have just experienced their driest winter and spring in 68 years of record keeping. "So they were behind the eight-ball before the summer season ever came," says Phillips.

That, coupled with a record low snow pack in North America, and few of the traditional June rains needed to grow crops, has had a cumulative effect that's hit some producers harder than others.

Says Phillips: "For ranchers it's pretty much game over."

The tinder dry land has kept pastures for grazing cattle from turning green and producing feed, forcing cattle ranchers to sell down their herds or ship the animals around looking for alternative feed sources.

Meantime, B.C. has seen more than 1,300 wildfires since April, and the height of fire season doesn't usually begin until August. And, just this week, Metro Vancouver was forced to impose extraordinary stage-three water restrictions,something it hasn't done since 2003, one of the last big, bad summers on record.

Merely restricting water use, though, is little comfort on the parched Prairies, where scattered, late July rains have come too late to help many farmers and ranchers salvage the season.

"Our cereal fields, our oats, our wheat, our barley essentially baked in the field," says Garett Broadbent, agricultural services director for Alberta's Leduc County, just south of Edmonton.

The municipality voted unanimously this week to declare a local state of agricultural disaster as soil moisture and crop conditions continue to decline to the worst levels in half a century.

Plague of grasshoppers

Already, area farmers estimate they've lost about one-third of their entire crops to drought.

And if that wasn't bad enough, adds Broadbent, "Then we've had a band of grasshoppers that came through the west part of our municipality and depleted pretty much everything that was out there."

In Saskatchewan, it's a similar story.

"There's a lot of canola that's in very rough shape. " says Shannon Friesen, crop management specialist, with Saskatchewan Agriculture. 

Drought in Alberta has parched this farmer's field near Leduc. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Friesen expects this year's harvest will also come early with average yields — if they're lucky. 

But the losses that stem from a drought or other catastrophic events related to climate can have much more serious consequences than the financial impact, according to a long-time climate scientist.

"People often say, OK, so some guy's house flooded away or burned down. So what? They can pay to have it put back. But I say, you can't pay to put back the loss of a life or fix a mental disability from these things happening," says Gordon McBean, a climatologist and professor at the University of Western Ontario.

'Monster' El Nino

Adding to the concerns is that this year's El Nino is gearing up to be what some scientists are calling a "super" El Nino, or a "monster" one.

That's making a record-hot year seem almost inevitable, and a sobering new report about the Earth's temperature shows it's right on track to do just that.

The latest monthly tally from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the average global temperature in June reached  16.33 C., breaking the old record set last year by 0.12 degrees C.

That makes the first six months of 2015 the hottest on record, according to the U.S. scientific agency.

NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden says, in addition to the dwindling snow pack, "glaciers are melting, sea ice is melting, sea levels reached record highs last year, the ocean heat was record high last year, sea surface temperatures were record highs last year, so you put it all together and there's a definite trend."

It's a trend Blunden expects to continue into 2015 and beyond as long as, she says, greenhouse gas levels continue to rise year after year.