New book studies impacts of drought on the prairies

By Dale Johnson Posted: December 19, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Margot Hurlbert is one of the co-editors of Vulnerability and Adaptation to Drought.
Margot Hurlbert is one of the co-editors of Vulnerability and Adaptation to Drought. Photo: U of R Photography

Droughts on the prairies could become more frequent, more severe, and last longer in the years ahead, according to a new book edited by U of R faculty members.

The book, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Drought, is co-edited by three Sociology and Social Studies faculty members, Harry Diaz, Margot Hurlbert, and Jim Warren.

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Harry Diaz says researchers at the U of R are near the most drought-prone regions of Canada.

Photo: U of R Photography

“If the climate past is any indication of what we can expect in the future, we can anticipate periods of prolonged intense drought over the course of the 21st century. Forecasts tell us we can expect somewhat warmer temperature conditions including warmer winters in coming decades. Those warmer temperatures will be accompanied by more frequent episodes of extreme weather in the form of severe drought as well as periods of intense rainfall and flooding,” explains Diaz.

“The overall warming trend and shifts in weather patterns at the global level are expected to interact with pre-existing climate patterns, in ways that are not yet fully understood. So we might reasonably predict that the droughts of the 20th century were somewhat mild in comparison with what we can anticipate between today and the close of the 21st century,” he adds.

The book describes the impacts of droughts and the adaptations made in prairie agriculture over recent decades. These adaptations have enhanced the capacity of rural communities to withstand drought.

However, agricultural producers in the prairie region remain vulnerable to severe droughts that last more than a couple of years.

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U of R faculty members are co-editors of this new book about the impacts of drought.

Photo: U of R Photography

This book provides insights into the conditions generating these challenges and the measures required to reduce vulnerability of prairie communities to them. Developing greater understanding of the social forces and conditions that have contributed to enhanced resilience, as well as those which detract from successful adaptation, is a principal theme of the book.

“A central argument of the book is that drought impacts are defined not only by the magnitude of the natural phenomenon but also, and more importantly, by the capacity of society to reduce the impacts of drought on people and their activities, making them more resilient to the drastic conditions. The adaptive capacity of societies and their governments is the fundamental element in defining the degree of vulnerability of the social systems,” says Hurlbert.

The issue of climate change and its impacts goes far beyond scientists – and that’s why faculty members from Sociology & Social Studies edited this book.

“Social science, with its obvious focus on social systems, can assist the transmission and application of climate science in social spheres such as household behavior, industrial processes, agricultural practices, resource management and public policy,” says Warren.

“In this sense, when natural scientists engage with social scientists, they stand to broaden the awareness and support for their research efforts in the wider community, allowing them to highlight those areas of scientific knowledge which might have substantive impacts on the public interest and the environment. Similarly, by cooperating with natural scientists, social scientists gain insights into the workings of the natural biophysical world and those facets of science that present social systems with threats and opportunities,” he adds.

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Jim Warren says it's important for social scientists to work with natural scientists.

Photo: External Relations

“Researchers at the U of R live and work in close proximity to the most drought-prone regions of the Canadian Prairies. Our social scientists and historians have established networks with communities, institutions and individuals that have firsthand experience with drought and a record of effective adaptation to drought,” says Diaz.

Diaz says the U of R has researchers who have made significant contributions to understanding past climate conditions on the prairies and have also done significant work on the development of forecast models for the prairies.

“There is a strong group of researchers from the natural and social sciences at the U of R who recognize the value of an interdisciplinary approach to research related to climate change vulnerability and adaptation. That interest in cooperative research efforts was readily extended to the invitation of researchers from other Canadian universities and Latin America, making the U of R something of a hub in the field of international efforts to understand the impacts of climate change,” says Hurlbert.

And Warren says “this book could stand as a starting point for the type of research effort required to prepare communities and institutions for dealing with the extreme droughts expected in the future. In particular, we hope the book demonstrates the value of an interdisciplinary approach to vulnerability and adaptation and efforts to enhance drought resilience on the prairies.”