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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Monitoring Alberta’s air quality during wildfire smoke events

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

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Aerial photo of the smoke plume during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area. Source: Marty Collins

AQHI Map

37 Alberta communities report on the Air Quality Health Index, also known as AQHI, from Fort Chipewyan in the north to Lethbridge in the south, and from Beaverlodge in the west to Cold Lake in the east. The AQHI tool reports on health risks associated with air quality – low numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk.

A 10 is a number no one likes to see when it comes to air quality – it means the air we breathe contains pollutants that can pose health risks. For much of the summer of 2018, for example, many parts of Alberta experienced smoke-filled air that made it hard to breathe, due to a record-breaking fire season in British Columbia.

As much as we wish for clear skies and clean air year-round, wildfire season officially runs from March through to the end of October in Alberta. The smell of smoke and hazy sights of our city skylines and mountain ranges are telling signs when fires are burning across Western Canada.

Wildfires in Alberta

It is common to see more than 1,000 fires during wildfire season in Alberta, many of which start early in the season, even when snow still covers the ground. As of October 31, 2019, Alberta has recorded 1,003 wildfires in the Forest Protection Area that have burned 883,415 hectares.

“In recent years, we saw bigger, more intense wildfires in the province that led to major impacts on air quality in affected regions and the province at large, for example during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in Fort McMurray,” says Naomi Tam, Air Quality Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). Predictions show that Alberta will continue to see larger wildfires.

Air monitoring of top importance

Working together with Alberta’s Airsheds, air monitoring staff at AEP measure Alberta’s air and report air conditions to the public year-round. “During wildfire season, staff are on stand-by mode to quickly respond to emergency wildfire smoke events. We have several mobile analyzers ready to be moved across the province to measure smoke conditions,” says Marty Collins, Air Monitoring Manager with AEP.

Data from mobile analyzers and over 70 air monitoring stations permanently located across Alberta are used to inform the public, wildland firefighters, and the Ministry of Health about health risks stemming from wildfire smoke.

Improving wildfire smoke monitoring

“Air scientists at AEP are working to improve wildfire smoke monitoring, air quality forecasting and reporting to the public,” says Casandra Brown, Air Quality Specialist with AEP.

For example, in partnership with the University of Alberta, AEP is developing solar-powered micro-stations that could support early detection of forest fire smoke and fill gaps in Alberta’s existing air monitoring network.

In May 2019, AEP in collaboration with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources Canada, deployed these portable, low-cost micro-sensors for the first time to monitor controlled burns at a remote forest location.

 

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Dr. Quamrul Huda with Alberta Environment and Parks holds a prototype of the new micro-station

 

How Albertans stay informed on air quality

When you are on the Air Quality Health Index website or the AQHI Canada app, you see air quality readings for 37 Alberta communities that report on the AQHI.

The AQHI is reported on a 10-point coloured scale, where lower AQHI numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk. All data is updated hourly.

An AQHI of 7 or higher will prompt air quality advisories, for example, when wildfire smoke causes poor air quality.

 

AQHI Scale

The Air Quality Health Index informs Albertans about the health risk associated with local air quality.

Learn more

More information on wildfires in Alberta can be found at wildfire.alberta.ca.

More details on air quality events related to wildfire smoke can found at environmentalmonitoring.alberta.ca

Explore more recent publications on air quality during the Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area:

Are you a policy practitioner interested in learnings from recent air monitoring studies? See the Briefing for Policy Practitioners

Women in Science – Part of the Sis-STEM

Bright and passionate individuals in science fields are working to answer society’s most difficult questions and find solutions to our biggest challenges. The innovation, creativity and competitive advantage that comes with having a diverse workforce is more important than ever, yet women remain underrepresented in science.

In honour of International Day for Women and Girls in Science on February 11, our Chief Scientist, Dr. Fred Wrona invited women from across the department to talk about their work and share their experiences as scientists. Meet scientists Faye Wyatt and Karen Anderson. 

Karen Anderson, Parks Ecologist

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Karen Anderson, Parks Ecologist, Alberta Environment and Parks

Karen Anderson grew up in Sherwood Park, Alberta and completed her BSc in Environmental and Conservation Sciences with a double major in Conservation Biology and Land Reclamation at the University of Alberta. She is also currently an Agrologist-in-Training (AIT) and Biologist-in-Training (BIT).

Karen has been with Alberta Parks for 9 years and currently works as a Park Ecologist in the Kananaskis region, specifically the Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park.

Could you give our readers some insight into your role as a Park Ecologist?

My job as a Park Ecologist consists of a mix of office work and fieldwork throughout the Kananaskis region. My wonderful office is located in the grasslands of Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park where I predominately focus on environmental reviews for the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan as well any vegetation-related, monitoring or species-at-risk projects that are occurring in the region.

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Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park

How does your work as a Park Ecologist affect the lives of Albertans?

As part of the Alberta Parks team of ecologists, we try to facilitate meaningful and effective integration of scientific research into the Alberta Parks system, which benefits the ecological, social and economic health of the parks for Albertans. We promote science-based decision making to assist with balancing the Alberta Parks dual mandate of conservation and recreation.

Can you share a success story you have had while with Alberta Parks?

A success story out of Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park was when Alberta Parks worked with AltaLink to install an Osprey nesting platform in March 2018. The previous Osprey nest was removed within a private right-of-way in fall 2017 due to its proximity to a railroad. It was imperative that we provided alternative nesting habitat because Osprey had been returning to that nesting location for at least 15 years.

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Osprey nesting platform in Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park

Through a series of connections and very fortunate events, AltaLink generously provided the nesting platform structure and pole, the equipment, the installation vehicles and the staff time for the project. The day that we installed the structure was one of the coldest days in 2018, but the amazing staff from AltaLink, along with Alberta Parks staff, tirelessly put up the nesting platform. Fortunately, the osprey pair returned and successfully raised two chicks in summer 2018!

Dr. Faye Wyatt, Geospatial Scientist

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Dr. Faye Wyatt, Geospatial Scientist, Alberta Environment and Parks

 

Can you speak to your experience as a female scientist in the department?

I have had a really positive experience in the department, and I really appreciate that there are very strong female scientists in leadership positions to look to as role models. Being female has not affected my work, which I think speaks to how inclusive the department is. Our work as scientists and public servants is far more important than our gender, and I feel that opinion is shared by everyone I work with.

Tell us about your work as a geospatial scientist.

FayeWyatt2As a geospatial scientist, I am looking at ways to use geospatial science to support Alberta’s Environmental Science Program and the joint Canada-Alberta Oil Sands Monitoring Program. For example, this year I analyzed remotely sensed data of about 300 lakes across Alberta to understand how these lakes are changing over time. This project uses geographic information systems (GIS) to understand relationships between landscape drivers and lake characteristics, such as lake level, area, shape, climate regime, land use changes and location.

Have you experienced any “ah-ha” moments in your science career?

One big “ah-ha” moment was realizing that in order to understand a system, you have to experience it first-hand. Geospatial science often uses computer programs, models and satellite imagery to understand ecological processes and trends. By visiting a place in person, these processes start coming to life and help inform your analysis.

Another “ah-ha” moment was understanding the need to collaborate with others. There are many skilled scientists in the department, and when you start talking to experts in different fields you cross-fertilize ideas, leading to more integrative and better research. Finding ways to work together often advances the science much further than we would be able to on our own.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the field of geospatial science?

FayeWyatt3To be successful in geospatial science, you have to be interested in the world around you. It is also important to think across disciplines since geospatial science is interdisciplinary by nature. One piece of advice for anyone wanting to become a geospatial scientist, and a scientist in general, is to learn a skill that you can apply to your discipline. For me, that meant learning remote sensing and geographic information systems

Science guides policies and actions in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes

When Albertans think about the Rocky Mountains, we inherently think of the wild, rugged mountain landscape that always leaves us wanting more. Hiking those rigid mountain peaks, jumping into those cold glacial lakes, and waking up to fresh mountain air are some of the greatest pleasures Alberta’s Rocky Mountains offer visitors and residents alike.

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Alberta Parks: Castle Area

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Women in Science – Part of the Sis-STEM – Dr. Cynthia McClain

In honour of International Day for Women and Girls in Science on February 11, our Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona invited women from across the department to talk about their work and share their experiences as scientists. This is the third and final interview celebrating the fabulous females in this field – for now!

Dr. Cynthia McClain is a hydrogeologist with the Alberta Environment and Parks.

Cynthia3 Continue reading

Women in Science – Part of the Sis-STEM – Shoma Tanzeeba

In honour of International Day for Women and Girls in Science on February 11, our Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona invited women from across the department to talk about their work and share their experiences as scientists. This is the second of three interviews celebrating the fabulous females in this field.

Shoma Tanzeeba is a hydrologist working in Alberta’s South Saskatchewan Region.Shoma5
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Women in Science – Part of the Sis-STEM – Tanya Rushcall

Bright and passionate individuals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are working to answer society’s most difficult questions and find solutions to our biggest challenges. The innovation, creativity and competitive advantage that comes with having a diverse workforce is more important than ever, yet women remain underrepresented in STEM.

In honour of International Day for Women and Girls in Science on February 11, our Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona invited women from across the department to talk about their work and share their experiences as scientists. This is the first of three interviews celebrating the fabulous females in this field.

Meet Tanya Rushcall! An aquatic invasive species biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks.Tanya1 Continue reading

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?

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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.
http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/transportation/cars-light-trucks/fuel-efficient-driving-techniques/7507

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Finding your flow with the new and improved Alberta Rivers App

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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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