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Moisture needed in Alberta, as El Niño impacts province

January 9, 2024  By Potatoes in Canada

Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation released its moisture situation update Jan. 3, and El Niño is certainly having an impact on the province’s farmland.

This year’s El Niño has developed into a strong El Niño and currently has a 54 per cent chance of developing into a “historically strong” event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Current forecasts are projecting El Niño to diminish in April 2024. In the past for Alberta, not all El Niños have resulted in warmer and drier weather; however, this unusually warm and dry winter will forever be tied to the 2023-2024 El Niño and will serve as an important data point in the future.

In the 90-days since October 6, 2023, temperatures have remained well above average, with many parts of the northern half of the province seeing temperatures this warm less than once in 50 years. This, coupled with low precipitation accumulations, has resulted in virtually snow-free conditions across parts of all four of our agricultural regions.


Winter precipitation accumulations Nov. 1, 2023, to Jan. 3

Since Nov. 1, precipitation has been well below average across much of Alberta’s agricultural areas. Most of the lands south of Grande Prairie and north of Ponoka are estimated to have a winter thus far, this dry on average, less than once in 50 years.

Dry conditions have also persisted across the central and southern regions, ranging from a few widely scattered pockets of near normal to at least once in 25-year lows, centered around the Jenner area (approx. 200 km east of Calgary). Total accumulations currently range from less than three millimetres through parts of the northwest and northeast regions up to only 20-30 mm along the foothills and through the western and northern portions of the Peace Region.

For the dryer parts of the northwest and northeast regions this translates to less than 10 per cent of the 1991-2020 average. Elsewhere, most other lands have received precipitation accumulations that have generally been less than 50 per cent of the 1991-2020 average.


From an annual moisture budget perspective, October through to March generally mark the dry season across the agricultural areas, accounting for only about 20 per cent of average annual accumulations across most of the southern region, to upwards of 30-35 per cent across the Peace Region. These significant moisture deficits thus far (50 per cent of the way through the dry season), while discouraging to many, make up only a small portion of the annual moisture budget for an area.

Winter is not over yet and if the current forecast is correct, a significant cold snap is on its way around Jan. 10 and it is expected to persist well into the following week, perhaps even longer. Along with the cold snap, there is also a forecast for moisture and the promise of at least some snow cover across many areas. Spring is many weeks away and anything can happen between now and then.

Furthermore, February, on average, is the driest month of the year with most agricultural lands normally receiving less than 15 mm of moisture during this month.

Above average snowfall is very much needed. Much of the land is extremely dry and has been held tenaciously in the grip of a long-lasting dry cycle that needs to end soon.

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