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Impacts of warmer weather on farming

By Dale Johnson Posted: September 14, 2016 11:00 a.m.

The U of R research team with collaborators from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Alberta at a research site in Aconcagua, Argentina.
The U of R research team with collaborators from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Alberta at a research site in Aconcagua, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Darrell Corkal

A researcher at the University of Regina says farmers will face new opportunities and challenges as the growing season gets longer, because winters are getting warmer.  

“The agricultural sector should be aware that we can expect weather events that are more extreme than we’ve seen in recent decades,” says Dr. David Sauchyn, of the U of R’s PARC and Department of Geography.

“To take advantage of milder winters and a longer growing season, the agricultural sector will have to deal with pests, diseases and invasive species that also like the warmer climate. Higher agricultural production also will be constrained by the tendency for weather events of greater intensity in a warming climate,” he warns.

Sauchyn, who has been with the U of R since 1983, was co-director of an international research project called VACEA – Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Extremes in the Americas. The five-year project looked at how rural communities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia and the Canadian prairies are affected by extreme weather. Other researchers on the team from the U of R were Dr. Harry Diaz, Dr. Amber Fletcher, Dr. Margot Hurlbert, Dr. Dena McMartin and Dr. Joe Piwowar.The research project concluded last month.

“We tend to experience climate change in terms of extreme weather events. These events are not caused by climate change; they would occur in the absence of a changing climate. However, they  are now occurring in a climate that it is increasingly warmer, and there is scientific evidence that this is causing weather, like heavy rain, to be somewhat more intense,” says Sauchyn.

One topic they studied was drought and flooding in communities in southwestern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta.

“This information was from various scientific sources but also from speaking to a large number of residents of these rural areas. They have first-hand knowledge of the impacts of extreme weather events. This research showed that the rural people have been severely affected but also that they have a good capacity to deal with weather extremes. This capacity has been built on a history of exposure to these events, and drought in particular.”

He also says the research found that it’s easier for people to deal with extreme weather when they have support from others.

“The most unique aspect of the VACEA project was the social dimension and the interdisciplinarity of our collaborative work. The natural scientists and engineers studied weather and climate in the social science context provided by our colleagues. Together we found that the vulnerability of the rural communities and local agricultural economies depends very much on their sensitivity to weather and climate and on the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and extreme events. This sensitivity and adaptive capacity is determined by a large number of social factors. Social cohesion, for example, is important because rural people depend on each other, especially in difficult times,” he says.

But Sauchyn warns that the loss of other supports – from governments – is declining.

“Another important finding, from the social surveys and stakeholder workshops, is related to the role of governance institutions in building and maintaining adaptive capacity. Rural extension services, including the former PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration), have been lost in recent years, compromising rural adaptation to climate change.”