Kananaskis site generates critical scientific knowledge

By: Lynn Martel

  |  Posted: Thursday, Mar 14, 2013 06:00 am

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Early in his career, Dr. Richard Rothwell lived in a trailer with his wife and daughter while setting up the Marmot Creek streamflow research site in Kananaskis in the early 1960s.

Now professor emeritus with the University of Alberta’s department of renewable resources, last month Rothwell was among nearly 50 academics, grad students and senior researchers who participated in a two-day workshop at the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake field station.

Organized by the University of Saskatchewan’s hydrology department, the workshop celebrated Marmot Creek’s half-century contribution to Canada’s knowledge and understanding of its water resources.

The Marmot Creek site was established in 1962 to address the Alberta and federal governments’ concerns about water availability in the Prairies in the face of growing population and irrigation needs. The Prairies’ water source, the South Saskatchewan River system, originates in the Rockies’ eastern slope.

Research at Marmot Creek flourished for 25 years, providing the basis for a better understanding of hydrology, hydrochemistry and forest management that influenced headwater basin management for many years afterward.

More than an incubator of scientific knowledge, however, the site also generated numerous master’s degrees and PhDs, as well as enduring partnerships between generations of researchers.

“Experimental basins are classrooms that can be used for education of scientists and researchers,” Rothwell said. “It’s a multiplying effect. You get a lot of science, but you also get a lot in terms of human resources.”

Among the workshop presenters was Dr. Jim Bruce, whose own Marmot Creek research led him to senior positions with the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Long-running research sites, Bruce said, are of vital importance to maintain.

“Hydrometeorological measurements must be maintained – they increase in value with age,” Bruce said. “Co-ordinated, multi-disciplinary monitoring and research are crucial to understanding and predicting the behaviour of natural systems.”

While initially established for logging experiments promoted by the Eastern Rockies Forest Conservation Board, Marmot Creek also served as a forerunner of a series of such basins established across Canada during the 1965-75 International Hydrologic Decade. Among numerous benefits, basins in Eastern Canada yielded essential information resulting in effective policy to combat acid rain.

Then, between 1985 and ’87, Nakiska was prepared as the venue for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics downhill skiing events and focus on the area shifted away from science. No direct observations were made between 1988 and 2004, when Dr. John Pomeroy, new to his position as head of hydrology at the U of S, recognized and seized upon the site’s enduring value. Today, a new generation of better equipped and informed researchers are using Marmot Creek’s 50 years of records to assess the changing climate and its impacts.

“The long-term observations of mountain streamflow, precipitation, snowpack, groundwater, vegetation and meteorology in Marmot Creek make it a unique laboratory for understanding and assessing environmental change in the Canadian Rockies,” Pomeroy said.

Maintaining such a laboratory requires keeping weather stations working under the attack of gale force winds and wallowing through rotten snow to record stream flow measurements.

“But those are challenges that we gladly take on as part of field scientific research,” Pomeroy added. “What is more difficult is that there is no long-term steady funding for keeping a research basin going in Canada, so we must align the ‘outdoor laboratory’ (Marmot Creek) to the priorities of various scientific programs that can fund the basic operations in return for the science that can be conducted at the facility.”

Whereas U.K. and U.S. governments have committed to supporting long-term research basins, from which more than 50 years of continuous measurements have been recorded, Canada’s government has never again committed the level of core funding it did between 1962 and 1987.

“The Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan have been very good to us and we have new federal investment coming,” Pomeroy said. “But these are not steady funding sources and so we live from year to year.”

Gaps in data collection leave crucial questions unanswered; Marmot’s data provides only a snapshot of the first 25 years, and then the last eight years of the basin, instead of a continuous record. No data was collected during the droughts of 1988 and 1999 to 2003 – data crucial to knowing how to prepare for Western Canada’s next inevitable drought.

Such information is not only valuable at a regional level, but is essential for the entire country, as the whole world begins to experience the effects of climate change.

“It is incredibly important to Canada because it helps us predict the security of water supplies coming from the Rockies to feed the Bow, Red Deer, Oldman, North Saskatchewan, Athabasca, Peace, Columbia and Fraser Rivers,” Pomeroy said. “These support the population, food, energy development and industry for most of the western provinces, the N.W.T. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, which are the primary continental areas of economic growth.”

Since the 1960s, recorded daily low temperatures in winter at Marmot Creek have increased by 5 C, resulting in low elevation snowpack being reduced by half. Streamflow from Marmot Creek has dropped 25 per cent over the past 50 years. In October, Mount Colembolla received the latest lightening strike ever recorded. Last June, heavy rainfall doused the top of Centennial Ridge, which was still buried in deep snow.

“A further warming of more than 2 C will cause the collapse of the alpine snowpack because so much of it forms from spring snowfall,” Pomeroy explained. “With warming, the spring snowfall will come as rainfall, and we lose that spring snow and about one month of snow cover in the alpine. This will increase summer evaporation from plants, and so further reduce streamflow. It will also mean that streamflow will come much earlier in spring and be much smaller. This means trouble for the water users downstream who need this water in June for irrigation.”

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Watershed Research Center (NWRC) has maintained research sites in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Colorado and Nevada. While not formally funded to share research across the border, scientists do, Pomeroy said, “because it is the right thing to do.”

In the Sierra Nevada, measurement sites set up in the middle of the snow zone now sit at the edge.

“That’s very important for understanding climate warming,” said workshop presenter Dr. Danny Marks of the NWRC. “The temperature increase is going to have a strong impact on environmental processes. At Little Cottonwood (Utah ski area), the powder is not like it used to be. It’s warmer when it snows. This is the argument of why we need to have watersheds like this. These conditions will be moving north as the climate warms. In southern California, we don’t have plants that need to be frozen for a period every year.”

But while California, home to 38 million, is highly motivated to fund research on the inland mountain ranges that supply its water, Canada’s government is indifferent, if not downright hostile, to what must be learned from science.

“In acid rain and ozone depletion days there were many good science and environment writers in the media, and scientists, including government scientists, were encouraged to talk to them,” Bruce said. “This built up a public constituency for necessary actions on these issues. Also, federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, were concerned about the environment from the ministers on down. (Today we’ve got) a very different political climate and few media interpreters. (In Canada) government scientists mostly have their statements to the media controlled – especially in Environment and Fisheries and Oceans.”

And while Canada’s federal information commissioner investigates formal complaints that the Harper government is preventing scientists from publicly sharing climate change-related findings with the public, watersheds such as Marmot Creek are more valuable than ever.

“They are the only way we can monitor what is causing the changes that are occurring and how this is affected by vegetation, soils, geology and topography,” Pomeroy said. “The early warning that research basins provide gives us a chance to adapt to changing water supply, snowpack and ecosystems.

“They will be crucial as the really nasty aspects of climate change and extreme weather start to show up.”


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