Dr. Ken Snelgrove

The Moisture Pattern

Memorial researcher part of the largest national study on drought

A Memorial researcher who studies weather and climate is part of a national research project studying one of Canada’s worst natural disasters.

Dr. Ken Snelgrove, associate professor with the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, is part of the Drought Research Initiative (DRI), a new research network looking at improving knowledge of drought in the Prairies and the ability to predict droughts such as the one that happened in the area from 1999-2004. This was the worst drought in over 100 years and affected the entire Canadian economy. The 2001 and 2002 drought years saw Canada’s Gross Domestic Product lose some $5.8 billion, while agricultural production in Canada dropped by an estimated $3.6 billion in 2001-2002.

Researchers with the DRI, the largest ever Canadian university study on drought, hope to better understand the physical characteristics of and processes influencing Canadian Prairie droughts, and better predict them. Dr. Snelgrove was asked to join the DRI group because of his research on the relationships between soil moisture and land surface evaporation. He had also been part of a larger collaboration between atmospheric scientists and hydrologists called the Mackenzie GEWEX Study.

“Much of this work will take place at Memorial and I have two PhD students and a postdoctoral fellow engaged in these activities,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “New computing resources available within the university through ACEnet will be important to the success in this project, as well.”

More specifically, Dr. Snelgrove’s research will detect small changes in moisture, on the order of two centimetres of water, looking at how the patterns of moisture evolve as the drought begins and ends and the role of groundwater during drought as a source of atmospheric moisture.

However, although the scientific aspects of the project are funded, the objective to apply progress to address critical issues of importance to society has not been and Dr. Snelgrove says this does not help farmers.

“While our five-year, $3-million study will help to improve drought forecast and knowledge, it is of little use if farmers and other stakeholders are not aware of the uncertainty in these predictions and methods to put this new knowledge into practice on the ground. It’s like you and I deciding not to wear a coat if there is a cool forecast in August. Similarly, farmers would have to alter their crop selection in the spring if there was a reliable drought forecast for the next season.”

Dr. Snelgrove is an investigator in the project along with 14 others from universities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec as well as collaborators and research partners from federal and provincial departments, research organizations and utility companies. The project, which runs from 2005-2010, held its first workshop in Saskatoon in January and is supported by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which is providing $3 million to the study.