Learn: History of Drought in Alberta

Drought is no stranger to the Canadian Prairies. In fact, some may say that drought is a defining characteristic of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Drought is something that has occurred regularly over the centuries in this region (for example, at least 40 droughts have affected western Canada over the last two centuries), and is something that will continue to occur well into the future [1]. Over their history, the Prairie Provinces have experienced several decadal droughts, several multi-decadal droughts and large floods (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Drought Frequency and Severity for the Prairie Provinces (1402 – 2002)

drought chart 
Figure 1: Drought Frequency and Severity for the Prairie Provinces (1402 to 2002) [2]
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 "Gekapte dennen" by E. Dronkert is licenced under CC BY 2.0

How do scientists know that a drought occurred centuries before humans started measuring and recording data such as streamflow and precipitation?

Tree ring study and analysis (called dendrochronology) has been used to chart the occurrence of drought (and floods) in centuries before human measurements were taken and recorded. Although tree ring analysis is a complex undertaking, in the simplest terms, narrow rings indicate dry years, and wider rings indicate wetter years. 

Most of the information available on drought in Alberta and its human impact focuses on the time period from the 1700s to present day.   We invite readers with a background in pre-settlement history to contact us with information on drought experienced in the region and its impacts on Aboriginal communities so that we can fill this gap. 





[1] CBC News. 2009, July 10. “Parched prairies: latest drought a sign of things to come.” CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/parched-prairies-latest-drought-a-sign-of-things-to-come-1.845429

[2] Prairie Adaptation Research Collaboration. (n.d.). Water & Drought. SaskAdapt Retrieved from http://www.parc.ca/saskadapt/adaptation-options/theme-assessments/water-drought. Image is used with persmisison.