A Typical Day Isn’t Typical For Alberta Government Wildlife Biologist

By Jeannine Goehing, AEP Office of the Chief Scientist

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, senior wildlife biologist Dr. Anne Hubbs shares her experience working with Fish and Wildlife at Alberta Environment and Parks for over 20 years.

Dr. Anne Hubbs was surrounded by three humpback whales, each one the size of a standard school bus. The professional wildlife biologist was in her sea kayak exploring Antarctica with her husband during a three-week trip that turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of her life.

“I’ll never forget the moment when I saw one of the whales’ heads go underwater right beside my kayak,” she recalls, adding she has been fascinated with whales since childhood. 

Anne has had special wildlife encounters throughout her career, including one with a black wolf in the Yukon and a face to face encounter with a moose suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease. In Alberta, she has worked with harlequin ducks, goshawks, caribou and bighorn sheep among many other species, and it’s where her passion lies.

“I believe that most Albertans are interested in wildlife, and see their intrinsic value and that of natural ecosystems,” she explains. For instance, when talking to the general public or hunting community about their motivations, she often finds a common appreciation. “They like to be out in nature and they appreciate that pristine, isolated environment.”

As a wildlife biologist, a lot of her work touches on those environments and species that so many Albertans value.

“We’re working to protect ecosystems and maintain healthy wildlife populations for Albertans, whether they want to view wildlife on public land, in provincial or national parks, or whether they are hunters or general recreationists,” Anne explains. “What we do on provincial lands may affect populations in adjacent national parks or bordering provinces and states, and we’re trying to minimize any potential negative impacts from human or industrial development on wildlife.”

Dr. Anne Hubbs kayaking in search of western grebes.
Photo credit: Brendan McGlynn

Anne’s passion for the world around her and her dedication to conservation and species recovery started at a very young age.

Ants in the kitchen

Anne has been interested in science as long as she can remember, and she grew up exploring nature and wildlife whenever possible.

“My dad and I used to go out looking for crayfish or collecting ant farms that invariably escaped in the house – much to my mom’s shock,” she recalls with a smile. “My dad instilled a love of nature in me.”

That interest in the world around her also led to an admiration with some of the biggest names in the conservation world: “I was hooked on French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and English primatologist Jane Goodall from a very young age.”

Growing up in Toronto, Anne followed her passion and enrolled in an undergraduate degree studying biology at the University of Toronto and taking field courses on monkeys in Hong Kong and tundra wildlife in the Canadian Arctic. She also worked as a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, marine biologist off the coast of Ireland, and a primatologist in Germany.

“I really enjoyed studying a variety of species and seeing different environments. It broadened my perspective and got me hooked,” she explains.

She followed up with a Master of Science in Zoology at the University of Toronto where her interest in ecology only deepened during fieldwork in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, which led to her PhD in Ecology at the University of Western Ontario. It was her PhD fieldwork that led her to Alberta, and ultimately to her position with the Government of Alberta.

When she arrived at Alberta Fish and Wildlife, things looked very different than they do today.

“When I started out there were less than half a dozen female colleagues across the province, but the dynamics have shifted so much that it’s about fifty-fifty now,” she says. “Women can bring a different vision or perspective to the position – part of this is potentially more of an emphasis on relationship building and also a feeling that they need to work harder than their male colleagues to be the best candidate.” 

For Anne, the key was always learning and innovation.

Quest for learning

Anne has most valued and enjoyed learning, engagement and collaboration throughout her career. As a biologist working in the department, she has had unique opportunities to tap into a province-wide network of biologists, scientists from universities, and experts from other jurisdictions.

“Everybody has different skillsets that they bring to the table and when I work with somebody, I try to learn from them,” she explains. For one of her current projects on bighorn sheep management, she learned a new tool that has also proved helpful for personal life decisions.

“A colleague, Wendy Aupers, introduced me to Structured Decision Making, which is a step-by-step process that combines values from stakeholders or agencies with scientific information. We’re using it to develop a bighorn sheep management plan in collaboration with Cornell University,” she explains. “It can be useful for personal life decisions as well – whether it’s deciding where to go for dinner or how to choose our next holiday destination.”

Anne’s openness to learning also led to her current role as co-chair of the Alberta steering committee for a large collaborative project called WildCam – Wildlife Cameras for Adaptive Management.

“Remote cameras are non-invasive and can collect information on multiple species at the same time, such as lynx, moose and deer,” she says. “It’s a very innovative method and we’re trying to develop guidelines and tools to support its use across Alberta and British Columbia.”

Developing new approaches like these have helped her throughout her career, and keep her engaged with her work.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to collaborate and partner, particularly on large-scale projects – whether it’s with researchers, stakeholders or other jurisdictions across North America. It’s very rewarding.”

Unique opportunities

Anne’s career with Alberta Environment and Parks has spanned over 20 years and four locations including Hinton, Athabasca, Rocky Mountain House and a secondment with the Wildlife Policy Branch in Edmonton as the province’s big game specialist. Each of those posts provided her with unique opportunities –– the sort of opportunities she recommends every aspiring biologist to seek out.

Dr. Anne Hubbs collaring elk with researchers at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, Alberta.
Photo credit: Julia Wachowski

“Think of things that make you stand out at the end of the day,” she advises. “Take on unique opportunities, either through volunteering or international travel, and develop special skillsets that showcase your passion.”

But she believes there’s more to those opportunities than just developing technical skills like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or modeling.

“As biologists, we need those technical skills, but we also need the soft skills such as effective communication,” she asserts. “We’re lucky to have unique experiences with nature in our work. Knowing how to effectively tell those stories and engage with people in a meaningful way is key.”

When it comes to developing these abilities, Anne advises young scientists to seek out mentors familiar with the unique challenges and complexities of working in the public service.

“When you’re fresh out of graduate school, the speed at which government works can be surprising,” she explains with a laugh. “For somebody from outside government, it may seem like a long time to move a policy forward, and it absolutely does. But I don’t think some people understand the complexities and number of different divisions, outside agencies and stakeholders who are often involved in the process. It’s not all fieldwork, but also partnerships, and working with stakeholders and industry.”

The diversity and complexity of the work is one of the things Anne most appreciates about her role as a biologist in the department. It also informs the advice she shares with aspiring scientists considering a career path like her own.

“If an opportunity for new learning or leadership role comes up, it’s well worth doing,” she says, before sharing one of her favorite quotes from Albert Einstein “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

It’s this philosophy that led Anne into a kayak beside humpback whales off Antarctica. “Challenge yourself, and don’t be afraid to push the limits.”

Interested in resources and networks supporting women in environmental sciences, technology, and conservation? Please find more information below:

  • WiSER (Women in Science, Engineering & Research): Founded in 2008 as a sub-community of University of Alberta’s WISEST aiming at serving the needs of graduate students and early-career professionals. The community is comprised of individuals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the academia, government, and industry.
  • Women in Nature Network: Founded in 2013 to promote women’s leadership and participation in the sustainable management of natural resources and their conservation; an Associate Group of Global Wildlife Conservation.

  • Women Entrepreneurs-in-STEM (WESTEM) Program: Program for women entrepreneurs offering training, networking, mentorship and access to current and emerging technologies created by Economic Development Lethbridge and Tecconnect with funding from the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy.
  • Cybermentor: Encouraging young people interested in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to pursue post-secondary education through online mentorship and outreach programs.

International Women & Girls in Science Day: Alberta’s Changing Climate and What It Means For Our Water Resources

By Dr. Brandi Newton, Alberta Environment and Parks

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, Dr. Brandi Newton from Alberta Environment and Parks shares her experience working as a hydroclimatologist in the department.

Alberta’s winter climate with its plentiful snow is ideal for outdoor recreational activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and fat-tire biking, and we take advantage of it. The snow that accumulates in the mountains also serves as an important source of fresh water during spring and early summer for traditional uses such as river navigation, for aquatic and riparian ecosystem health, drinking and household use, agricultural irrigation, industrial needs, and snowmelt fills reservoirs used in hydroelectricity generation.

Alberta also serves as the source region for several major river basins in Canada making us stewards of a resource essential to both Albertans and numerous downstream users.

We know that climate is changing across the world and here at home in Alberta. Climate models indicate average global temperatures will increase by 1.0°C to 3.7°C above the 1985-2005 global average temperature by the end of this century (IPCC 2013). We also know that higher latitudes and land surfaces are warming at a faster rate and that the biggest temperature changes occur during winter, which will significantly impact when and how much water is available to us through the amount of snow that accumulates each winter and the timing of snowmelt.

Brandi at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. During the summer, Rocky Mountain rivers are fed by glacier melt and high elevation snowmelt.
Photo by Dr. Thomas Edwards.

Knowing what the changes to our winter climate will look like is critical to managing Alberta’s water resources. As part of our stewardship work, we have started to examine how climate has changed in Alberta to better understand future risks to water resource availability.

Alberta’s Changing Winter: Early Results

Our goal is to determine which regions of the province are most at risk for annual or seasonal shifts in water supply when it comes to winter climate change. This is particularly important because snow is not evenly distributed across the province, with much greater snowpack in the mountains compared to lower-elevation areas.

One of my favorite parts of being a research scientist is solving complex scientific questions involving water and climate, and more specifically, understanding how a changing climate will influence an uneven distribution of winter snowpack and associated water availability from spring and summer melt.

It all starts with Alberta’s networks of meteorological and hydrometric monitoring stations, and passionate staff who conduct field measurements and maintain equipment to measure snow depth and distribution. This data is critical to provide the best available information to decision-makers.

One of the results of our ongoing study to analyze this data shows that winters appear to get shorter. For example, spring temperatures have been rising above freezing significantly earlier in the last ten to 15 years over the period 1950 to 2017. This trend is more pronounced in the Prairie region of southern Alberta where spring temperatures are occurring two to three weeks earlier.

Historically, Alberta’s southern prairies have experienced the greatest climatic variability – meaning there could be very high temperatures and precipitation one year and very low the next. As a result, the prairies rely heavily upon water management strategies, primarily for agricultural purposes.

High elevation snowpack remains in early July 2019 in Banff National Park. We rely on high elevation snowmelt for summer water resource availability. Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton.

The next steps in this work are to compare our results with future climate scenarios to determine if spring will continue to arrive earlier, further shortening the duration of winter and time for snow to accumulate. Future projections are based on medium- and high emissions scenarios, similar to the 1.5°C and 3.5°C global warming scenarios.

Knowing how Alberta’s winter climate and snowpack may change under these scenarios is important for managing water resources, and foreseeing potential risks.

For example, the amount of winter snowpack and the timing of spring melt will not only affect water availability, but also may affect spring flooding. When snowmelt is combined with spring rainfall and river ice break-up jams, it can cause severe flooding, such as the 2013 flood in southern Alberta and the recent ice jam flooding in Fort McMurray in May 2020.

Conducting routine snow surveys in Banff National Park with an Alberta Environment and Parks monitoring team. Snow surveys are a critical source of information for flood forecasting.
Photo by Dr. Brandi Newton

Ongoing Research

Understanding these factors is to the benefit of all Albertans and the economy and, not surprisingly, generates a lot of interest. Most recently, there’s been a lot of attention on the impact of climate change on glaciers and the possible consequences for communities that rely on glacial meltwater for part of their water supply.  

At Alberta Environment and Parks, we aim to look at all the drivers influencing climate and water availability, including glacier loss and changes to winter precipitation. From a water supply perspective, glacial meltwater reductions are of particular concern in late summer, during drier years, and for communities in closer proximity to glaciers.

For most municipalities in Alberta, glacier melt contributes a small fraction of the overall water supply, particularly during the summer when contributions are the highest. Seasonal and year-over-year variability of precipitation has a major impact on water supply across Alberta.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on water supply requires us to understand many factors and how they interact with each other, so ongoing research is crucial.

Beyond new scientific knowledge, our research will inform Alberta’s water policy and management decisions and help inform community resilience to ensure Albertans have access to water now and in the future.

Dr. Brandi Newton is a hydroclimatologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. She studies climate and hydrology in Alberta to better understand relationships and changes in climate, streamflow, and the drivers of extreme hydrological events such as floods. This helps inform environmental monitoring, management and policy decisions, and public understanding of environmental conditions in Alberta. Brandi has previously worked on projects including the atmospheric role in the Arctic freshwater system, the climatic redistribution of western Canadian water resources, mid-winter river ice break-up, and other winter extreme climate events in western Canada and Alaska.

Learn More

For more details on historic and projected climate change globally and in Canada, see the following reports:

Citizen scientists, industry and government working together to monitor Alberta’s grizzly bears

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

Innovation sometimes starts with little handwritten paper notes –– notes like the ones Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, and her team used to get from locals to report grizzly bear sightings in Alberta’s Lower Peace region.

“If they knew our phone number, people would call or text sightings and human-grizzly bear interactions, or they’d email us,” recalls Courtney. “A colleague, Lyle Fullerton, even received little handwritten notes reading things like ‘Saw grizzly down the road on the left’ on his truck windshield when parked in the field.”

While these grassroots efforts to contribute data were helpful, a more systematic approach was needed. “We needed a better way to collect this information while engaging the local land users and stakeholders to better contribute to scientific decision-making,” she elaborates.

The need for a more standardized and automated data collection tool to support citizen science lead to the new smartphone app ‘GrizzTracker’, which has transformed public grizzly bear reporting in remote parts of Alberta for the last few years, and is ready to go province-wide.

Tools like this app are giving us the chance to do better conservation science while engaging people,” Courtney says. “It’s an exciting time to be monitoring bears.”

Grizzly bear cub

A personal photograph of a grizzly bear cub in 2015, courtesy of Wanda Watts

Citizen science to fill knowledge gaps

In response to concerns about bear mortality and population sustainability, Alberta’s grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) have been listed as a threatened species since 2010, meaning they are protected by a provincial recovery policy that restricts hunting, and requires population and habitat research and educational outreach to address risks to bear survival.

The province’s grizzly bear population was estimated to be approximately 700 bears as of a 2010 status report, though recent population research across Alberta is providing additional information on bear density and distribution. Grizzly bear habitat spans from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the boreal forest in the northwest. In Alberta’s northwest – in the management zone called Bear Management Area 1 –  the number of grizzly bears and their distribution is not well understood, however. This is largely due to the difficult, wet and boggy terrain of the boreal forest and the associated costs of undertaking time-intensive population research.

However, understanding where grizzlies live and how many bears there are is essential to addressing the provincial recovery requirements and informing management decisions.

Citizen science is one approach to collecting better knowledge; by working together, citizens, industry operators, landowners, and government can cover large geographic areas and contribute data to help advance scientific knowledge. Enlisting citizen scientists was a no-brainer for Courtney and the team.

“Engaging people in reporting grizzly bear observations, especially across remote areas where we (staff) may not be, not only makes good sense to complement existing DNA-based population inventorying, it’s considered essential to achieving recovery objectives,” Courtney explains.

“I’m very passionate about the people side, because it’s people who do conservation. If we weren’t around, critters and landscapes would sort themselves out,” she says. “I’m interested in people’s perspectives, their beliefs, values and motivations, and, as a conservation practitioner, the ways we can work with people to advance conservation goals.”

Courtney’s passion for science and the role of humans in conservation is evident in her educational journey and career with the public service in the Government of Alberta. Holding a Master’s degree in environmental education, she started her career as a science and environmental education teacher before pursuing a PhD from the University of Alberta in conservation biology, looking at the importance and influence of the human dimensions in grizzly bear conservation. She has also worked on projects across Canada, Belize, Cameroon, Namibia and currently has two projects in Tanzania –– all focusing on people-wildlife issues.

“Whatever country you work in, the interaction between people and wildlife will have impacts, whether on livelihoods and safety or wildlife survival and sustainability,” she says. “The best way to understand the nature of that, and to develop relevant solutions, is to involve the people who are part of the interactions.”

Map BMAs

Alberta’s seven Grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs)

Harnessing local knowledge

Rural Albertans are helping advance scientific knowledge thanks to their detailed working knowledge of the province’s remote landscape, and the grizzlies that roam there.

“In Alberta’s northwest, there are a lot of industry operators who also happen to be landowners, farmers, recreational hunters or anglers, and these people want to see good things happen for the boreal landscape and the wildlife, balanced with economic or personal pursuits,” Courtney says. “We wanted to continue respecting and honoring that local knowledge and the fact that people want to contribute to scientific knowledge.”

With this in mind, the collaborative Northwest Grizzly Bear Team was founded in 2014 with representatives from Alberta Environment and Parks, Mercer Peace River Pulp Ltd., forest and industry stakeholders, the Miistakis Institute, the Alberta Conservation Association and public members, in an effort to help fill boreal grizzly bear knowledge gaps and management needs. GrizzTracker is one of the tools this team developed, to harness local knowledge and create engagement and education opportunities for specific land users and the general public.

GrizzTracker is a smartphone app platform that enables users to submit a grizzly bear sighting, or even tracks, scat or rub objects, using a standardized form with automatic data upload to a secure database. Available for download on Android or iPhones, anyone moving through an area where grizzly bears might be encountered can ‘Start a Trip.’ The app will then collect a location approximately every 90 seconds, which – importantly and innovatively – collects anonymous observer effort data. If a bear is spotted, the user can input the sighting using the form into the app, including a photo, if safe to do so.

Together, this data helps Courtney and the team receive accurate geospatial data about the sighting, which can be mapped to identify grizzly bear distribution across areas of human land use. In turn, this can be used to help inform bear management activities, such as conflict mitigation.

Courtney in Grande Cache

Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist, Alberta Environment and Parks

From pilot to provincial scale

As with any new project, rigorous pilot testing was required to ensure the app worked the way it was supposed to. Throughout 2017, 187 different users contributed to 18 sightings and over 2,281 observer hours. By the end of 2019, 286 users have signed up to the app.

Courtney and the Northwest Grizzly Team will continue to encourage local users in bear country to use the app, but now the team wants to expand beyond the original pilot in the northwest.

“Thanks to the geniuses at the Miistakis Institute, all the major bugs have been addressed, and we’re now ready to expand to a provincial scale,” says Courtney.

The team is also looking into potential partnerships beyond Alberta’s borders, including organizations in British Columbia where there is interest in the app and how it functions in different bear management areas.

“The bears don’t pay attention to provincial borders, but we still need to keep track of the ones who spend time here,” Courtney says. “Thanks to GrizzTracker and the citizen scientists who are using it, we hope to do that better into the future.”

Learn more

  • For more information on the app, visit the GrizzTracker website.
  • The GrizzTracker App is available on Google Play for Android devices and the App Store for iOS devices – search for “Grizztracker”. A training guide is available here (pdf).
  • Check out the mini documentary on the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team, their work on the GrizzTracker app, and more!

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear in northwest Alberta (photo: Lyle Fullerton, Alberta Environment and Parks, Peace Region

Measuring Alberta’s air quality…from space!

By Casandra Brown and Greg Wentworth, Alberta Environment and Parks
January, 2020

Albertans usually experience clean air, but from time to time we all go through bad air quality events caused by things like wildfire smoke or smog. One of the first steps to improving air quality is to understand what pollutants are responsible for poor air quality and where they come from.

Traditionally, air pollutants are measured by monitoring equipment that is stationary and deployed on the ground. However, it’s not feasible to install this equipment everywhere across Alberta, due to factors such as cost, accessibility issues and power requirements. Enter: satellite-based sensors that can measure multiple air pollutants simultaneously across large areas from space.


Image of the satellite that carries the TROPOMI instrument, which measures air pollution from space (image courtesy of the European Space Agency)

Using Satellites to Monitor Air Quality in Alberta

Cristen has led collaborative research using satellites to help address specific air quality issues with other government agencies and universities across Alberta. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Toronto and has experience measuring atmospheric pollutants in the Canadian Arctic and Alberta.

Cristen has used satellite data to answer many different questions from large to small scale. For instance, satellite data was used to understand how much air pollution was emitted during the 2016 Horse River wildfire in Fort McMurray (check out this paper to learn more about this work). The team also used satellites as part of an investigation into increased sulphur dioxide concentrations at one monitoring station in Alberta’s oil sands region in recent years.

“Since satellites collect a lot of data over such large areas, they are able to capture events that scientists can’t predict or plan in advance for. For example, the first maps showing the full scale of the Antarctic ozone hole in the 1980s used satellite data,” Cristen explains. “Today, scientists continue to rely on satellite data to find and track air pollution sources, like wildfires and smoke plumes.”

Dr. Cristen Adams

Dr. Cristen Adams, atmospheric scientist, Alberta Environment and Parks

What’s Next?

In the next few years, a new satellite called TEMPO will be launched and held in position over North America. TEMPO will be the first satellite to take measurements of air pollution across North America every hour throughout the day. “Currently, satellites typically take snapshots of air quality about once or twice per day,” says Cristen. “With TEMPO, we will be able to track air pollution throughout the day. This will help us better understand the causes and track the movement of air pollution.” To that end, AEP is continuing to build capacity for using satellites to answer questions that will help us better understand, and ultimately improve, the air Albertans breathe.

“Satellites can help us fill in gaps between traditional on-the-ground stations and estimate amounts of pollutants being emitted. With new satellite instruments, such as TEMPO, coming online, we will be able to do this work with better spatial detail and shorter time periods,” Cristen adds.

Learn More

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Catching up with Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

Chief Scientists and Chief Science Advisors hold unique roles in federal, provincial or territorial jurisdictions across Canada, serving as trusted authorities on scientific matters. Through broad knowledge networks, these senior specialists act in the public interest and provide the public and elected officials the best available advice on relevant and emerging scientific topics.

In the Canadian context, Alberta has shown leadership in this area since 2016 when Dr. Fred Wrona was appointed Chief Scientist for Alberta Environment and Parks — the first position of its kind in the Ministry. The role of Chief Scientist was established in legislation through amendments to the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, representing a commitment to transparent and unbiased scientific reporting on the condition of Alberta’s environment.

Dr. Wrona brings more than 30 years of experience in the scientific community to the role, and the development and implementation of programs to monitor, evaluate and report on the condition of Alberta’s environment. As a champion of science, he promotes evidence-informed decision-making when it comes to the policies, programs and management decisions that impact Alberta’s natural resources.

CSPC Panel The Public Record 14 Nov 2019-Dr Fred Wrona

Dr. Fred Wrona speaking at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) conference in Ottawa – November, 2019

Below, the Chief Scientist answers questions about progress made since 2016, and what the future holds for environmental monitoring in Alberta.

What has changed in Alberta’s environmental monitoring programs over the past three years?

FW: We’ve been systematically updating our program designs, targeting specific information needs and objectives while being efficient and effective in light of limited resources. For example, we updated our river monitoring program by reaffirming station placements across various watersheds and expanding monitoring in areas where we had limited information.

We’ve also run our programs through our two independent advisory panels, the Science Advisory Panel and the Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel, with national and international experts who are highly recognized authorities in their fields. There’s no textbook written on how to do this, but we’re looking at opportunities to braid and utilize multiple knowledge systems such as conventional western science, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous wisdom.

We’ve released the Five-Year (2019-2024) Science Strategy – a first for this department – informing the public, internal and external science partners about the collaborative approach, tools, processes and priority areas of Alberta’s environmental science program. As part of the Science Strategy, I’ve been working very hard on fostering partnerships and collaborative opportunities, for example with the major universities in Alberta. I’ve co-located part of our program with the University of Calgary and created a Centre of Excellence in environmental monitoring and cumulative effects assessments.

We are also developing science integrity guidelines for what it means to be a practicing scientist within Alberta Environment and Parks. This highlights the importance of not only science, but what it takes to ensure that we demonstrate credibility and integrity in our science moving forward. I’m quite keen on that.

What has changed, over the past three years, specific to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region?

FW: The Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) Program is one of the largest environmental monitoring programs in the world, monitoring and reporting on the environmental state of the oil sands region led by the governments of Alberta and Canada.

It’s complex because we’re dealing with air, water, land, biological and ecological resources, and engaging with First Nation and Metis communities in the affected areas. We’re also dealing with public concerns and perceptions both within the region and around the world.

One of the biggest changes in the last several years has been focusing the science design so that the data it yields helps address key questions from stakeholders. We don’t just monitor for monitoring’s sake – the information has to be relevant.

The recognition that Indigenous participation in the design and implementation of the program is also absolutely essential. We created an oversight committee that’s multi-interest and multi-stakeholder, involving governments, First Nation and Métis communities, and industry. Their job is to make sure the program meets approval requirements, and just as importantly, that it addresses whether regulations we have in place are protecting the environment.

As Chief Scientist, how important is connecting scientific information to the public and decision-makers?

FW: A really good medical doctor can make the implications and consequences of a complicated treatment understandable to a patient – even if it’s complex information. Environmental science communication is a similar scenario.

We need solid, proper, peer-reviewed and technically-robust papers and analyses that speak to what the science and data really mean. But when I try to explain those pieces of science to the public – or a tougher critic, my mother – how I convey that information will determine whether I succeed in getting the point across. How we translate information to the public and decision-makers matters.

We’re looking at developing accessible communications products using digital tools that can convey highly technical information in ways that are understandable and digestible. We’re also working on making our data systems more directly accessible outside the Ministry, so people can access them openly and run their own queries. Building trust is about being transparent – providing information to the public, other researchers and stakeholders so they can derive their own conclusions.

A final area is training. How can you be an effective communicator as a scientist? We ran a special workshop on science communication and we’re excited to continue to offer and expand on that to support our science community in more effectively communicating information.

What are you most proud of when you look back over the past three years?

FW: I’m really excited about utilizing what I consider more out of the box thinking for delivering our programs. Being open brings in innovation, creativity and excitement to the people involved in the programs. Networking and engaging with other people that have a passion for knowledge is a win-win for all of us.

I’m also pleased to see that people are curious about the role of the Chief Scientist and how we can help facilitate the way science is being done in the department. We’re getting more phone calls and we’re becoming more visible. Outside organizations are also asking more about working with us. I’m part of a national network working with the federal Chief Scientists and they’re very interested in Alberta.

The way our office was set up under legislation is unique in Canada, and internationally. This office doesn’t just have an advisory function, but a legislated responsibility for reporting. That puts a very different impetus on us. Alberta is leading on this front.

What opportunities and priorities do you see for environmental monitoring in Alberta moving forward?

FW: We’re in a new era of communication, but also of miscommunication and misinformation. We have to play a very important role of sharing good, factual research and ensuring it isn’t open to misinterpretation and distortion.

Timeliness is also critical. Data and data systems without qualified interpretation isn’t helpful, so we need to build rapid processes. For example, some of our new monitoring systems are sensor-based and can get information to the public and stakeholders in real-time. It’s challenging, takes innovative thinking, investment and resources, and we need to look at that.

People are keen to get engaged in the environmental issues and agenda of how we move forward. It requires standards, protocols and procedures to effectively use data we produce out of that kind of relationship and we are working on that.

I’ve worked hard on fostering the importance of knowledge networks, recognizing that we need to build on science and research strengths, both within and outside of government. We will continue integrating internal and external knowledge networks to help achieve our outcomes.