It used to be the case that a gentle fall was a welcome blessing to most Albertans. But after a summer of wildfires, drought and other climate-related catastrophes, the record-setting warmth has a foreboding quality to it that’s hard to ignore. In November, the city of Edmonton didn’t see any snow for the first time since 1928, while Calgary just enjoyed the warmest December on record in over 141 years of data.

As a result, scientists — and, belatedly, the Alberta government — are warning this summer could be even more difficult as the absence of moisture makes the forecast for wildfire season even more ominous. “These regions still don’t have snow cover,” University of Saskatchewan professor John Pomeroy told Global News. “Soil moisture levels are less than 40 per cent of normal. The snowpacks have not built up this year. And we know snow is how we got into trouble last year with the drought: the snowpacks were below normal and then they melted early.”

Pomeroy, who’s also the Canada Research Chair in water resources and climate change, says this is what the new normal looks like in a rapidly warming world. “We’re going to keep seeing these effects year on year. Alberta was over five degrees above normal in December. If we have those conditions in the spring again, then we’re back into an agricultural disaster.”

Believe it or not, there are still wildfires burning in Alberta right now because there hasn’t been enough precipitation or cold to help the province’s firefighters finish off fires that kicked off last summer.

The province’s environment minister, who seems to spend most of her time advocating for new oil and gas development, has finally cottoned on to the scale of the threat. In the coming weeks, the Alberta government will apparently be awarding a contract for drought-modelling work and a drought advisory committee will be struck. “Our province has navigated droughts before. We have a long, proud history of coming together during tough times, and we will get through this together,” Rebecca Schulz said in a statement.

Schulz’s remarks make it seem like this is business as usual and that there isn’t anything new or unusual about the scale and scope of the threat her province faces. Residents in southern Alberta, which is in the midst of the worst drought in half a century, would probably beg to differ. There’s also no mention of the role climate change is playing here. Under the United Conservative Party’s leadership, it’s the truth that dare not be spoken aloud.

But as a recent review of more than a century of scientific literature by a team of academics at the University of Alberta makes clear, climate change cannot be ignored anymore. Their data shows a consistent trend of rising air temperatures, less snowfall and more disruptive and destructive weather events. Most worrisome was the increase in the minimum air temperature, which rose from 1 C to 4.5 C. Emmanuel Mapfumo, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, describes that as a “significant finding” since it means winters are getting less cold. “That can result in mid-season snowmelt, lower snow levels and less moisture in the early spring, which is important for sustaining early-stage crop growth.”

Yes, the higher temperatures could theoretically allow for crops like corn and wheat to grow at higher latitudes, but those gains may quickly be subsumed by the spread of disease and pests like the wheat midge. As we saw in British Columbia’s forests and the catastrophic spread of the mountain pine beetle, relatively small changes in temperature can have enormous impacts.

Ironically, rural and remote communities where resistance to climate science is most widespread stand to get hit the hardest. As a team of academics noted in a 2019 survey of attitudes among Alberta beef and grain producers, “Even in comparison to general public samples, farmers also stand out in their particularly high levels of climate skepticism, preferring to attribute observed changes in climate to natural causes.”

Last summer’s wildfires in Western Canada were brutally bad. Thanks to a historically warm fall, this year’s might be even worse — and yes, climate change is the driving force behind it all.

In those circles, you can bet this year’s drought will be blamed on El Niño, the weather pattern that sees warm water in the Pacific shove the Pacific jet stream south of its natural position and create warmer and drier weather in the West. But, of course, climate change is exacerbating this natural phenomenon and making its impacts more intense than they might otherwise be. Sound familiar?

Not everyone is determined to miss this particular forest for the trees. Paul McLauchlin, the reeve of Ponoka County and president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, seems to understand the challenge posed by climate change to people in his community. "We have to have probably some hard conversations that we probably have never really had provincewide as opposed to our localized drought events that have happened historically," he told the CBC. Those include the oversized impact of agriculture and the oil and gas industry on water usage, and how they can better co-exist with the needs of ordinary people.

But with the United Conservative Party in power and fringe elements like Take Back Alberta holding its reins, those conversations won’t include climate change or Alberta’s disproportionate role in advancing it. This is an area where conservative politicians, who dominate rural parts of this country, could play a leadership role. They could help steer a more productive conversation on the subject, one that avoids polarization and partisanship and instead tries to help educate and inform. Alas, these conservatives just aren’t interested in any of that — and it’s their rural voters who will pay the highest price for it.

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Fawcett: "But with the United Conservative Party in power and fringe elements like Take Back Alberta holding its reins, those conversations won’t include climate change or Alberta’s disproportionate role in advancing it."

Across the aisle, petro-progressive politicians like Rachel Notley build new oilsands export pipelines (TMX) for climate change.

The new denialism. Just as delusional as the old kind but more insidious. And far more dangerous.
"The New Climate Denialism: Time for an Intervention" (The Narwhal, 2016)

Thanks for this comprehensive article Max; one of your best I think due to fascinatingly thorough links that confirmed what I know as the daughter of a central Alberta farmer.
Firstly that it's an uber-male culture above all else so underpinned more than usual by the "heroic male myth" due to the uniquely intimate, direct link with what they see as THEIR land from which they alone coax sustenance for life, marching bravely into the literal headwinds of Mother Nature beneath her vast, mercurial sky, "mopping a face like a shoe; thanks for the meal, here's a song that is real, from a kid from the city to you." The word "real" appeals most strongly to many of them because they rightly see their occupation as "grounding" like no other.
The only possible mitigation I can see for this definitively male brand of proprietary arrogance has always been and will continue to be the introduction of more female farmers.
But the outlook is more positive than I expected if you read that U of A link. Despite a tribal contempt for environmentalists and climate scientists/science, Alberta farmer's prevailing attitude does reflect that of many people at the moment, that climate change IS real, but not caused by us, and even though that is WRONG, it does show that to move forward we have to primarily address practical solutions.
Women have long known this, that with too-proud and/or arrogant men who nonetheless work hard and offer much strength and love, you have to approach change indirectly in a way that allows them to take ownership of the idea.
One of the mitigating phrases in that study that resonated was, "the multifarious and dynamic nature of identity."

"you have to approach change indirectly in a way that allows them to take ownership of the idea."

You mean pandering to their egos, ignorance, and contrary-to-fact opinions?

I'm afraid so; it's the "meet them where they're at" idea, or "whatever works" rather than thinking you can change them.

About 20 years ago an Alberta hydrologist named Schindler studied glacial melt in the Eastern Rockies and published an alarming report predicting glacier-fed Prairie rivers could face an average decrease in summer flow of 50% by mid-century, based on the rate of glacial erosion at that time. Today that rate has increased.

Imagine Calgary's Bow and Elbow rivers diminishing by at least half. They comprise the city's main water supply. Ditto Edmonton's North Saskatchewan River. And the southern Alberta rivers used for large scale crop irrigation.

Those are rivers that flow east of the Great Divide. Glacier-fed rivers flowing west are the source of BC's legacy hydroelectricity. Similar recent studies conducted on glaciers in the Rocky and Selkirk mountain ranges have reached the same conclusions about the long term effects of warming on water supplies between the Great Divide and the Pacific Ocean.

The melting trend in glaciers started long before climate change became common knowledge, and will undoubtedly continue until the inevitable conversion of glaciers into naked alpine valleys occurs. We need to accept that the glaciers will never be replaced at anything less than a geological timescale, if ever.

By all means, build out renewable energy from the sun, wind and earth heat, if anything to vastly exceed the replacement of fossil fuels and lost hydro capacity. But adaptation has now become a twin priority.

It seems the only people talking about these profound changes with any authority are scientists. They need a stronger voice and a bigger presence in our society (if not our governments) to cut through the daily noise, blame games, political fashion of the month and personality cults.

The taps running dry affects everyone, petro progressives, petro regressives, environmentalists, armchair critics with pointing fingers, rich and poor, religious people and atheists, leaders and followers alike.

We need a plan like never before.

Critics can fingerpoint until the crops wither in the field and back deck hot tubs become obsolete, but they too have to start elucidating a lot more effectively and positively how society could adapt using affordable methods and techniques.

Politicians adjust their messages and policies somewhat in accordance with the electorate's preferences. Minority governments and electoral defeat are the result of taking voters for granted. A better educated electorate widely and loudly espousing a set of climate and adaptation solutions is bound to have a stronger effect on government direction.

And a government that elevates ignorance will slow walk its people into a calamity.