Recognition of Important Work and implications For Climate Change and Society.

Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

Two events provide the catalyst for this column. First, was the passing of a dear friend Elmer Stobbe, a soil scientist whose career at the University of Manitoba extended after retirement to consultation in Abbotsford BC. The second was my annual interview with a radio station in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, to discuss current weather patterns and expectations for the 2019 growing season. Elmer specialized in soil erosion and especially preventative measures including zero-till and minimum till. In Canada, this work was triggered by the work of Canadian Senator Herbert Sparrow. A farmer from Indian Head, Saskatchewan, also the site of a major agriculture research centre in western Canada. He lived through the dust storms of the late 1930s and witnessed first-hand images similar to a 1933 dust storm in Regina (Figure 1).

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Figure 1

Figure 2 was a little closer to his home because it shows a dust storm at Lethbridge airport. I joked with Elmer about the most frightening thing in the world for a farmer was to see your neighbors’ farm coming at you vertically.

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Figure 2

The Canadian Prairie is at the northern end of the Great Plains and has a triangular shape with the 49th parallel forming the base. It is called the Palliser Triangle (Figure 3) and named after the British scientist sent across western Canada in 1857 to determine the agricultural capability of the region.

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Figure 3

The three soil zones also approximate the biozones, with red supporting Short grass prairie, orange is Tallgrass prairie, and yellow is mixed Aspen woodland and Tallgrass prairie.

Palliser’s Report was an excellent assessment of the situation partly because he previously travelled extensively on the US side and new the geology, geography, and climate well. You can read about him in Canadian historian Irene Sprye’s book The Palliser Expedition: The Dramatic Story of Western Canadian Exploration, 1857-1860. His report was remarkably objective because he knew from his US travels that he was traveling during a drought cycle and yet the government wanted positive results. He did not compromise. Rather, he said don’t be fooled by the soils that were very good for grain agriculture, but what dictated ongoing success were the low humidity and periodic droughts.

Palliser represented the British government who were in negotiations to take over the holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and turn them over to the newly formed Canadian government in 1867. That government was not enamored of Palliser’s Report and in 1877 hired John Macoun to revisit the area. Macoun travelled during a wet cycle, and so he presented a very different report of the potential. Settlers quickly followed and like the German immigrant in Figure 4 broke the land.

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Figure 4

Because there were no trees, soils are deep (mostly glacial till) and rock outcrops sparse, they built their houses from what was at hand (Figure 5). This picture is from Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

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Figure 5 How did she get the dress so white?

Everything went well, with increasing yields, the arrival of the railway, and growing markets in the east and Europe. The drought cycle on the Prairies is approximately every 22 years, as Douglass and others showed through the correlation with sunspot cycles using tree ring data. My research showed these droughts alternated between Cold Droughts with low precipitation, lower temperatures, and low wind speeds, and Hot Droughts” with low precipitation, high temperatures, and very strong winds. The Cold Drought around 1910 had a small impact, but the Hot Drought of the 1930s exposed the problems of breaking the land.

After the devastation of the 30s, the government created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA) in 1935, that became the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA). Its goal was to counter the impact of the drought and later to “drought-proof” the region. One thing they did effectively was to take marginal land out of production. There is less land under cultivation in western Canada today than there was in 1930.

The Prairie region is the only moisture deficit region in Canada. This makes conservation of moisture extremely important. The practice of summer fallow began so as to remove any vegetation that would use up the moisture (Figure 6).

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Figure 6

They also extended the practice of crop rotation. This involves growing a sequence of crops over a period of four or five years with each putting different demands on the mineral resources, so they let acreage ‘rest.’

While the practice was effective a major side effect was exposure of the soil to wind and water erosion. On the Prairies the natural annual rate of erosion, that is without human interference, was 5 tons per acre per year. A major factor in this was the frequent grass fires. A late 18th century entry in the HBC journal at Churchill says the Indians report the whole of the Prairies is on fire. By the 1930s when the first Hot Drought hit the land became desiccated, and the wind began to blow. Figure 7 is a beautiful painting of a Prairie grass fire in southern Saskatchewan around by Paul Kane

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Figure 7

By the 1970s concern about the rate of erosion began to grow. Estimates put the rate at double the grassland levels, that is about 10 tons per acre per year.

“In the 1980s, the use of fallow and the land practices were creating soil drifting and loss as bad as it had been since the 1930s,” said the executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada.”

By now Herb Sparrow was a senior Senator with the opportunity to act. In 1984 the government produced his report Soil at Risk.

It wasn’t long before people started considering an alternative to summer fallow. It has various names including zero till, direct seeding, and conservation tillage. As with everything there were costs. Three main benefits were a reduction in soil erosion, ground cover that simulated the natural conditions, and retention of snow cover in the winter. Costs include the high price of chemicals to control the vegetation cover, which made products like Roundup so valuable. A delay in the rise of soil temperature necessary to allow seed germination. People don’t realize that a major function of plowing is to mix the soil. It takes the warmer surface soil and the vegetation down to the seed planting level. The albedo is changed significantly with a much darker surface absorbing more heat with fallow. Figure 8 is a NASA satellite image of North Dakota showing the patchwork quilt effect. Remove the summer fallow, and it is all much lighter.

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Figure 8

Think about the impact of all this on the global albedo, moisture regimes, and global climate.

I have done a few interviews a year for over 30 years with the Yorkton radio station but two each year that include an agricultural outlook for the next six months. During the last interview, the host and I talked about Professor Stobbe and his work. He reminded me that the first time he interviewed me was at a farm meeting in Swan River Manitoba. I began my presentation with an explanation of the factors that determine the weather in their region. They know the microclimate on their farm, so they can understand and better adjust to changes if they can put it in the larger picture.

My second issue was my concern about the impact of zero tillage since they are at the northern limit of agriculture in Canada. They have a very short growing season and the loss of even a few days is critical. At the time, they were introducing warmer weather crops, such as canola, made possible by the warming that began around 1980. I warned them that zero-tillage would reduce their growing season by delaying soil temperature increase. This occurred, but the continuance of warming up to 1998 masked the problem. A week before my most recent appearance on his program, the host told me a specialist spoke about the problem showing up with decreasing temperatures and the pattern of snowfall.

Canadian farmers always joke about never losing a crop in January. The trouble is it is not true. Winter snowfall is critical to the moisture availability in the spring. The best determinant of crop potential is Fall precipitation because it charges subsoil moisture. Early snowfall also provides insulating cover to stop the freezing level going too deep into the ground. I recall years across the Prairies when the level went 3 meters down. In addition, the Spring snowmelt mostly goes into ditches, ponds, and lakes across the land to become the major source of evaporated moisture for summer rainfall. A small portion of the melt stays on the field to recharge the average soil moisture content of 12 cm, sufficient for seed germination. The soil is a poor transmitting media for heat, so the water is important for quickly raising the soil temperature.

I will not continue this micro and meso-climate discussion any further, except to say you have a taste of the complexities. There is a great deal of research available, such as an article titled “Soil water conservation under zero- and conventional tillage systems on the Canadian prairies” and “How farmers on the Great Plains are changing the local climate” or, look at the number of weather variables required in the Prairie Hydrological Model Study Progress Report.” This gives you an understanding of why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are wasting their time, especially when they write,

Unfortunately, the total surface heat and water fluxes (see Supplementary Material, Figure S8.14) are not well observed.

My good friend Elmer worked with farmers and agribusinesses in Canada throughout his academic career, and this continued in the post-retirement phase of his life. He was also responsible for establishing soil conservation and zero tillage programs in Africa and China. Elmer understood what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said,

“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”

He also agreed with his observation that,

“Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.”

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28 thoughts on “Recognition of Important Work and implications For Climate Change and Society.

  1. Thank you Dr. Ball, very interesting. In 1949 after my time n the UK Army, I worked on a a mixed farm, grain and dairy, , followed by in Australia in 1951 working on a sheep station n in Victoria. We still l rode horses back then.

    The owner a Major Fairburn , big in politics, was very keen on planting trees, , saying they both stabilise the soil, and provided shade for the sheep during the hot Australian summer. .

    MJE

    • Here is a quote about Australian involvement.

      “Soil at Risk became a national best seller in government report terms and as recently as 2004 a request for hundreds of copies of the report came from drought-stricken Australia where the soil was blowing.”

      Figure 6 is summer fallow in Australia.

  2. I’ve always had a ton of respect for farmers as well balanced people simply from all the diiciplines they are required to know.

  3. I was raised on stories of the dirty thirties. That gave me a clear idea of what natural variability could bring. It disgusts me to hear the alarmists trumpeting every minor weather disruption as proof of CAGW.

    What Tim has done with this article is to highlight the extremes that natural variation can produce. If people were more aware of that, there would be a lot less support for the alarmists (even among Democrats).

  4. only deal with few acres myself but have always tried to balance out deep till and no till. seems to work for me.
    very rocky stuff here so may do a deep till once to work stuff out then usually only 2 inch or so cultivation for weed control.

  5. “Figure 5 How did she get the dress so white?”

    For a photograph!?
    It’s likely her wedding dress, or her Sunday dress.

    And during the rest of the week, she’d wear aprons.

    Any stains and it goes into the lye soap solution

  6. How did she get the dress so white?

    She obviously hasn’t mined any coal in it yet. I wonder if their furniture’s made of rocks too.

      • Sod house. My father came from a homestead in western Manitoba. The government gave my great grandparents an oxcart, ox to pull it (and later the plough), a door, couple of windows, provisions for winter, etc. The GP with their 9 children drove the cart about 200mi along the Assiniboine River, the children taking turns counting the revolutions of the big cartwheel with a rag tied to a spoke to find their land. First job, dig a pit below frostline and turn the turf for the house.

        • pretty good deal.
          in Aus you could claim land but had to clear and plant an acre a year at least from what Ive heard/read
          when the acres full of gumtrees with deep root systems
          its a far less appealing and a damn sight harder and riskier for injuries etc before you even start planting

  7. Dr. Ball, I have a book, “Fidler’s Journal”, of the early surveyor and trader Peter Fiedler, who traversed the Paliser triangle from north to south, from Elk Point to the Crowsnest pass, accompanying a group of Piegan Indians on their winter trek. It was 1792-1793, preceding Palliser by some 60 years. Of interest to climate officiondos, he recounts crossing many miles of completely burnt prairie where the Indians used wildfire to herd buffalo to their slaughter. He also made daily records with his sextant, theodolite, and thermometer, all instruments issued to him by the Hudson Bay Company. His data seems to be lost, but when he states the temperature in his journal, it is usually around 50F or above, a lot warmer than present day norms for that area. I grew up about half way along his route. Interestingly, in a few more miles, he could have claimed the Columbia River Valley 12 years before Lewis and Clarke. Of course they were all preceded by the French Canadian Voyageurs 150 years earlier.

    • I am huge fan of Peter Fidler and familiar with anything written about him. He was born in Derbyshire a county where I went to school in my early years. He was illiterate when the Company hired and took advantage of the classes in reading and writing the Company offered in the long winter evenings. As you say, he received the instruments from the company for his efforts. His data was not lost. I have read all his journals in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg. I hope to use the instrumental record he maintained but it was not possible. He recorded most days, but, most of the time, you never knew where he was when he took the reading. And it wasn’t a matter of simply working chronologically. He would take reading then say he had travelled for several days before hand.

      An interesting twist to this story is the marriage Fidler had with an Indian women. The Hudson Bay Company frowned on these relationships or any fraternizing. Thats why they could never understand why the men were so eager to volunteer to live in the bush in “logging tents’ for months at time. Fidler marriage was very successful with several children. Later in my career while serving on the Manitoba Water Commision I served with Florence Walker, a lawyer from Swan River. She acted as counsel for several Fidler descendants. Apparently, Fidler wants to avoid fighting over his legacy among children so he put all of it in trust, to be cared among his descendants 100 years after his death. The problem was in that time Canada was formed and the British North America Act said any will not probated pithing 20 years of the death of the individual was forfeited to the government. Florence said nobody had ever recovered any of it to her knowledge. There any descendants across Canada today. A fascinating man and one of my historic Canadian heroes.

      • I was born in Derbyshire and also went to school there. There were Fidlers in Derbyshire then. I don’t know if they were related.

  8. Dr Tim Ball, like Rex Murphy, is a Canadian national treasure. Thank you for your service to the country.

    • Thank you Richard. Prime Minister Mackenzie King said Canada ‘ problem was too much geography and not enough history. He was wrong, we have lots of both, the problem is too few Canadians know much about either. I blame the academics for that. For example, I agreed to help Peter C Newman with his trilogy on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He told me I was the only academic the agreed to help. I told him they wouldn’t help but would retain their right to criticize. His trilogy is a good read.

  9. I worked for a farmer for about 5 years. We planted soybeans. I was surprised about many things but soil moisture and temperature was the most important. We had to wait until the soil temperature got high enough. I thought you had to wait until you were sure it wouldn’t freeze. The other thing was that the seed would sprout on just the moisture in the ground. If it rained to much after you planted it could form a crust the the plant could not break through.

  10. Articles of this type, and the subsequent comments, are the reasons I read this blog daily.
    Thank you all!

  11. Canada’s all time high thermometer temperature was 47°C at Sweetgrass Saskatchewan in July 1937 (a year before I was born). Most of Canada’s (and apparently the US and a host of countries in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres) temperature highs were taken during the 30s and 40s. As Commie Bob mentioned above families talked about the hot dust bowl years for a few decades afterwards.

    To adjust this exceptional climatic period out of existence is a crime against science history and culture. No wonder education has been subverted by the neosinistral philistines. Otherwise every school kid would know that 1998 was not a new record before the mangling of official temperature series.

    • There is no suitable place for personal observations so here is as good as any.

      On a terrible, hot August afternoon at the CNE in Toronto I saw the Shell Tower temperature display creep up, its light bulb dot matrix adding to the crushing heat and thick humidity. It reached 105 F and I actually wished for more, just to see it. I was rewarded. It went to 106 F, the hottest day I have experienced in Ontario.

      The visibility in that condition was less than a kilometre because of the humidity and no one I knew had air conditioning. Those were sweaty nights.

      Because I have lived in Africa for decades I experienced 46 C once and 50 another time but always in comparatively dry conditions. But I never saw anything like the dust bowl. Those old photos are extraordinary.

  12. My father was born in January in a sod hut in the Peace River in 1917, the temperature reputed to have been -60F. His father was the first minister in the region (Anglican). Water was delivered by bullock powered carts, and used and reused. After 2 babies, my grandmother’s health broke down and they came east for medical care.

    Have been reading up on notill farming, and the problems with soil temperature in regions with short growing seasons were obvious despite the green gloss. However, it does seem to be the answer to world wide soil erosion. Introducing it is an issue, because yields are lower for the first 2 years in most environments. Farmers need to be able to cope with this.

  13. Dr. Ball Reading your articles are like a horse and carriage ride back into time. Thank you.

    The alarmists and greenies don’t like summer fallow because the soil gives off CO2 to the atmosphere. Of course they forget about this when arguing that it doesnt matter that we breathe out CO2 because they say that we had to grow crops to eat and stay alive and these crops took CO2 out of the atmosphere so that the net is a wash. They forget that if the crops werent grown the soil would give off CO2 to the atmosphere. So if we were not here, there would be more CO2 in the atmosphere.

    I am not worried about temperatures but 2 things do concern me other than the scam itself. 1st is the graceful zigzag quadratic curve of the Keeling CO2 net absorption since 1958. The zigzag is caused by the net difference of photosynthesis mainly in the northern hemisphere between spring and fall. However the curve itself just seems too uniform. It is approximated mathematically by the formula:

    ppm = 0.013 t^2 + 0.518 t + 310.44 where t = the time in years since 1950

    The UK workplace safety law for ppm CO2 is 5000 ppm.
    setting the equation = 5000 and using the quadratic formula of (-b +/- ( (b^2 -4ac)^ 1/2)) / 2a

    gives t= 580. adding that to 1950 gives the year 2530. That is only 511 years away where we would choke to death on CO2 according to the UK workplace safety laws. I know that some places have long term limit exposure up to 8000 ppm but you get the point.

    I highly suspect that the Keeling data is fraudulent and I have heard that the other 3 places around the world that collect the air samples, send the flasks to Keeling without analyzing them. In other words, Keeling has all the data on CO2 air samples. I know there is a place in Copenhagen that does it too and independently and they get CO2 readings all over the map. So either we really do have only 511 more years or else Keelings data is as fraudulent as all the temperature data of the alarmists.

    • Alan T

      I have measured CO2 with very good instruments in several places (good to tenth of a ppm) and I have yet to find a place with values as low as 400 ppm.

      If someone were to say, “It depends where you are,” I’d agree. The up and down of the Keeling Curve is unlikely to be “fraudulent” but it may not be representative.

      If as you say the cause is N Hemisphere vegetation then it should be more pronounced nearer the N Pole and suppressed at the S Pole. Is it?

      I think sea ice blocks the cooling oceans from absorbing it. Is there hemispherical proof of that?

  14. Excellent article. In our area of the praries, the past 2 growing seasons have been very dry with less than normal rainfall and yet we have produced very good crops using zero till farming. Adequate amounts of fertilizers certainly help but I believe using low soil disturbance farming is the key to good husbandry at our prairie location.
    Ironically so-called organic farming uses a lot of soil disturbance and lots of diesel fuel because you can’t use chemicals to control the weeds. How is that better for the soil or ‘the planet’?
    FWIW Herb Sparrow was from the North Battleford area of Saskatchwan.
    https://www.producer.com/daily/former-senator-herb-sparrow-dies/

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