Alberta provincial government expert tells Stettler County 2021 drought was legendary

·4 min read

A precipitation expert with the Alberta provincial government told Stettler County’s Agriculture Service Board (ASB) 2021 may have been one of the worst drought years since the 19th Century. The report was made at the ASB’s Aug. 24 regular meeting.

The ASB is comprised of members of county council and is chaired by Coun. Les Stulberg.

Ralph Wright, manager of agro-meteorological applications and modelling section for Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, presented dozens of maps to board members illustrating precipitation levels for the past 120 years and said that precipitation, or lack thereof, tells a story.

At one point in his presentation Wright looked back at 2021 and compared it to precipitation for the previous 120 years in Alberta and said last year, “...stuck out like a sore thumb.”

Wright continued, “...(2021) is probably the worst year in living memory that we have for widespread drought across the province.”

He began his presentation by showing board members February is typically the dryest month of the year in Stettler County and pointed out that winter in general isn’t the best time to start thinking about drought because of the lack of precipitation.

Wright stated between October and March Stettler County gets about 20 to 25 per cent of its annual precipitation while in June and July it gets about 50 per cent.

He pointed out it was interesting to note that Lethbridge, usually considered a dry area of Alberta, through January to June of this year could beat out most parts of the province for highest precipitation.

He went on to state 2022 started out pretty dry and there was a lot of worry that 2022 would be a back to back drought year.

“But then the taps just turned right on,” said Wright, who added that precipitation levels in this area were above normal by the end of June.

In a 30 day period between June and July Stettler County received between 50 mm and 200 mm of precipitation depending on location and while Wright noted there was some localized flooding in central Alberta that rain really helped some people out.

Comparing to regions east, the Special Areas received 50 to 75 mm, with Wright commenting that this shows Alberta can’t be called a wet or dry province, there is just too much variation within short times or distances.

Wright also showed a map that showed a corner of Paintearth County with rather high levels of precipitation.

He explained the data suggests a dry spell began in southern Alberta in 2017 and culminated in 2021, but ended this year.

“The land was primed for serious, severe drought this year,” he added.

Referring to provincial historical data Wright noted 1902 to 1913 were quite dry but also stated Alberta didn’t have a lot of weather stations at that time, about 30, compared to the roughly 500 Alberta enjoys now.

Data suggests 1905 and 1910 were as bad as 2021 for drought, with 1917 to 18 included as well.

For the period 1926 to 1937 it was quite dry in 1929 which was followed by four more years of dryness. Wright pointed out that “living memory” begins in this time period, as there are residents alive who remember these years.

By 1938 to 1949 he stated wet weather started to creep in and the period 1950 to 1961 enjoyed much more moisture. The period 1962 to 1973 was quite wet followed by the period 1974 to 1985 which didn’t suffer a lot of drought.

As Wright pointed out cycles, he mused aloud which was actually anomalous, the wet weather or the dry weather?

Near the end of his presentation he discussed how data can help prepare for flood planning. For example Wright stated based on data Stettler County could, over a 90 day period, experience up to 500 mm of precipitation.

Wright closed by pointing out the hundreds of maps show that recent weather isn’t a reliable predictor of future weather, adding that the best way to plan is to realize you can’t hedge.

“What’s going to happen in the future?” he asked. “Pretty much anything can happen.”

Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review