The average annual temperature on the Earth has incrementally increased since 1976. The emerging scientific consensus, based on computer modeling, is that this climate trend will continue for the foreseeable future. Despite many scientists’ prophecies of doom, the assumption that this bodes well for Canada and other northern countries still persists. According to Dave Sauchyn, a professor of Geography at the University of Regina, this logic is faulty and ignores the subtleties of climate change. On November 11, Sauchyn gave a lecture titled “How Might Global Warming Affect the Variable Hydroclimate of Western Canada?” as part of the Cutting Edge lecture series at the Redpath Museum.
At the beginning of the lecture, Sauchyn presented a comment made by Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at Yale: “If you add it all up, it’s a good thing for Canada,” meaning Canadians will weather global warming better than most other countries. Sauchyn spent the remainder of the lecture debunking Mendelsohn’s statement, presenting various studies and simulated weather models that suggest otherwise.
The top five worst natural disasters in Canadian history, when sorted by economic impact, are four droughts and the Great Ice Storm of 1998, according to Sauchyn. Canadian droughts are devastating because they blight the crops on the prairies, causing billions of dollars of losses over a single growing season. This is important to understand because computer modeling performed by Sauchyn’s collaborator, Elaine Barrow, an investigator at the Canadian Institute for Climate Studies, reveals that the future climate will not just be warmer with more precipitation, but will include an increase in extreme weather conditions. There will be more years of drought, and more floods.
Drought has been a historic problem in the Canadian prairies – just look at the plant life. There are very few trees that grow in the prairies. A study conducted by Sauchyn examines trees in wet regions within the prairies. Measuring the thickness of the tree trunks’ annual rings, he was able to approximate how much rainfall there was each year dating back to 1063 CE. The record revealed that over the course of the past millennium the amount of precipitation per year swung between extremes: years of drought, and years of flood. Sauchyn explained that after several consecutive years of uncharacteristically high rainfall in the late 19th century, the population in Saskatchwan thrived, blossoming from one hundred thousand to one million people in just thirty years. After this boom in population, there were years of drought. The population ceased to grow any further.
Sauchyn concluded his talk by suggesting the need for more research dedicated to planning solutions for the future climate changes. He underscored the need to learn to adapt, and suggested diversifying and experimenting with new crops. He proposed stricter irrigation legislation and the increased use of alternative water resources, such as man-made lakes.