Environmental research in NWT gets $3.2M boost

Environmental research in NWT gets $3.2M boost
Philip Marsh sets up a data logger used to record hydrological and meteorological instruments during spring melt at Trail Valley Creek, a watershed 50 km north of Inuvik.Courtesy of Philip Marsh.

“Living laboratories” and research stations across the Northwest Territories are getting a boost into modernity with a $3.2-million award to build and purchase infrastructure and technology that will further ongoing cold region environmental research.

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation funding will go towards Wilfrid Laurier University’s Changing Arctic Network (CANet) research team to support its continued partnership with the territorial government, which has seen the two parties cooperate for decades on research that aligns with community priorities on environmental monitoring in the territory.

“This is building on our existing work under the GNWT-Laurier partnership in the NWT at a number of sites where we’re already working on these ‘living laboratories,’” said Dr. Philip Marsh, a hydrologist and professor at Laurier and Canada Research Chair in Cold Regions Water Science.

“It’s a massive investment into the NWT.”

Those living labs include over 20 research stations across the territory, from the decade-old site at Scotty Creek near Fort Simpson to Baker Creek near Yellowknife, all the way to the Mackenzie Delta, where Marsh runs two long-term field sites near Inuvik on either side of the treeline.

CANet is also proposing new research stations in the three major deltas – the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Alberta, the Slave River Delta in the southern NWT and the Mackenzie Delta near the Arctic Ocean.

As well, new research is blossoming in accordance with the influx of oil and gas interests in the Sahtu region.

“In the Central Mackenzie, we’re proposing something near the Norman Wells area that would be strongly linked to future possibilities of fracking and trying to understand the water resources in that area better,” Marsh said.

Some of the money will also help enhance technologies at existing laboratories run by Environment and Natural Resources in Yellowknife, Norman Wells, Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Wekweeti.

“That’s supplementing what’s already there to enhance the ability of those labs, so some of the things that we can’t do out in the field then we’ll do in those labs,” Marsh said.

The funding will also pay for a wide array of infrastructure and technology related to an equally diverse crew of scientists studying everything from climate science to fish biology, hydrology and ecology.

That will include, for example, instrumentation to measure carbon fluxes between the atmosphere and land surface to determine if the environment is taking up or releasing carbon; unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to do remote sensing activities; equipment for taking sediment cores from lakes for historical analysis; hydrological instrumentation to measure streamflow during difficult times like spring breakup; ground penetrating radar for understanding changes in permafrost; and much more.

Of timely interest, Marsh noted the purchase also includes cosmic ray sensors that can give measurements of soil moisture or snow cover over a fairly large area, which could be useful for fire predictions.

“These actually use satellite communication to show the data in real time on a webpage, so for fire predictions you would be able to have real-time estimates of soil moisture, so you’d know when certain areas were getting extremely dry,” he said.

Marsh suspects the research team received the funding partly because of the urgency posed by climate change, which is impacting Canada’s North more quickly than any other region, but mainly due to the strong, active partnership between the university and government.

“Because of the partnership, this was done in full collaboration with the GNWT, so we had a lot of input from various groups about what are the key questions and what does the government need, especially with devolution, to answer some of the questions people are asking, and to address important policy questions, as well,” Marsh said.

“The science is unique – and obviously high quality, since it’s being funded – but we also have this really unique connection to a territorial government that ensures the science is going to make its way into public policy.”

More than $15 million in operating and infrastructure funding has been secured for NWT research through Laurier over the past several decades, and more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students have been trained in the territory, with 20 more students slated for 2015.

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