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Water Ecosystems Monitoring using Earth Observation 2.0

Building a better water monitoring system for Canada’s North

Our planet is continually surveilled by an ever-increasing fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Their sensors capture optical and radar imagery and a vast range of other data that can be used to better understand our planet and manage its natural resources. In 2014–2015 C-CORE developed a satellite-based monitoring program for the Northwest Territories’ Slave River and Delta. Water Ecosystems Monitoring using Earth Observation (WEMEO) was designed by C-CORE, in collaboration with the Government of the Northwest Territories  and the communities

ABOVE: Sunset over Great Slave Lake near Fort Resolution (Credit: Kohl Carriere) 

of Fort Smith and Fort Resolution, with support from the Canadian Space Agency, to gather information about the quality and abundance of the water in the Slave River and Delta region.  Now, WEMEO is being improved and expanded to increase information and make it more easily accessible to scientists, communities and decision-makers with questions about water quality and changes to rivers and lakes within the Northwest Territories.

The program monitors key environmental indicators (water levels and flooding, course changes, temperature, ice build-up, sediment deposits and vegetation) using both satellite imagery and community-based sampling, providing valuable information on water ecosystem health. Reasons for monitoring these indicators include the following:

·         Changes in flooding regimes can affect the productivity of the Delta.

·         Changing river courses can impede communities’ access to hunting and fishing grounds.

·         Changes in water temperature can affect the quality of fish.

·         Heavy river ice build-up can threaten traditional winter food such as beaver and muskrat; weak or thin ice poses danger to travellers.

·         Sediments flowing into the rivers and lakes replenish minerals within the water system, enriching vegetation and wildlife, or could alternatively be a source of contamination; identifying origin and measuring concentrations is critical to understanding how they are affecting vegetation and wildlife.

ABOVE:Landsat-8 image, 8 April 2017, showing Slave River at Fort Resolution and some of Great Slave Lake (note the sediment coming from the river into the lake)

Through this three-year project (2017-2020), the program is being expanded to include Great Slave Lake and parts of the Mackenzie River, effectively covering NWT’s three major water systems. Water health indicators such as temperature, chlorophyll concentration and suspended sediment concentration (SSC) can be provided for these water bodies using more than a decade of satellite data archives, as well as future satellite and sampling data collection. The project will provide baseline information for undeveloped regions and allow researchers to correlate trends in environmental indicators with environmental changes noted in communities through sharing of traditional knowledge.  

By integrating data from additional satellites such as the European Space Agency’s Sentinel constellation, C-CORE will increase the volume and frequency of data capture, for the most complete and up-to-date information on which to base decisions about water use, land use and potential licensing across the territory. All data will be made available through web-services such as the Mackenzie Data Stream and C‑CORE’s water quality web portal. The satellite data will also be compatible with the NWT’s Geomatics Centre database and data archives, and thus available to decision-makers and researchers.

The program engages communities along the Slave River and Delta, Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River. The communities of Fort Smith and Fort Resolution were key partners in the 2014-2015 project and several indigenous groups have expressed interest in participating in the 2017-2020 project, including the Lutslek’e and Katl’odeeche First Nations, the Northwest Territory and North Slave Metis Nations, and the Dehcho Aboriginal Aquatic Resource and Ocean Management Program. The communities’ role is to define what information is relevant to them and the best way for them to access and use that information. Community members also take in-situ measurements along the rivers and in the lake, creating new capacity for water sample collection. Through this project, C-CORE is supporting northern communities in their goal of implementing the NWT Water Strategy: A Plan for Action 2016-2020, aimed at keeping the waters of the NWT safe and clean for all time.