Friday, May 28, 2010

Better water science needed in Canada

John Pomeroy in the StarPhoenix (Saskatchewan): Given Saskatchewan's wet spring, it may seem like odd timing to be raising alarm bells about the potential for long-term water scarcity on the Prairies due to climate change. But even record rainfalls have a negligible impact on the South Saskatchewan River that sustains our cities, towns and industry. What affects our long-term water supply and regional water use is the snowpack of the Canadian Rockies.

As a scientist monitoring that snowpack and the ensuing water flows so critical for our economy and ecosystem, I see several troubling signs. The Rockies have experienced a three- to four-degree increase in warming since the early 1960s. As a result, about a quarter of the glacier areas have disappeared in the same period of time.

Second, the winter snow period is shorter by one to two months in the Rockies, compared with the early '60s. Predictions are that the trend toward a shorter snow period will continue and that by the late 21st century mountain snowpacks will be less than half of what they are now.

This will provide greatly reduced and much earlier runoff to the headwaters of the South Saskatchewan River. At the same time, due to warming on the Prairies there will be complete mid-winter melting of our snowcover and greatly reduced spring runoff to small prairie streams and sloughs.

The record dry winter just experienced in Alberta is perhaps a harbinger of what is to come in the latter part of this century. Parts of the Rockies are very dry. This is occurring when consumption of South Saskatchewan River water has grown such that no new water use licenses are available in Alberta.

The lower half of the Otter Rapids, viewed from the Churchill River Bridge, by Fremte, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

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