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More than 70% of Canada is 'abnormally dry.' Here's why

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Rising temperatures and intense drought conditions impacted Canadians in 2023, from water rationing to the country's worst wildfire season on record.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's latest assessment of drought conditions across the country continues to paint a dire picture: Canada is "abnormally dry."

According to the map created December 8, more than 72 per cent of the country was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions as of Nov. 30. This includes 81 per cent of the country's agricultural landscape used to feed millions of people and animals.

"2023 was a year like we've never seen before in Canada," John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, told CTV's Your Morning on Tuesday.

Higher intensity droughts, according to the map by Agri-Food Canada, are concentrated out west in places like British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Communities east of Calgary, south of Fort St. John, B.C., and south of Yellowknife faced "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions.

The map above shows the extent and severity of drought conditions across Canada. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) Large portions of B.C., N.W.T. and the Prairies, as well as, northern Ontario and Quebec faced "severe" or "moderate" drought conditions.

About half of Labrador and one small portion of Newfoundland were also under these classifications.

A stretch of "abnormally dry" conditions can be seen in Ontario from Windsor to Ottawa on the map.

CONSEQUENCES OF DROUGHT

Pomeroy, who is also the director of the University of Saskatchewan's Centre for Hydrology, said there are a few reasons why 2023 was such a dry year.

"(It) was really warm, some areas saw five degrees above normal consistently throughout the year," Pomeroy said. "Then a very low snowpack in the spring meant reduced river flows out of the mountains (and) massive shrinkage of our glaciers."

The lack of moisture also fuelled Canada's worst wildfire season ever, Pomeroy said.

Consistently above-average heat across most of Canada meant lightning-sparked forest fires were a concern, spreading quickly within dry forests and grasses.

The conditions also impacted farmers, Pomeroy said.

"We started off like that and then we stayed dry and warm throughout the year," he said.

Heat and dry conditions were "very tough" on ranchers who supply their cattle with food grown throughout the year, Pomeroy said.

"Many have had to reduce their herds and that of course reduces supply into Canadian feedlots and meatpacking plants," he said.

In late summer, Pomeroy said places like Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alta., had water usage restrictions for irrigation.

This, he said, "meant the reservoirs were down in some cases as much as five metres from the normal levels and the lowest river flows ever measured."

The dry conditions didn't just impact the western provinces.

"It extended up into northern Canada. Great Slave Lake hit the lowest level ever measured," Pomeroy said.

In the fall the Mackenzie River's water levels were so low barges were unable to reach some communities, he said.

Temperatures on the West Coast in November stayed "warmer than normal," according to the Agri-Food Canada report.

Precipitation was lacking in B.C. and the Prairies, whereas in Ontario and Quebec, it was "near-to-above-normal."

"Very little snowfall was reported by the end of the month, marking a late start to the winter season," the report said.

WILL THE DROUGHT CONDITIONS CONTINUE?

Due to the higher temperatures and a lack of precipitation, even water running from mountains is slowing, Pomeroy said.

"That limited the potential for irrigation at the end of the year and those reservoirs are very, very dry right now," he said. "So it's putting us in a precarious position for next year."

Precipitation deficits continue to grow in parts of Canada, the Agri-Food report noted.

"This trend has persisted for the past 3 months."

Experts note that the lack of snow and rain in Canada is a "hallmark" of the naturally occurring weather phenomenon El Nino, which is expected to have more of an impact on the country in 2024.

"The general warming or potential for low precipitation for the winter for Canada represents a seasonal average, so there still is variation month to month," Jen Smith, national warning preparedness meteorologist with the Meteorological Service of Canada, previously told CTVNews.ca in an interview. "So we can still expect winter snow events, we can still expect cold spells. It's just that the seasonal average is warmer."

Pomeroy said the ongoing dry conditions and lack of precipitation are impacting lakes, wetlands, groundwater and reservoirs. This needs to change before the hotter temperatures in the spring and summer, he said.

"We're in tough shape as we move through the winter, we really need a strong heavy winter snowfall to make up for this," he said. 

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