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River Ice Flood Hazard Assessment Project

C-CORE developing innovative Earth observation solutions for disaster management in Canada

With funding support from the Canadian Space Agency’s Earth Observation Application Development Program (EOADP), C-CORE is developing tools to improve decision-making for disaster management and emergency response in areas where rivers freeze and ice jams form.

Project Synopsis

The River Ice Flooding Hazard Assessment (RIFHA) project will create a novel ice flood prediction model that combines satellite-based river ice monitoring, in situ observations and hydrodynamic river ice modelling to generate near real-time information for ice-related flood risk assessment. The RIFHA model will use a dynamic stochastic modelling method in which flood risk factors are continuously updated as new information from satellites, in situ sensors and numerical weather prediction models is acquired.   

Led by C-CORE, the project will be carried out in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) and in close collaboration with several potential user organizations, including Alberta Environment and Parks, the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Climate Change, and the Canadian Armed Forces Joint Task Force Atlantic. Key disaster management and emergency response organizations will also be engaged as the project progresses. These organizations will provide input and feedback on information requirements, help assess the utility of the RIFHA model, and facilitate adoption of the technology throughout the country. The new technology will be demonstrated by simulating disaster management conditions, with flood hazard assessment products fed directly into Canada’s Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS).

The Need

Throughout Canada, rivers freeze over and develop ice covers during the winter season. Ice covers can become ice jams that cause upstream water levels to rise, spill over and flood nearby land.  In order to assess ice-jam flood risk and mitigate its impact, rivers must be monitored throughout the ice season, with particular emphasis on the freeze-up and break-up periods. The formation and decay of river ice covers is a complex process, affected largely by river flow characteristics, temperature and precipitation.

RIGHT: ICE BREAKUP ALONG THE CLEARWATER RIVER (LEFT) AND ATHABASCA RIVER (IMAGE CREDIT: GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA)

The severity and economic impact of ice-jam floods (estimated to be in the hundreds of millions annually) is exacerbated by the danger of post-flooding freeze-up. Key factors in assessing the danger of ice-jam flooding include location, extent and structure of the ice field. However, systematic and accurate monitoring of these factors is difficult to achieve over large areas using conventional, field-based and aerial surveillance methods. In remote and inaccessible areas, frequent surveillance can be cost prohibitive.

The project will generate a capacity for assessing ice conditions and ice-related flood risk reliably and consistently. It will advance the prediction and delineation of ice-related flooding, which will help limit flood damage and protect of human life along rivers prone to major ice runs and jamming events. Although applicable to all northern countries that have seasonal ice covers, the research findings will be particularly applicable to Canada, where many flood events are ice-related.

The annual damage caused by flooding in Canada is estimated at $2,430M, much of which is caused by ice-related events. In 2003 ice-related flooding at Badger on the Exploits River in Newfoundland caused damage in excess of $10M. At that time, no real-time tools were available to assess ice conditions for flood risk.

Background & Foresight

In response to the Badger disaster and with support from the Newfoundland & Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation, C-CORE developed satellite-based river ice monitoring services and has been providing them world-wide since 2004. RIFHA represents the next step in the evolution of river ice monitoring and assessment by combining individually proven technologies into a novel, comprehensive solution for ice-related flood hazard assessment. The capability built through the RIFA project has the potential for significant cost savings through early warning of flood events, improved flood risk analysis and improved mitigation and response.

Further, RIFHA will also assist in climate change adaptation. Static flood risk assessments generally rely on historical data to define flood risk and delineate areas that may be affected. Climate change renders historical observations less reliable as indicators of future conditions. RIFHA will provide critical information to decision-makers and support effective climate change adaptation.