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Athabasca University

Understanding water availability for wetlands and streams in the lower Athabasca River Basin

ARB Pond

The 21st century is an era of unprecedented environmental change. Understanding the impact of these changes is important to enable us to prepare for and mitigate against them. Achieving this objective is the primary goal of this research project.

This field-based research program is being led by ARBRI’s Canada Research Chair in Hydrological SustainabilityDr. Scott Ketcheson. His research team is focusing on a key aspect of our environment and of the Athabasca River Basin (ARB); water. Specifically, Dr. Ketcheson and his team are conducting measurements in the field to examine how water moves within and between forests, wetlands and streams in northern Alberta.

Most ecosystems, streams and rivers are particularly affected by water movements upstream of them. By understanding water movement in these upstream regions, known as “headwater catchments”, we can better anticipate how much water is available for downstream ecosystems, and streams throughout the lower ARB. We can also evaluate the sensitivity of ecosystems and streams to natural and human disturbances, such as wildfires, flooding and resource extraction. 

To conduct this research, which is supported by funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Dr. Ketcheson has established a headwater research observatory in the lower ARB. This research observatory, named the “Stony Mountain Headwater Catchment Observatory” (SMHCO) due to its geographical location on Stony Mountain ~40 km south of Fort McMurray, is the first of its kind in this region. Study sites include five wetland-dominated headwater catchments, as well as locations where larger regional river flows are measured. Instrumentation includes the innovative and emerging ‘low power wide area’ sensor network technology that permits simultaneous measurement of hydrological variables at many locations throughout the SMHCO catchments in near real-time. The SMHCO ‘intelligent catchments’ provide an immense opportunity for advancing our understanding of water availability within the lower Athabasca River Basin.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson