Environment and Geography

Environment and Geography

Geographical factoids – mainly plains here?
Well, no.

Saskatchewan is the fifth largest province in the country, with a total area of 651, 036 square kilometres (251,366 square miles).

Milanosa, between Waskesiu and La Ronge (a hundred miles apart), is the approximate geographical centre of Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan has three geographical regions: grasslands in the south, parkland in the middle, and forests in the north. Some of the forests are in the great plains region, and some in the Canadian Shield.

The Shield, comprised of bedrock and lakes, sprawls over a massive part of our province. It cuts across Saskatchewan on the diagonal from 57 degrees latitude in the northwest to 54 degrees in the southeast.

Put another way, Precambrian rock makes up 33 percent of our total area, farmland comprises 33 percent, commercial forest 23 percent, and lakes and rivers, 12 percent.

A whopping 44 percent of the province is considered to be “forested.”

Land makes up 90.8 percent (591,670 square kms or 228,455 square miles) of the total area of the province.

Water constitutes 9.2 percent, or 59,366 square kilometres (22,921 square miles). Our main rivers are the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, and the Assiniboine.

With all that water, 90 percent of First Nations have dealt with bad drinking water; sixty-five of our reserves have had at least one boil-water advisory. The average for Canada is 65 percent.

Our population has hovered around a million since the 1930s, with 50 percent living in cities, 16 percent in towns, 31 percent on farms, First Nations reserves and small towns.

[Bad drinking water: CBC 15 October 2015. Forests: cfs.nracn.gc.ca from the book Saskatchewan’s Forest. Milanosa: McCourt, Saskatchewan. Shield: Richards, Atlas of Saskatchewan; Wikipedia]

Saving the planet

Ongoing community efforts in a time of climate change  

Jan Norris protesting at a July 10, 2019 demonstration during the “Grassroots Voices Welcome the Premiers” meeting at the Bessborough. Dressed as a Raging Granny, she is part of Climate Justice Saskatoon, a group protesting government lack of action on the climate.

Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) is an environmental super-catalyst in this province. Their issues include climate change, bio-diversity, water, environmental law and regulations, uranium and nuclear, energy solutions, and fossil fuels.

The SES educational programs include “Destination Saskatchewan” and “25 Acts of Energy Conservation” (two K-12 programs running in many schools). Their Powerpoint for the latter should be a bible for all of us.

The SES building operator training program,“Smarter Science, Better Buildings, is a partnership between SES and the Western Development Museums, focussing on energy efficiency in homes.  Grade Seven students participate in a half-day workshop that combines interactive displays with inquiry into the energy efficiency of historic buildings at each museum site.

SES’s Solar Co-operative Ltd., Saskatchewan’s first, is a model for future co-ops with the same objectives.

Saskatchewan Waste Management Council is a spinoff of the SES, and advocates ways of sustainable living.  Their website has a database of places to take things for recycling.

“Renewable Rides” is another SES program, providing solar-powered electric vehicles to the Saskatoon Car Share Co-operative.

Fracking is a like a four-letter word for many eco-conscious citizens. Three U of S grads created a portable water treatment system. They sidestep the practice of fracking, by treating waste water for recycling, or sending it back to its sources.

In 2014 the University of Saskatchewan had more than 120 water researchers working for Environment Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre, at the Global Institute for Water Security.”

Sarcan Industries depots around the province accept drink containers, paint and electronics and sends the products to processing plants to be made into things like fleece jackets, car carpets, or reflective paint on highways.  In existence since 1988, it refunds deposits on containers, an excellent incentive for recycling. Not only that, it provides needed jobs.

At least one Saskatchewan business recycles rubber from tires to make rubber stepping stones, mulch, borders, speed bumps, and driveways. Two U of S grads rescue cast-off bicycles from the city dump for restoration and re-use.

Environmental heroes

Individuals working to raise consciousness about climate change, or doing their bit personally

Richard Ste. Barbe Baker, the ultimate tree-hugger called Man of the Trees, saw it all coming, back in the early 20th century. A former Saskatoon resident and U of S student, he travelled around the world promoting conservation, and tree-planting.

Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) was another early conservationist who expressed his views in his many writings.

Diana Wright and Terry Harley, who produced Pollution Probe, later called just Probe, for the Environmental Society. Harley also headed an energy conservation information centre in Saskatoon.

Ann Coxworth of Saskatoon has long been an outstanding spokeperson for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. Her name has become synonymous with activism on the climate crisis.

A giant in climate change research is Malcolm Wilson, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collectively received the Nobel Peace prize in 2007, along with Al Gore. Wilson is director of the University of Regina’s Office of Energy and Development, and director of the International Test Centre for CO2 Capture.

The community of Craik’s Eco-village and solar project built in 2004 was an environmentalist’s dream. Occupying six thousand square feet, it featured eco-friendly measures like solar power, straw-bale insulation, composting, eater recycling, and wood from elevators. After the concept split the community, the centre burned down in 2016.

The Factor 9 demo home, a single-family home built in Regina for the Saskatchewan Research Council and other agencies, was conceived to use 90% less energy and 50 percent less water than an ordinary 1970 house the same size. Solar heated and airtight, it has no basement and no furnace.

A Saskatoon couple owns the first certified passive house in the prairie provinces. With no furnace, it uses up to 90 percent less energy, heated instead with solar panels and a hyper-efficient heat recovery and ventilation system. It is airtight, with deep window wells, triple-paned windows, and a three-inch-thick door.

To supply green energy to the power grid, the DEEP Earth Company began drilling near Estevan in 2018 in preparation for building a plant to generate enough geothermal energy to supply power to 5,000 houses. It was said its eco-impact would be equal to removing 7,400 cars off the road every yearand that the plant would be the first in Canada. In January 2019 P.M. Trudeau announced a grant of $25.6 million, the provincial government is putting up $175,000]

Another company sells and installs geothermal heating and cooling systems in buildings to cut down on use of fossils fuels.  It has three outlets, in Saskatoon, Hanley and Biggar.

Books - Corvus, by Harlold Johnson and Dry by Barbara Saper
Climate change books – ‘Corvus’, by Harold Johnson and ‘Dry’ by Barbara Saper

Speculative fiction writers who imagine our possible future, as in Barbara Sapergia’s Dry — about a province severely lacking water — and Howard Johnson‘s disturbing novel Corvus, which imagines environmental calamity on the prairies if present trends continue.

Regan Roy, U of S graduate, was working in 2012 with the World University Service in Lima, Peru, to promote water, sanitation, environmental recovery and economic development in Ica, where he worked for twenty-five years.

Nature writers such R.D Symons, Trevor Herriot, Paul Hanley, Sharon Butala and Candace Savage point to our delicately balanced ecosystems as a barometer of the health of the land.   

[Baker: Millar, Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues. Wilson: Green & White fall 2009: 26; Craik: StarPhoenix April 2006. Demo home: Saskatchewan Research Council. Certified passive house: StarPhoenix 14 November 2016, CBC Radio 13 August 2018. Deep Earth: CBC News 22 November 2018; 11 Jan 2019. Roy; Green & White (fall 2015): 35] 

Saskatchewan as energy guzzler

Saskatchewan is one of the highest energy consumers in Canada (not surprising giving energy requirements for winter heating and agriculture).

factory smokestacks
Illustration by Ruth Millar

We are voracious fossil fuel users and gas guzzlers. In 2016, our energy demand was the fourth biggest in the country, and the biggest per capita.

In 2016, industry gobbled up the largest amount of energy at 58 percent. Transportation gulped 21 percent, commercial 14 percent, and residential, 7 percent.

The fuel our residents used most was natural gas at 46 percent. Heating buildings in Saskatchewan’s frigid winters makes us insatiable consumers of natural gas, with a per capita demand in 2017 at 8 percent of Canada’s total. Even so, our biggest natural gas gobbler was industry.

Electricity consumption per capita in this province was 20 megawatt hours in 2016. Each of us used on average the second-highest amount of electricity in Canada, 34 percent more than the national average. Industry consumed the most electricity in 2016, followed by the commercial and residential sectors. Demand for electricity here soared 28 percent since 2005.

[National Energy Board; CBC; energyhub.org, as shared on Facebook]

Saskatchewan as energy producer

Although the prairie provinces bask under more solar radiation than any other province, Saskatchewan is at the bottom of solar power rankings posted by energyhub.org. Our ranking is 16.2, while Nova Scotia’s is 22.6, and BC’s is 18.9.

image of windmills
Wind farm on the prairies

In Canada, only Saskatchewan and Alberta produce heavy crude oil, of which our province sucked up 11 percent. In 2017, we produced more than 485,000 barrels a day (Mb/d) 

Saskatchewan’s two refineries, Co-op Refinery in Regina and Gibsons Refinery in Moose Jaw use western Canadian crude. Co-op churns out gasoline, diesel, and heavy fuel oil, while Gibsons makes asphalt. Our surplus refined petroleum products (RPPs) go to Alberta, Manitoba, and the U.S.

Natural gas production is huge. In 2017, our province produced an average of 401 million cubic feet per day, about 3 percent of Canada’s total that year. The NEB estimates our natural gas resources at 13.4 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). 

In 2017 “natural gas liquids” produced here made up about 3 percent\ of Canada’s total. Our refineries also spill out a trickle of propane and butane.

Our province produced 25.5 terawatt hours of electricity in 2017, about 4 percent of Canada’s total. Our province can generate 4,533 megawatts (MW).

SaskPower produces most of our province’s electricity, and independent companies generate about 20 percent.

Although the prairie provinces bask under more solar radiation than any other provinces, Saskatchewan is at the very bottom of solar power rankings posted by energyhub.org. Our ranking is 16.2, while Nova Scotia’s is 22.6, and BC’s is 18.9.

Fossils fuels provide about 84 percent of Saskatchewan’s electricity, that is, about 49 percent from coal, 35 percent from natural gas, and 16 percent from renewables, mostly hydroelectricity.

Federal guidelines mandate that our coal plants must close down after fifty years of production, or be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology by 2030.

Our province can generate 890 MW of hydroelectric power, in power stations as far north as Lake Athabasca. Our biggest power station is Boundary Dam, capable of generating 672 MW, chiefly coal-fired.

Sunny Saskatchewan could become the epicentre of solar power in Canada. The 10 MW Highland Solar Project near Swift Current, should be in operation in 2019.

The DEEP Earth project in southeast Saskatchewan, mentioned above, has great potential for supplying clean energy to the power grid. (Hot springs are another example of uses of geothermal energy.)

The number of individual buildings heated with geo-thermal energy on site is estimated at one to two thousand across the province, according to a spokeperson for mienergy.ca. Companies remove heat from buildings during the summer, and pump heat from deep in the ground to use in winter.

[Geothermal: info@mienergy.ca. See also The Economy regarding the energy industry.]

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

Our GHG emissions in 2016 were 76.3 MT of “carbon dioxide equivalent” (CO2e), 71 percent more than in 1990.

Each one of us produces 66.9 tonnes of CO2e emissions  –  the most per capita in Canada – 24.4 percent greater than the Canadian average of 19.4 tonnes per person.

Biggest emissions offenders in our province are oil and gas (33 percent), agriculture (23 percent), and electricity (20 percent).

Saskatchewan is Canada’s second biggest GHG emissions culprit (Alberta is first), most of them from coal. In 2016, we spewed out 19 percent of our entire country’s GHG emissions from power generation – way out of proportion.

Ruminant animals like cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats belch out some pretty noxious gases: nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, responsible for 14.5 percent of gases that contribute to global warming, compared to 14 percent from transport. A worthy research project for animal scientists!

On the positive side, in 2014, the Boundary Dam station has been retrofitted for carbon capture and storage that can reduce CO2 emissions by one megatonne (MT) a year.

[From the National Energy Board web page. Ruminants: United Nations FAO, via CBC 19 July 2018, reuters.com]

What’s in a name?

Places with First Nations names

Saskatchewan River: from the Cree word for “turbulent, swift-flowing river.”

Waskesiu Lake: comes from the Cree word for “red deer.”

Little Manitou Lake: from the Algonquin name for “good spirit” or “giver of life.”

Chitek Lake: from Cree word for “pelican.”

Mistawasis First Nation: “the little child”, head chief of the prairie Cree at 1896 signing of Treaty Six. 

City of Saskatoon:  from the Cree word “Saskatoomina”, flowering willows known for their long branches – suitable for making arrow shafts—as well as their tasty berries.

Town of Assiniboia: from Ojibway word for “one who cooks with stones.”

Town of Moosomin: meaning “high bush cranberries” in Cree.

Town of Nipawin: from the Cree word for “resting place”, where women and children waited for the men to return from hunting trips.

Village of Piapot: from the name Payipwat, “one who knows the secrets of the Sioux”, an influential Cree/Assiniboine chief in the 1870s-80s.

Village of Wawota: from Algonquin word for “lots of snow”.

Village of Meskanaw:  meaning “path” or “trail” in Cree.

Village of Meota: Cree for “good place to camp”.

Metinoa Beach: from Cree word for “near (Meota)”.

Katepwa Beach: meaning “who calls” in Cree (a beach in the Qu’Appelle Valley).

Aitkow Creek: Cree word for “river that turns” (located near the elbow of the Saskatchewan River).

Mistaseni: meaning “big rock” in Cree, referring to a huge buffalo rubbing stone in the Aitkow Valley that was blown up in 1964 during the construction of the Gardiner Dam.  Part of this rock is preserved in a cairn at the Elbow Harbour; the remainder is submerged in Lake Diefenbaker.

[Russell, What’s in a  Name; Barry, People, Places; Wikipedia] 

All shook up:

Earthquakes felt in Saskatchewan 

Except as noted, on these dates the StarPhoenix reported quakes, usually having occurred that day or the day before (since there were two editions a day in the early days). Some were reported in Regina papers as well. But according to seismologists, before the mid-1960s any quakes less than Magnitude 4 couldn’t be detected here. 

15 May 1909: The first quake officially observed in Saskatoon lasted ninety seconds, with an estimated magnitude between five and six on the Richter scale. The only seismograph in Canada then was in Ottawa, but the quake terrified people from Winnipeg to Lethbridge, Minnesota to Prince Albert.  Its epicentre was thought to be where Saskatchewan, Montana and North Dakota meet. 

22 December 1934: the earth trembled nightly at Unity. Oil drillers pooh-poohed talk of earthquakes, believing them to be “gas pains” from drilling. 

19 October 1935: Seismographs at the U of S indicated tremors originating in Montana that went on for hours, and set dogs howling in southern Saskatchewan. 

18 July 1954: A tremor was reportedly felt in Saskatoon. 

August 18, 1959: The biggest quake felt in Saskatoon since 1909 lasted twenty minutes, with lesser tremors following like hiccups, and then a big aftershock four hours later, that kept up for six minutes.  Though it reportedly emanated seven miles to the south, it still registered magnitude four.

Minor earthquakes were reported near Bengough in 1972, and three others near Radville, or Esterhazy in 1976. 

Since then at least three earthquakes registering 4.1, 4.3 and 4.4 M were felt in August 1982, April 2010, February 2012, near the southern border. The biggest was at Langenberg.  At least four others were over 3 in magnitude.

A light (3.8) earthquake was felt early September 5, 2016 in Yorkton, Melville and Langenburg, about 200 kilometres northeast of Regina. The quake shook an electrical substation, affecting farms near Esterhazy and Melville. There had been eleven others of a similar magnitude in the Yorkton-Esterhazy area since 1981.

15 August 2019: A 4.1 MG quake near Esterhazy was reported by the U.S. Geological Centre. Its epicentre was near the K2 potash mine.

[Newspaper clippings; Yorkton: CBC News 5 September 2016; Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 15 (8): 1341-55. Esterhazy: CBC 5 August 2019]

Hottest, coldest, wettest

Extremes from the Weather Office

Saskatchewan’s central location on a large continent, where warm humid subtropical air masses from the south collide with cold polar masses from the north, have created record variations in temperature, rainfall and winds. Some of these are, in Celsius:

The hottest temperature ever recorded in all Canada was 45 degrees C. at Midale and Yellow Grass on July 29, 1939.

A steam locomotive and train bogged down in snow,
ca. 1948. Photo PH 2000-94-18
from Local History Room Saskatoon Public Library.

The most frigid temperature ever recorded in the province was minus 56.7 at Prince Albert, on February 1, 1893.

On July 3, 2000, 375 mm of rain was dumped on Vanguard in eight hours, the greatest ever recorded on the prairies here in such a short period.

Estevan is the sunniest city in the province, with 2,537 hours of sunlight a year on average.

The Canadian record for the most rainfall in an hour — 250 mm — was set at Buffalo Gap, Sask. on May 30, 1961.

The biggest hailstone recorded in Canada (114 mm in diameter) landed near Cedoux in August 1973.

Moose Javians were buffeted by the fiercest known wind gusts (131 km/hr) in the province October 12, 2013.

The lowest windchill temperature in Saskatchewan (minus 59 degrees C.) was recorded at Saskatoon January 17, 1954.

Regina is Canada’s driest capital city, with 390 mm average precipitation per year.

In 1923, Kamsack registered the highest annual total precipitation (916 mm) of any Saskatchewan station in the province’s history.

A snowy winter in Kindersley.
Photo by Gerry Ackerman

The most snow known to have fallen in one year here was 386 cm, at Pelly in the winter of 1955-56.

Regina after a cyclone cut a swath through the city on June 30, 1912
Regina after a cyclone cut a swath through the city on June 30, 1912. Photo LH 280, courtesy of Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library.

An average of eighteen tornadoes touch down in Saskatchewan each year. The most destructive in Canada, to date, was the famous tornado that ploughed through downtown Regina on June 30, 1912, killing twenty-eight people.

[Assisted by John Paul Cragg, warning preparedness meteorologist, Environment Canada]

image of couple trudging through high snowbanks
Illustration by Ruth Millar

Cold ’nuff fer ya?

How those long cold winters affected us

Extreme winters here are the stuff of legend, especially before official records were kept. Community histories and newspapers delighted in citing extremes, and competed for superlatives. With worse extremes around the world, ours don’t seem so bad. At least we don’t get volcanoes, tsunamis, or hurricanes.

There was so little game in the winter of 1880-81, the Nakoda Assiniboines were famished. and had to kill their precious horses for food.

The winter of 1886-7 seemed endless and its snow fathomless. The STV ranch in the south lost all five thousand cattle they had brought from the U.S.A.

Some thought January and February of 1890 were the worst months in ten years, as blizzards piled the snow so deep the cattle could not graze.

On January 1, 1885, paper stuck to the type inside the offices of the Regina Leader.

The legendary “killer winter” of 1906-07 killed thousands of cattle and some humans. Cattle died of hunger, unable to paw through the snow to feed on grass below. Many ranchers from the U.S. threw in the towel and departed.

Two children were leading their horses home when they got lost in a snowstorm near Wood Mountain in April 1906. Had they been older and wiser they’d have let the horses lead the way, as the horses made it home but they didn’t. Their remains were not found for nine years, and a nearby creek was named “Lost Child Creek.”

In 1906 two German immigrants near Humboldt got lost in a blizzard and froze to death. Their bodies were found near a neighbour’s home.

An apprentice at Georgina Binnie-Clark’s farm ca. 1910 recalled that the kitchen kettle in the kitchen was frozen solid, and the bed linens frozen to the wall.

Many homesteaders’ shacks were not insulated. In Dundurn, chamber pots froze under the beds, and residents heated flat-irons, wrapped them in towels, and put them under the sheets. Some homesteaders banked sand, dirt or manure around the huts as high as seven or eight feet, and poured water on these banks to freeze and keep the banking firm.

In a ten-day blizzard in early 1947 snow buried a train near Weyburn, and many animals perished. Farmers dug tunnels under the snow to reach their barns. The frozen bodies of an elderly couple near Maidstone were found about a mile from their farm.

A blizzard in December 1955 blocked trains. Children stayed overnight in schools. Cattle were found in heaps, dead from lack of oxygen and food. That blizzard claimed a life at Cutknife.

[Assiniboines: Savage: A Geography of Blood, 138; STV ranch: Maple Creek history; Grassland Settlers; Regina: Drake, Regina: The Queen City. 34; Poitier, Wood Mountain Uplands, 63-64; Humboldt: Phoenix 15 February 1906; Binnie-Clark, Wheat and Woman xiii; Dundurn: Prairie Tapestry: Dundurn, 359; Weyburn and Maidstone: Dederick and Waiser. Looking Back; Star-Phoenix 13 Dec 1955; blizzard: Western People, 7 Feb 1985]

Hot ’nuff fer ya? How those long hot summers affected Saskies

illustration of woman sweating in hot weather
Illustration by Ruth Millar

Reports in newspapers and community histories describe torrid temperatures, pummeling rain, parching drought, hailstorms, floods, or tornadoes that wreaked havoc across the province, or specific regions.

In 1886, drought almost completely wiped out crops in certain areas.

In the hot, dry summer of 1890, a fierce hailstorm in July levelled crops in the Swift Current area, smashed windows and left a six-inch carpet of ice on the ground. Also that summer, heat and drought shrivelled the crops. It wasn’t a good year.

In the legendary drought of 1894, it was claimed, the lowest moisture count of 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) was lower than the average in Phoenix, Arizona.

Historic photos of Saskatoon show high water in a 1908 flood, when waters rose almost to the top of the Victoria bridge piers, and almost to Spadina Crescent in places.

Summer hailstorms were so relentless, Dundurn householders stretched horsehide over windows, or stuffed pillows in broken ones. Uprooted windmills sailed away; phone lines snapped; livestock vanished. Later, errant possessions turned up kilometres away.

Blackest year on the prairies was 1937, recalled author Max Braithwaite. Dust piled up to the eaves of farm houses and buried farm machinery, and sloughs and wells dried up. Sixty-six thousand people left because of the destitution. 

Low riverbanks sometimes caused the North Saskatchewan River valley around Nipawin to overflow its banks, and spring runoff would inundate the area. Floods there in 1954 and 1955 caused some exasperated farmers to give up and head for drier pastures.

In April 1971 locals in Regina sprang into action, sandbagging to prevent further damage. An impromptu dormitory with cots was set up at the Armoury to house and feed people made homeless by the floods.

Flooding in 2014 and 2016 made the landscape seen from the air look like broken mirrors strewn across the land. In 2014, sixteen communities declared a state of emergency, and some farmsteads were islands in seas of water. In 2016 the Carrot River area and much of Estevan were underwater after flooding.

People close to the Alberta border eyed the ravenous Fort MacMurray fire with unease.

A hail of a storm” proclaimed the StarPhoenix May 31, 2018 after ice pellets pummelled Moose Jaw, carpeting the streets, after a week or so of temperatures up to 30 degrees C.

And yet, Saskatchewan people just kept on carryin’ on, as Bob Dylan would say.

[Braithwaite: Maclean’s 19 March 1955. Carrot River: CBC News 29 June 2014, Global News 28 Dec 2016. Dundurn: Prairie Tapestry: Dundurn, 239. Phoenix: Drake, Regina the Queen City, 73. Regina flood: Leader-Post 12 April 1971. Swift Current: Grassland Settlers, p. 59.]

Oldest heritage buildings in Saskatchewan

Some notable vintage buildings designated by Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada:

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, oldest building in the province, completed at Stanley Mission in 1860.

Remaining original building of the Hudson Bay Co. post, constructed at Fort Qu’Appelle in 1864

Stone farmhouse on the Motherwell Homestead, constructed near Abernethy in 1882

Marr residence, oldest building on its original site in Saskatoon, built in 1884.

Government House, residence of the lieutenant-governor, constructed in Regina in 1891.

Canadian Bank of Commerce building, distinct Greek Revival style, completed in Watson in 1907.

Mellville Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station, Classical Revival style building, constructed in 1908.

Saskatoon Canadian Pacific Railway station, Chateau- styled architecture, completed in 1908.

Moose Jaw Court House, neo-classical style building, erected in Moose Jaw in 1909.

Addison Sod House, with earthen walls tapered from four feet thick at the bottom to three feet at the top, constructed in the Kindersley district in 1911.

[Community sources, www.vanishingsask.ca/]