An assessment of Canadian prairie drought: past, present, and future

Abstract

Within Canada, the Canadian Prairies are particularly drought-prone mainly due to their location in the lee of the western cordillera and distance from large moisture sources. Although previous studies examined the occurrence of Canadian Prairie droughts during instrumental, pre-instrumental and to a lesser extent, future periods, none have specifically focused on all time three scales. Using two different drought indicators, namely the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), this investigation assesses the variability of summer drought duration and intensity over a core region of the Prairies during (a) the pre-instrumental record extending back several centuries (inferred from tree rings), (b) the instrumental record (1901–2005), and (c) the twenty-first century using statistically downscaled climate variables from several Atmosphere–Ocean Global climate models with multiple emission scenarios. Results reveal that observed twentieth century droughts were relatively mild when compared to pre-settlement on the Prairies, but these periods are likely to return (and even worsen) in the future due to the anticipated warming during the course of the twenty-first century. However, future drought projections are distinctly different between the two indices. All PDSI-related model runs show greater drought frequency and severity mainly due to increasing temperatures. Conversely, the precipitation-based SPI indicates no significant changes to future summer drought frequency although there tends to be a higher persistence of multi-year droughts in central and southern portions of Canadian Prairies. These findings therefore stress the importance of considering anticipated warming trends when assessing future regional-scale drought, especially given the uncertainties and lack of consistency in future precipitation signals among climate models. This study can be considered an initial step toward quantifying and understanding Canadian Prairie drought occurrence and severity over several centuries as determined from paleo, instrumental, and climate model data sources.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to acknowledge the Data Access Integration (DAI) Team (http://loki.qc.ec.gc.ca/DAI/), namely Milka Radojevic and Patrice Constanza, for providing data and technical support. Data for this study were made available through the DAI data download gateway, through collaboration between the Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre, the Adaptation and Impacts Research Section of Environment Canada, and the Drought Research Initiative. Financial support from Environment Canada is also gratefully acknowledged. We also acknowledge the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis group of Environment Canada for access to CGCM2/3 output.

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Correspondence to Barrie R. Bonsal.

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Bonsal, B.R., Aider, R., Gachon, P. et al. An assessment of Canadian prairie drought: past, present, and future. Clim Dyn 41, 501–516 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-012-1422-0

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Keywords

  • Droughts
  • Canadian Prairies
  • Paleo-climate
  • Climate change
  • Downscaling
  • Atmosphere–Ocean Global climate models