Join the 30-day challenge to MOVE with the air in mind

We all have to move to get to work and wherever we recreate. Why not move in ways that improve health, promote safety, save money and maintain air quality?


Starting June 7, Albertans are encouraged to move with the air in mind once a day for 30 days. It could be as simple as walking to the library and borrowing a book on air or reducing idling time by parking and going inside instead of using a drive-thru. When these daily activities become habits and lots of people do them, everyone benefits. You can move on your own or with your family, coworkers, friends or teammates on your way to work, play, home or on a road trip.

Move yourself using human-powered transportation.

Move smart using fuel efficient practices when driving.

Check back daily or follow us on Twitter. We will be adding challenges each day for the next 30 days!

July 6 – Challenge #30

Mend your fuelish ways!

Keep your speed as steady as possible and avoid unnecessary fuel consumption and safety risks.

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Finding your flow with the new and improved Alberta Rivers App


The Alberta Rivers mobile app provides detailed information on river flows, river and lake levels, precipitation, snowpack and ice conditions across the province.

Information on current and future conditions helps Albertans make decisions related to water supply, flood mitigation, and emergency response planning.

So what’s new?

The app was recently upgraded to provide information on low flow conditions and water shortage advisories. This is so that water users can make informed decisions around water withdrawal if there are potential shortages.

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FISHES in the Sky

helicopter photo 2We aren’t talking trout with wings – FISHES is a team dedicated to keeping fish in our future. The Southern Alberta Fisheries Habitat Enhancement and Sustainability (FISHES) Program was established in 2013 to find and address risks to the aquatic environment following the 2013 and 2014 floods.

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Alberta’s river forecasting info in the palm of your hand? There’s an app for that.

At last month’s flood mitigation symposium in Calgary, we announced a new river information tool that made quite the splash. It’s our Alberta Rivers app – download it for Android here,or check out its features:


Get the most current advisory info in real time

The app’s main screen will give you a map of the province, broken into its major river basins. Any advisories in effect will be shown on the map itself, as well as at the bottom of the screen.

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You’ll also be able to see the Forecaster’s Comments, which give some insight into how we’re interpreting the current data. And because the app will be updated several times every hour, you’ll know that you always have the most recent information available.

Get notifications sent directly to your homescreen

Want updates without having the app open 24/7? No problem. The app will automatically send ‘push’ notifications for advisories and forecaster comments directly to your phone’s homescreen.

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View river forecast data from anywhere in the province

If you’re interested in the data behind our advisories, we’ve got you covered. You can use the app to view the major types of data that influence river forecasting: snow, rainfall, and water levels. Specifically, you can:

  • View only one of these types of data at a time, a combination, or all three together;
  • Choose between viewing data for the whole province and zooming in on a particular station;
  • View the most current data for that station – or compare it with graphs showing weekly and yearly measurements; and
  • Add stations to your ‘MyStations’ favourites list, so you can access  as soon as the app is launched, without wading through other data

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Get it free for Android – Apple coming soon

Sound good? The app is available as a free download for Android – get it here. An iOS version for iPhone and iPad is on its way – it will be available in June.

Does snowpack predict flooding? The answer might surprise you.

Sometimes spring comes early, and sometimes it’s late – but one thing is always true: it’s wet. Depending on the amount of spring melt we have to contend with and where you live in the province, you might have to slosh your way through melting snow and ice for weeks.

This is the time at which many Albertans become concerned about the risk of summer flooding in their communities, particularly if the winter has been particularly long and snowy. It’s important to remember that in southern Alberta, mountain snowpack is not a major cause of flooding. It plays a part – as do existing water levels and the condition of the soil – but the biggest factor determining summer flood risk is rainfall – how much we get, how much falls in short periods, and where in the province it falls.

Photo of a distant rainstorm

Rainfall is the biggest contributing factor to summer flooding. Photo credit: Tom Stefanac

But even though it’s not the main cause of flooding, snowpack can impact  how severe the flood can be . As you can probably guess, runoff from melting snow contributes to rising water levels. But snowpack can also prevent the rain water from being absorbed by the ground – which can also contribute to flooding.

Because of these factors, our river forecasters have to take snowpack into account when they make their predictions (check out this blog post to learn more about how that’s done). To do this, they have to look at two different types of snowpack – mountain and plains.

Location, location, location

Mountain snow and plains snow behave in different ways. Snow on the plains melts quickly in the spring and disappears rapidly. As it melts, it may cause temporary ‘ponds’ to form or cause minor flooding of small streams. But this melting doesn’t usually have a big impact on larger rivers – which are the source of most major flooding.

In contrast, mountain snowpack typically melts at a slower pace, and keeps melting well into the summer. This is for one simple reason: it’s generally much colder up there than it is down on the plains. As a result of this slow melting, mountain snowpack’s not usually a primary cause of flooding.

Photo of snowpack monitoring

We measure snowpack by hand wherever we can – which can mean trekking into some pretty remote areas.

Because plains and mountain snowpack are different, it’s important for us to monitor snowpack throughout the province – even in places that are really remote. A lot of data comes to us electronically, from monitoring stations that monitor snow conditions and send their data to us via satellite. But snow surveying by hand often gives us a better estimate, just because it gives us the ability to measure more spots in a given area. All of Alberta’s plains snowpack information – and as much of the mountain snowpack information as possible – is gathered by hand.

Using the data – and keeping up with the results

Once we’ve got the data, it becomes one of many variables river forecasters use to assess potential flood risk. You can see some of the maps and data used by the forecasters here. (There’s different data for river basins,mountain and plains snowpack, and precipitation levels in different parts of the province)

Based on analysis of this data, our river forecasting centre issues:

  • river breakup and spring runoff advisories, throughout the spring
  • high water level alerts and flood watches, throughout the spring and summer

You can keep up with these advisories on our website, and they are also broadcast through Alberta Emergency Alerts – you can subscribe by emailFacebook or Twitter.

Photo of manual snowpack monitoring

The free Alberta Wildfire app is now available for Android

We’re just one week into the 2014 season – which means there’s still lots of time to get informed and prepared. Downloading the Alberta Wildfire app is a great way to stay updated about wildfires in your area.

In fact, it’s so great that it’s our mission to make it accessible for as many people as possible. And that’s why we’re so happy to announce the release of a version for Android users, available in the Play store.

Just like the Apple version, this free app provides on-the-go updates about wildfires burning in Alberta’s forests. Just some of the cool features:

  • A bright and easy-to-navigate map pinpoints wildfire locations, size and status.
  • A built-in GPS locator allows you to see what wildfires are closet to you – no matter where in the province you are.
  • Spot a wildfire? With one quick tap, you can report it right from the app, toll free, 24/7.

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Don’t forget – if you don’t have a Smartphone (or don’t have it with you), you can also check the status of your area on our Wildfire Status map.

Don’t forget to check for fire bans before you head out this summer. And check out @ABGovWildfire  and The Alberta Wildfire Info Facebook page to learn more about wildfires and firefighting.

Breathing easy: how we monitor air quality in Alberta

Take good, clean air away and what else matters? Not much. That’s why it’s so important for us to be able to measure and judge the quality of the air throughout the province – and pass that information on to you.

We’ve talked a lot before about Alberta’s Air Quality Health Index – that’s the AQHI. Many Albertans now know they can use this tool when they need to know how air quality is changing (due to weather, forest fire, industry, and human activity) and how it may impact their health. But in an effort to make things easy to understand, what we don’t talk about much is how the numbers in the index are produced – how we monitor Alberta’s air quality.

Photo of a smoke plume from a wildfire.

Wildfire can have a huge impact on air quality through the summer season.

We’ve heard from a few concerned Albertans recently about a third-party study on air quality that was done in the Industrial Heartland. We understand this concern, and we want to make sure that it’s easy to understand how our monitoring works – both in the heartland, and across the province.

 What makes for good monitoring? 

The goal of air quality monitoring is simple: we want to be able to measure pollutants caused by industrial activity, forest fire, and

Photo of a cityscape.

Human activity – commercial development, transport, and just living – also has a big impact on the air we breathe.

other factors – and take action when they reach levels that might impact human or ecosystem health. But because pollutants will have different concentrations in different areas – in particular, they’ll be most concentrated at their sources – we need to make sure we measure widely, and measure often.

Although we pay particular attention to areas where people live and work, we sample a wide range of sites throughout the entire province – with about 160 air quality stations in all. These include:

  • Five stations operated by our department
  • 56 stations operated by independent, non-profit partner organizations
  • 100 facility-specific stations, funded and operated by industry. Government receives info from these stations monthly and annually – and companies are responsible for alerting government immediately if pollutant concentrations hit certain limits. All Albertans can check out the operating requirements of any facility right here.

The importance of setting limits: finding signal in noise

Our stations monitor more than 30 compounds – many on an hourly basis. Once we have the numbers, we need some way to judge whether the pollutant levels we’ve measured are acceptable – that’s where the limits we’ve set come into play. The presence of small amounts of pollutants in the atmosphere is expected, and pretty much unavoidable. If we didn’t have these limits, our monitoring numbers would be meaningless – we wouldn’t know what our data meant.

Photo of an industrial site

Good industrial development requires good air quality monitoring – and strict limits that tell us what our results mean.

 Crunching the numbers

Let’s take an example that there’s been quite a bit of discussion about lately – benzene. Here’s how we get the info we need:

  • We have established ‘objectives’ (or limits) for both the average benzene concentration we tend to see over an hour, and how those concentrations average out over the course of a whole year. The average hourly concentration limit tends to be higher than the annual limit; it’s produced from a smaller sample size, so numbers that are way out of the ordinary make a bigger difference. You can find a (pretty technical) overview of our ambient air quality objectives here.
  • Our one hour average benzene objective is 30 micrograms per cubic metre. Our annual average benzene concentration is 3 micrograms per cubic metre.
  • Benezene is monitored  in the heartland at the Scotford station (as well as at several sites in Edmonton and Calgary). From 2011 to today, our hourly benzene limit was only exceeded once, and levels were well below our annual average limits for both 2011 and 2012. 

 The numbers behind the AQHI

 The AQHI shows how our monitoring results compare with the limits we’ve set for pollutants with the greatest impact on human health. If actual pollutant levels are well below maximums, the AQHI assigns its lowest-risk rating. Communities in Alberta receive this rating 94 per cent of the time – and when limits are exceeded, or an exceptional event (like the June flood) poses an exceptional risk, we take action – targeting the source of pollutants. When we need to, we can also add more monitoring, so we have more information about what we’re dealing with.

Need more info? Please get in touch

The bottom line: we want you to breathe easy. If you have concerns or questions about the way your air is monitored, you can get in touch with us – in the comments, on Twitter, or by calling us at 310-ESRD (3773) – and we’ll get you the info you need.

Clones, bunkers, and banks: the complex science behind preserving Alberta’s forests

This is the first post in a four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the second post, about the Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, here

 If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We’ve all been asked this little hypothetical gem before. But let me ask you another question: if no one is around to plant a new tree, does one still grow?

The answer isn’t surprising: of course it does. But it might surprise you to know that since the 1970s, Alberta’s forests have been regenerating with a little help from their friends – specifically, the staff of the Alberta Tree Improvement & Seed Centre (ATISC).

To understand the benefits of ATISC’s work, consider the forest lifecycle. Although these majestic green canopies might seem unchanging and eternal, they’re actually changing constantly – from human activity, but also from the effects of competition, fire, insects, and disease.

Photo of a forest and wetland near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Alberta’s forests may look eternal – but really, they’re eternally changing

This process might seem destructive – and sometimes it is. But it can also actually be a positive opportunity for the forest to grow back healthier than before – and the stronger, taller, and more disease-resistant the trees, the greater the long-term benefit to both people and ecosystems.

While natural re-growth provides an opportunity for stronger, healthier trees to grow, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. That’s where ATISC comes in – developing tools and resources to help strengthen new forests while ensuring they remain region and ecosystem appropriate. While some of these tools are pretty conventional, others might surprise you. Did you know, for example…

  • …that there’s a bunker with 16-inch deep concrete walls in the county of Smoky Lake storing over 53,000 kilograms of
    Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

    Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore

    tree, shrub and grass seed native to Alberta?

  • …that if you’ve traveled across Alberta, there’s a good chance you’ve driven by fields of clones and not even realized it?
  • …that ATISC staff must not only harvest the seeds of certain trees by helicopter, but must also install temporary ‘cages’ around the seeds to win a war with wildlife?

Over the next two weeks, we’ll take you inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, to lush forests now growing in areas leveled by logging and forest fires – and many other places. Stay tuned.

Alberta flood hazard studies: what changes after a flood?

When flooding strikes, water levels can change drastically in just hours or even minutes. Given this volatility, you might wonder: does the information we use to map flood hazards change constantly as well?

Flood hazard area diagram

Flood hazard studies give us visual information about floodways and flood fringes

What are flood hazard studies?

Flood hazard studies are long-term planning tools. They synthesize a lot of different information to help us forecast how the landscape around water bodies may be impacted by flooding, and assist surrounding communities with appropriate development.

Hazard studies use water level data that has a 1% chance of occurring annually (that’s why you might have heard a lot recently about “one in 100 year flooding).

Hazard studies are location specific. They focus on a single river, but may also include data on smaller rivers within the area being studied.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting – what’s the relationship?

Our river forecasters use current water level data from monitoring stations to forecast rising and falling river levels. In contrast, flood hazard studies incorporate data about both a river and the surrounding topography.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting work together to help us determine flood risk. Whereas forecasting helps us anticipate potential water levels, flood hazard studies help us anticipate the effect a flood might have on flood hazard areas of the surrounding landscape.

When are they updated? FloodHazardArea-Diagram1-PLAN

Water levels change all the time, and river forecast information is updated continuously. But because topographical information tends to remain pretty constant, flood hazard studies are relevant for long periods of time – there’s typically no need to update them unless the river or the landscape surrounding it changes significantly.

Of course, such change is possible. One major reason for this is new development around water bodies. If a new bridge is built to cross a river, for example, this might have an impact on the area’s flood hazard map. In a case like this, ESRD would be alerted of the changing conditions, and part or all of the hazard study area would be reviewed as necessary.

We’ve been producing flood hazard studies in Alberta since the 1970s – but many of the studies we currently use were produced in the 1990s as part of the Canada-Alberta Flood Damage Reduction Program. To supplement these studies, ESRD continues to produce studies through our Flood Hazard Identification Program. All of our studies are searchable by community, stream, and basin.

What happens now?

After a major flood, the province collects extensive information about the extent of the flood in order to evaluate flood hazard studies that have been impacted. We want our evaluation to reflect the best possible understanding of what has happened – ground and aerial surveys, river flow information, and other data may all be used to enhance this understanding. This process helps us learn from what has happened – so that we can be as ready for the future as possible.

How does the ESRD River Forecast Centre respond to a flood?

In an emergency, nothing is more important than good information. Knowing what’s happening and what to expect helps first responders take the best possible course of action – possibly saving lives. But where does this information come from – and how does it get to the right people?

Aerial photo of Bowness Park in Calgary after the summer 2013 floods

Flood waters can quickly and drastically change the landscape; to respond to these changes, we need good information.

As we’ve discussed previously, Alberta’s River Forecast Centre uses a variety of data – including rainfall, water levels, snowpack, soil moisture, and historical data – to develop short term forecasts that tell municipalities when and where flooding is likely to occur. This information comes from several sources, including Alberta’s Fire Weather Office, the Water Survey of Canada, and of course, the centre itself. The centre issues advisories, watches, and warnings accordingly – and municipalities use that information to prepare for potential flooding.

But what about during a flood – how does the role of the centre change once the waters have already risen? As you might expect, things get pretty intense. Here, our staff explain the process in their own words:

Some highlights from the video:

  • When flood watches and warnings kick in, the information is sent not just to the Alberta Emergency Alert System, but to the affected municipalities – so they can share this information with their emergency personnel and start planning as soon as possible.
  • When significant rainfall is in the forecast, 24/7 operations go into effect at the centre, engaging a number of teams throughout the province. Everyone – from monitoring staff and data analysis teams to IT personnel – works full-tilt to make sure updated information is available as quickly as possible.
  • As conditions change – rivers peak, and rain subsides or continues to fall – the centre continues measuring and updating forecasts. This can get complicated: rising flood waters can wash gauges away from riverbanks, rendering data gathering stations useless. When this happens, ESRD sends monitoring teams out to record water level information in person – ensuring that forecasts are made with the most up-to-date data available.
  • Updated forecasts are provided throughout the flooding event – municipalities are notified when the flooding river peaks and when the waters begin to recede. This helps first responders to time their efforts appropriately.

Although this information is crucial, it doesn’t generate effective flood response on its own – we need first responders and emergency teams to do that. As we saw this summer, municipalities and emergency personnel are on the frontlines of flood response – but when the situation is severe, Alberta’s Environment Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT) jumps in to assist. Check back next week for a first-hand account of ASERT’s response to the southern Alberta floods.