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Climate and weather cycles

There have always been climate cycles. The question is "Where are we now?"

Water level changes in a shallow (35 foot) observation well near Melfort, Sask.  1967 – 2016.

One of the biggest topics for discussion in recent years is climate change and how we have to shut down the world as we know it to keep alive in the future. On the CO2 and fossil fuel issue Canada is a rounding error. It is all about China. And China must change. Not so much to clean up the planet but to clean up the air so they can breathe.

We are fortunate to have a “Chinese Hotel” as neighbours near our home in Saskatoon. As newcomers arrive they spend some time here while finding a more permanent abode. Some speak good English and we have become good friends. They are great people and we are delighted to have them here. Their biggest response when they first arrive is “We can see the sun and breathe the air.” Changes will happen in China for that reason alone.

Climate and weather

Weather is the day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year change in the temperature, precipitation, wind and humidity that we experience. Few segments of society are as affected by and in tune with weather as farmers. It is literally what we do. Weather cycles come and go from hot to cold and dry to wet. We adapt to the changes to survive.

Climate is the longer term-change that the earth undergoes. Climate folks use a 30-year average as a starting point in looking at climate changes. Too many of the modern news reports talk about day-to-day weather and put it down to climate change. Our warm winter 2015-16 is simply one of many in my 75 years on this planet.

Climate cycles: the big picture

Our planet is about four billion years old. The climate has been changing for all of those four billion years. The most recent change is the coming and going of ice ages. In the Canadian Prairies we have had at least four major ice ages producing glaciers that wiped the slate clean. The last ice age faded about 10,000 years ago so we are blessed with youthful soils developed since then.

So, in the grand scheme of things we are still recovering from the last major ice age. A mile or so of ice melted as a result of a major long-term climate change event- and not a fossil fuel in site. Hmmm. There are many textbooks written on the topic of “causes” but there is still much room for debate and uncertainty.

Climate cycles: more recent examples

At the University of Saskatchewan library this winter I stumbled on an interesting book: Climate and Culture Change in North America AD 900 – 1600, written by W.C. Foster in 2012. He started with a graph that showed warm and cold periods from 4000 BC to the present. From around 400 BC to 400 AD was the Roman Warm period. And then it got cold. Apparently the decline of the Roman Empire was not all a political problem. The years from 400 to 900 AD were cold, the years from 900 to 1300 were warm. The Little Ice Age was from around 1300 to 1800. Since then we are in a warming period, thank goodness.

As W. C. Foster traced the effects of the climate changes on North American Cultures from 900 -1600 AD, his conclusion was clear. Warm is good; cold is bad. Native North Americans in the current U.S. corn Belt had a flourishing agricultural society based on corn, beans and squash. The onset of cold (Little Ice Age) devastated that society.

Now for some weather cycles


As we look at the time since we broke the sod around 1900 and have built a thriving ag industry we see the following temperature trends (10 year averages). A gradual warming from ~1895 to 1940 and whip saw warming/ cooling trends through the 50s to 70s. From 1980 to ~1995 was a major warming. But the current warming trend ended about the turn of the century.

I used data from Swift Current for the whole period and had data from Swift Current, North Battleford, Regina and Prince Albert for the period up to 1965. The trends were the same for all stations although absolute values were different.

Rainfall cycles:

Rainfall cycles are harder to pin down. Snow is such a big issue for agriculture and the measurements are shaky at best. What I have stumbled on is long-term groundwater observation wells. In Saskatchewan that work was started by Bill Meneley (1933 – 2000) at the Saskatchewan Research Council. Those wells are now monitored by our Saskatchewan Water Security Agency in Moose Jaw (To find more information, visit “Observation Well Network.”)

One of the charts on the Water Security Agency’s website is shown here. This one shows the record for an observation well about 10 km northeast of Melfort, Sask.

The story goes like this: From 1967 to 1972 there was not much change, the water level was slightly up. The huge snowmelt of 1974-75 brought a sharp rise. From 1975 to 2005 was a general drop, ie. the 30-year cycle. (We often hear climate folks talk about 30 year cycles.)

It is interesting to see the upward blips in 1985 and 1995. Perhaps that is the 11-year cycle we hear about.

2005 was the bottom for the record period. And, the dry cycle ended with the huge snow dump in 2005. It has been mostly onward and upward (with a blip down ~2010) but the last few years have bounced up and down. I interpret that as the aquifer reaching a new equilibrium point between recharge and discharge.

Not all observation wells will act as surrogates for rain/snow but several do. If you want to look for yourself check out the website.

So, there you have it — another bit of data and my interpretation in the huge weather/climate file.

About the author


Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.



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