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El Niño winter is over in the Prairies. What does that mean for spring?

Winter 2023-24 was one for the record books.

Canada had its warmest December, January and February — often referred to as “meteorological winter” — since record keeping began in 1948.

While Saskatchewan didn’t rank first on record, almost all locations were within the top 10 for warmest winters, with much of the province between 2 C and 6 C warmer than normal.

Temperature anomalies for December, January and February on the Prairies.
Some parts of the Prairies were more than 6 C warmer than normal through December, January and February. That’s more than the previous El Niño winter of 2015-16. (Fred Demers/CBC)

A likely reason for the unusually spring-like winter weather was El Niño.

The recurring weather phenomenon makes Pacific Ocean waters near the equator, just off the coast of South America, warmer than normal. The warm waters warm the air above and that surges into North America.

“It was a strong El Niño that formed this winter, as forecast,” said Terri Lang, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“We do have a correlation in Western Canada with strong El Niños in that we tend to get warmer than average winters and drier than average winters.”

This El Niño appears to have been stronger in Saskatchewan than the last one during the winter of 2015-16. That event made parts of Saskatchewan up to 4 C warmer than normal.

WATCH | How El Niño makes winter warmer and drier than usual:

Sunscreen over snow boots? How El Nino could make our Prairie winter warmer and drier than normal

4 months ago

Duration 1:59

For the first time since the winter of 2015/16, the Prairies are experiencing El Nino, a weather pattern originating in the Pacific Ocean that can make the winters warmer and drier than normal

John Gyakum, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University, said climate change is likely amplifying El Niño’s effects.

“If you look at a map of ocean temperature anomalies, it’s absolutely seemingly off the charts in terms of just about everywhere,” said Gyakum.

report from the World Meteorological Organization shows ocean surface temperatures around the globe set a new January monthly record.

“This is worrying and can not be explained by El Niño alone,” WMO secretary-general Celeste Saulo said in the report.

Gyakum suspects similar conditions could happen in Canada during future El Niños if ocean temperature anomalies are similar to or higher than what they were this winter.

“This larger background that is impacted by climate change really sets the scene for amplifying the signal of El Niño,” he said.

El Niño is expected to weaken through spring and transition to a neutral phase, but the warm and dry conditions could linger even after its departure.

ECCC’s three month outlook shows much of the country has a good chance of seeing above seasonal temperatures.

Farmers prepare for another drought year

Data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada shows much of Saskatchewan in moderate drought, with pockets of severe and extreme drought, as of the end of February.

The conditions have prompted the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan to ask the province to form a committee to address drought.

APAS president Ian Boxall said he would like to see the committee involve government, farming groups and researchers, among others.

“I think we can sit down and have a dialogue about what does it look like?” said Boxall. “What are the options that the province has and producers have at their fingertips that would alleviate some of … these issues for producers moving forward?”

WATCH | Prairie ranchers sell livestock amid drought conditions:

Drought forces Prairie ranchers to sell livestock

14 days ago

Duration 2:00

As the multi-year drought in the Prairies continues, some ranchers are being forced to sell off livestock. With little moisture in the ground and water sources drying up, feed for livestock is becoming difficult to grow.

Boxall said APAS could form the committee themselves, even if government isn’t involved.

Alberta has a similar committee, made up of “leaders with experience in agriculture, irrigation, Indigenous, industry, rural and urban issues,” according to a release from the province.

Its goal is to “help the government support communities, farmers and ranchers, and businesses share, conserve and manage water during a potential drought.”

Boxall said heavy snowfall earlier this month could alleviate concerns for some farmers, especially those who rely on runoff to fill dugouts for water use, but added rain this spring is what’s needed most to grow crops.

Phillip Harder, a hydrologist who farms near Saskatoon, thinks the snow on his farm melts down to between 40 and 50 centimetres of water — about a quarter of the moisture crops use to grow, he said.

But Harder believes much of this winter’s melted snow will run off, instead of soaking into the ground, because of soil conditions.

“We had … early winter rain that sort of saturated the near surface, we’ve had mid-winter melts,” said Harder. “All those sequences have basically created a very thin but very frozen … surface.”

Snow in a farm field near Saskatoon in early March, 2024.
Snow blankets Phillip Harder’s farm near Saskatoon earlier this month. Harder says much of this snow could run off due to frozen surface soil conditions. (Submitted by Phillip Harder)

A report from Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency (WSA) says much of the province is expected to see below or well below normal runoff, but parts of eastern and west-central Saskatchewan will see near normal runoff because of the heavy early March snowfall.

WSA spokesperson Patrick Boyle said dry weather in the fall caused the agency to reduce the outflow of water from almost all reservoirs in the province over the winter.

“So you’re retaining those inflows and then reducing the outflows so as to keep the reservoirs as high as possible,” said Boyle.

In its release, the WSA noted some south-central communities could face localized water supply shortages this spring due to dry conditions.

But Boyle said the WSA has worked with communities over the past few months to mitigate shortages, and no communities are immediately at risk of running out of water.

Fires burned over winter in parts of Western Canada

Piyush Jain, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told CBC over 100 fires smouldered through the winter in parts of British Columbia and Alberta. There were also fires reported in the Northwest Territories.

“It’s pretty common to have a few, like a handful of overwintering fires,” said Jain. “But to have well over 100 is very unusual.”

Jain said much of the forest in northern Saskatchewan is unmanaged, but there could have been fires smouldering there too.

WATCH | Wildfire smoke smoulders in B.C. in February:

Wildfire smoke still smouldering near Fort Nelson, B.C.

1 month ago

Duration 1:36

An unusually dry winter had led to more than 100 wildfires still burning underground across Canada. That’s particularly concerning in Fort Nelson, in B.C.’s far northeast, where smoke is still visible near the community

As of Mar. 23, four fires have already been reported in Saskatchewan in 2024. The five-year average for this time of year is zero.

“I think everyone’s a little bit on edge waiting to see what that’ll mean in the spring when the usual fire-conducive weather conditions turn up,” said Jain.

Jain said it’s hard to predict what this fire season will be like, but there is concern given much of the Prairies are in drought.

There is currently little to no snow pack in northern Alberta, and Natural Resource Canada’s fire forecast severity rating for May is already at a high to extreme level in much of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well B.C.’s Southern Interior.

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