By Franco Alo, Alberta Environment and Parks
Alberta is home to the Rocky Mountains as well as some major river systems, including Alberta’s longest river, the Athabasca River, at ~1,300 km. With Alberta rivers being part of the landscape and co-existing with cities and towns, like the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton or the Peace River in Peace River, it is important to monitor these systems in order to keep Albertans safe.
Monitoring rivers in Alberta
“Alberta is unique because we have a dedicated ice team in the River Forecast Center, which means we have a team on call twenty-four seven all winter long,” says Jennifer Nafziger, River Hydraulics and Ice Engineer at Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP).
This team monitors Alberta’s rivers using a variety of equipment both digital (e.g., satellite imagery) and in the field (e.g., drone). Using information from a variety of sources, river forecasters are able to run computer models that can help predict the behavior of rivers due to a heavy rainfall or river ice jam flooding.
With the information gathered and processed in near real-time, it can then be used to inform emergency managers about potential flooding events that may affect a nearby community. Emergency managers play a critical role, making decisions and taking action to mitigate any catastrophic risk to Albertans and their property as a result of a predicted flooding event.
Despite all the science and modern technological advancements today, the biggest challenge with river ice forecasting remains how quickly river ice conditions can change.
How technology has changed the face of river ice forecasting over time
Back when river ice forecasting was a new science, there were no remote gauges, remote cameras, satellite imagery or drones. There were people and paper maps.
It was common to have a cabin upstream of a major river, like the Athabasca, with a person stationed there watching the ice melt. This could last for up to a month, and the specialists observations became the data that was assessed. You can imagine on a cold winter day how that must have felt!
Today, monitoring rivers can be performed more comfortably. It still requires on the ground operations to install technology like remote gauges, and flying a drone to better understand how ice is moving in real time or how a major rainfall is affecting river discharge. Complimentary to the ground operations, river ice forecasters back in their offices use this information to get a better sense of the changes in river movements and patterns.
It is the combination of information acquired from the ground and through digital means that has grown river ice forecasting into the sophisticated machine it is today. One which relies on the expertise of many people: river forecasters, monitoring network service providers, data facilitators and the river hazard team.
- Want to see some of the information river ice forecasters have access to?