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D3: The digital dumbing down

Not all information is better in the digital age. Especially data about the weather

We are now in “the information age.” Information, mostly good but sometimes sketchy, is literally at our fingertips. As I wrote this piece if a spelling error occurred, my software program underlined it in red. Then I quickly opened a web browser and put my spelling of the word into Google and up popped the correct spelling, definition and more. It happened at least three times while I wrote this short piece.

Google Earth is my favourite digital tool. When someone writes to order my book, it is fun to look up what the land is like in their home area. Where Google’s Street View is available, it is the next best thing to actually being there. The ever-expanding reach of Street View is a bit scary (big brother is watching) but also very informative.

But, along with the ever-expanding digital world, some very useful information has dropped off because it does not easily fit in the digital format. This piece will explain a few such examples we have lived through.

Please realize that pointing out such loss of information is not a criticism of the administrative units holding the data. It is just a fact of life that resulted in loss of useful information that did not easily transform to a digital platform.

Saskatchewan municipal land assessment

When I first started working in soil science, the Assessment Branch of the Department of Municipal Affairs was responsible for farmland assessment for taxation purposes. The unit was housed right within the Soil Science Department at the University of Saskatchewan and we worked hand in hand.

The assessed value of farmland was based on the physical soil resource and its capability to produce net earnings with which to pay the tax. A map was prepared for each individual quarter section. The map showed the location of building sites, sloughs, bush, and the individual soil types and topography. These maps were the only sources of information based on each individual quarter section.

But when computers came along, these hand-drawn maps did not fit the digital format. The maps were discontinued and the data was available only in data and table format. The same information was there, but there was no way to determine where in the quarter section the various soils and other features occurred.

In the early days of precision agriculture, I recall attending a presentation that included grid soil sampling and testing on a single quarter section to the tune of many dollars’ worth of soil testing. One of the main conclusions was that the old farmyard and manure spreading area was an area of super fertility. A peak at the old assessment map or old air photos would have been much cheaper.

Paper copies of the old assessment quarter section maps are archived at the U. of S., and the Soil Science department has microfiche and microfilm on file for most of it. With current initiatives it may be possible to make PDFs accessible online. I hope so!

Saskatchewan Assessment Management Agency (SAMA) is now responsible for farmland assessment and is more influenced by market value than productive capacity. But, much of the soil and other information is still there and now available at the click of a mouse (visit The site is much improved from earlier versions. For the most part, I can easily find what I want. If I can do it young folk will find it a breeze.

Water well information

The first water well reports in Saskatchewan were on microfiche with four wells per page. All geology and well completion information was available as well as water chemistry for some wells. One of the main features of the water chemistry was the all-important data on nitrates. Well water nitrate that could kill babies was first discovered in the 1940s. Many farm wells were tested for nitrate in the 1950s-60s and having that old data available is very important.

The old microfiche technique is now completely outdated and water well information is available online in PDF format. At, choose “Water info,” and then “online drilling reports.”

The modern computerized version has one well per page and the water chemistry data is not included. That is a major dumbing down. In work near Saskatoon a few years ago I accessed the microfiche of a 1933 dairy farm well. It had analysis for water TDS and hardness. That was enough to tell me that the well was completed in pre-glacial deposits. When the hydrogeology study of the area was completed an aquifer was found in pre-glacial deposits. That aquifer had sufficient pressure that a well 150 feet deep could shoot water seven feet above ground.

The pressure that causes flowing wells is a major reason for saline/solonetz soils and for water in basements of city houses.

The good news is that most of the water chemistry data is still in the guts of computers and after much gnashing of teeth, it should soon be readily available.

Weather/climate information

Weather is the day-to-day conditions that we enjoy or hate. Climate is the 30-year average of that weather.

In days of yore, weather information was gathered by dedicated and mostly volunteer observers located right where the weather was happening. They read a thermometer twice a day and read and dumped a rain gauge and mailed the results to the federal government.

When we (H.K. Harder at the University of Saskatchewan and I) prepared a map in 1991 showing “Soil Climatic Zones of Southern Saskatchewan” it was based on data from “Environment Canada, Atmospheric Environment Service. Canadian Climate Normals, 1951-1980, Temperature and Precipitation.” I have many such books on shelves at the University of Saskatchewan.

The printed map was 22″ x 17″ and the back side was full of the criteria and data used to make the map. In 1991 there were 194 Saskatchewan weather stations and all but Uranium City and LaRonge were in the agricultural area.

Recently I found a federal government document online, from the Environment and Climate Change department. It was an Excel spreadsheet, titled “Historical Homogenized Temperature Stations for Canada — Updated to December 2016.”

Hmm. “Homogenized” sounds kind of suspicious to me.

That 2016 document was based on only 36 stations in the province of Saskatchewan and six of those were not in the agricultural area. When something as important as our weather/climate information was digitized it has, in my opinion, been “dumbed down” to a frightening degree.

A few years ago, when I was preparing the annual November 1 Soil Moisture Map I was having trouble with data from the Manitoba Interlake area. As always, if I want to know something in the country I call up a local. So, I picked on a seed grower and phoned him. He informed me that the automated local station had been out of service for a long time.

It seems that “homogenizing” involves using the nearest stations to “manufacture” data for a missing station. If a crow makes an unsolicited deposit in an automatic recording rain gauge, that data is gone forever. It cannot be generated from the nearest stations.

Rainfall in particular cannot be modeled or otherwise mathematically derived. It must be measured at a point, and it takes a lot of points to get any kind of useful map.

I think there is one way that modern technology could help a lot in making rainfall maps. The Doppler Radar is amazing technology and I think it could be used to make a better rainfall map. Terry Aberhart, Langenburg area farmer and Agri-Trend associate, showed an example of that at a recent precision ag meeting in Saskatoon.

But no one in research or bureaucracy seems to be advancing that idea. Instead, the Radisson radar that serves Saskatoon area has been AWOL for months and was recently joined by Bethune and Jimmy Lake (northwest). We now have no functional radar in the province. Even when they are all operating, the very important northeast ag area (Melfort/Nipawin) is without service.

Perhaps our federal Environment and Climate Change Canada department should spend less money jetting around to make Kyoto, Rio, Paris etc. accords and spend more time sticking to the business of measuring and reporting our day-to-day weather. Weather cannot be modeled — it can only be measured.

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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