Hot, dry summer causing 'weather whiplash'

In many parts of Canada, especially in southern Ontario and Quebec, it's been a very hot and dry summer. That makes for good nights on the patio, but the people who grow our food are getting desperate for rain.

'We're seeing opposite scenarios back-to-back each year,' says climatologist

One of the perks of a hot, dry summer: Cycling at Inukshuk Park in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

The dog days of summer have arrived, but you probably won't notice any change in the weather.

Most of Canada has already been reacquainted with sizzling temperatures, sunny skies and all the perks that come with them: lake swims, beach days, patios, long weekend road trips, warm summer evenings and a healthy dose of vitamin D. 

It's been a stark and welcome contrast to the cool, wet summer much of the country slogged through last year and the year before. But there's a darker side to all that sunshine.

Some parts of Canada are seeing abnormally dry weather. Droughts have been declared in coastal B.C., and conservation authorities in regions of southern Ontario and Quebec have issued water advisories, asking people to use as little as possible.

The parched conditions stretch as far east as the Maritimes, where agricultural land in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is thirsty, and as far west as the B.C. interior. Rainfall has also been less than average in southwestern Alberta and central Saskatchewan.

"It's really a double whammy. Not only has nature forgotten how to rain in some areas, but it's also warmer," said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

In Toronto, for example, there have already been more than a dozen days above 30 C. Usually there are about four by this time. Only 26.4 millimetres of rain fell on the city in June, as opposed to the usual 71.5.

"Last year was completely opposite. There was too much rain, it was too wet, too cool," Phillips said. "That weather whiplash is becoming the new normal; we're seeing opposite scenarios back-to-back each year."

'Even worse than I thought'

While such inconsistency may seem inconsequential to city dwellers, the farmers who grow and raise our food depend on consistency in the seasons. 

This year's dry summer has been especially hard on the rural townships of southeastern Ontario, a landscape peppered with farms of all sizes and scales. Fields of corn, soybean, grains and hay stretch to the horizon, broken only by the occasional herd of dairy cows grazing in the hills. 

Precipitation has been less than half of the average for this time of year, and there's a "rain deficit" of more than 100 millimetres in some places. There would have to be record rainfall to make up that much missing water, according to Phillips.

The growing season is threatening to end like it did in 2012, when an extremely dry summer and early autumn compromised crops and left many farmers short, on the wrong end of costly contracts with suppliers. 

The taste of milk from some dairy cows in southeastern Ontario has been altered by the dry conditions, said Rejean Pommainville, a farmer in Russell County near Ottawa. (Reuters)

"It's actually even worse than I thought," said Debra Pretty-Straathof as she walked through a barley field on her family's 600-acre farm in Arnprior, about 50 kilometres west of Ottawa.

Pretty-Straathof is a director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). At the last board meeting, she says, farmers from across the province expressed serious concerns about the lack of rain.

Those in the Thunder Bay area were an exception: northwestern Ontario saw record rainfall in June, and weather models suggest the deluge is likely to continue in the near future. 

Rain to 'ruin your summer holiday'

Interestingly, as in 2012, conditions seem to be exceptionally tough "in pockets," she explained. The weather has been erratic and rain has fallen mostly during turbulent summer storms that dissipate as quickly as they blow in.

The result is that different counties, some right next to one another, are variably dry, with some approaching full-on drought conditions.  

"Best-case scenario is that we get a decent amount of rain in the next couple of weeks," Pretty-Straathof said. Some of the more resilient crops still have considerable time to recover, but for others the outlook could be grim. 

"If rain doesn't come soon, then the corn is going to be absolutely terrible," she lamented. 

Complicating matters, though, is that rainfall alone won't give us that sweet, late-summer Ontario corn. The rain has to be sustained long enough to be absorbed into soil, the kind of days-long, consistent downpour that, according to Phillips, "would ruin your summer holiday."

'Normal weather is missing in action'

Rejean Pommainville is no stranger to the tribulations of agricultural life, but he says there is a pervasive sense of urgency among farmers in the region. The rest of July could make or break this year's harvest.

"If we don't get moisture at the right time, then the crops will be affected dramatically," said Pommainville, a former dairy farmer who now cultivates 200 acres of crops — usually corn or wheat, although this year soybeans and hay are in the rotation — in Russell County, about 30 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. He's also a director at the OFA.

'The normal weather is missing in action, and farming is based on normal weather.' — David Phillips, senior government climatologist

"The next three weeks are very, very important. When you travel around the area, some fields look better than others. If the next three weeks get wetter, then there's a chance at having a normal crop."

The outlook is not particularly hopeful, said Phillips. Weather models suggest that July and August are going to be very hot right across the country, and the need for precipitation will only increase as the mercury rises.

Forecasting rain is difficult, but there's no sure sign that relief may be coming. At least not yet. 

"It could get worse before it gets better," said Phillips. "The normal weather is missing in action, and farming is based on normal weather. Now they can't grow the things their parents and grandparents grew."


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?