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UNBC celebrates one year anniversary of NSERC/Rio Tinto Industrial Research Chair

Dr. Stephen Dery

Throughout the Nechako Watershed, researchers are tracking river temperatures, measuring precipitation, calibrating equipment and applying computer models to examine the impact of warmer conditions and changing precipitation patterns over the long term.

It’s all part of a multi-year project led by University of Northern British Columbia Environmental Science Professor Dr. Stephen Déry in his role as Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Rio Tinto Industrial Research Chair on Climate Change and Water Security.

The Industrial Research Chair partnership began July 1, 2019, and was officially launched at a public event on Nov. 4, 2019 at UNBC’s Prince George campus. The $1.5 million research project aims to better understand how climate change and human activity are impacting water security in the watershed, which stretches from the Coast mountains to the Nechako River’s mouth in Prince George where it flows into the Fraser River.

“The Nechako Watershed covers a vast area of north-central British Columbia where amplified climate change and human interventions are leading to concerns about its future water security,” Déry says. “To that end, this project was initiated in consultation with various stakeholders across the watershed to tackle these complex issues with the prospect of improved water management and decision-making.”

Rio Tinto manages the upper Nechako Watershed through reservoir operations and a diversion of water to the coastal Kemano watershed to produce clean hydropower in support of an aluminum smelter in the coastal community of Kitimat. With the recent modernization of Rio Tinto’s operations in Kitimat and the growing demands for renewable sources of energy such as hydropower, there is an urgent need to better understand the cumulative role of climate change and human activity on the water supply and security of watersheds such as the Nechako.

“While aluminum smelters in the rest of the world may be using more energy, or using fossil fuels to power their operations, BC Works has just reduced its overall environmental impact by 50 per cent and the Kitimat smelter is one of the lowest carbon footprint smelters in the world,” says Affonso Bizon, Rio Tinto BC Works general manager. “We are very pleased with the program and look forward to learning more about the research Dr. Déry and his team have been doing in the first year of the NSERC/Rio Tinto – Industrial Research Chair on Climate Change and Water Security.”

One year in, Déry and his team of researchers are well underway with their research and have a busy summer field season ahead of them.

Last summer and fall they completed a pilot project to monitor water temperatures at eight sites across the Nechako Watershed. This summer, more data loggers will be added including along the Stuart River system, one of the Nechako River’s primary tributaries. The data will allow researchers to compare the regulated Nechako with the unregulated Stuart.

The team has also mapped out locations for 10 rainfall gauges and additional water temperature loggers and calibrated all of the equipment to be deployed during this summer’s field season. The gauges, also known as tipping buckets, will measure the difference in precipitation from the wet Coast Mountains at the headwaters of the Nechako River to the drier Interior Plateau. The loggers will provide important data on how the river temperatures change over time and what impact that could have on aquatic species including chinook and sockeye salmon as well as the Nechako white sturgeon.

Also this summer, the team will install a comprehensive weather station at Mount Sweeney, located more than 130 kilometres southwest of Houston, to monitor storms in the upper Nechako Watershed. The station is equipped with sensors to measure and record temperature, relative humidity, snow depth, wind speed/direction, incoming solar radiation and barometric pressure.

Results collected from all of these sites, along with computer models currently in development will be shared with communities across northern B.C. To learn more about the project and access quarterly newsletters detailing the IRC’s progress, visit the Northern Hydrometeorology Group’s website.

“Our climate and environment are in a rapid state of transition and the IRC program of research is at the forefront of understanding these complex and pervasive issues along with their impacts on ecosystems and communities across the Nechako Watershed,” Déry says.

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