Local Stakeholders Help Shape Alpine Wetland Research

by Ann Sullivan

Mountain headwaters receive and produce a disproportionate amount of global precipitation and runoff. But hydrological systems in alpine areas—how water is stored and released and its effects downstream—are still poorly understood. Dr. Rich Petrone and fellow researchers hope to change that. Petrone, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, is working on a study of alpine wetlands that draws on the knowledge of local stakeholders as well as stewardship groups like the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP).

“A lot of our research questions are developed in consultation with end users,” Petrone said, and this adds an applied aspect to the research. For example, in the Ghost and Elbow River watersheds, stewardship groups have noted that off-road trails can disturb wetland areas as much as or more than industries such as logging. “It seemed like a common theme around there,” Petrone said, “because tourism and recreation are so huge, almost as big as harvesting [logging].” To keep local priorities in mind, representatives from government and the private sector will be at the table from the beginning to the end of the project, he added.

Petrone brings more than 15 years’ experience in the boreal wetlands of Northern Alberta to his recent work on alpine wetlands. “I just kind of migrated toward the mountains,” he said, through his work with John Pomeroy, the Canmore-based professor of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change.

Pomeroy works with Global Water Futures (GWF), a group whose goal is “to deliver risk management solutions … to manage water futures in Canada and other cold regions where global warming is changing landscapes, ecosystems, and the water environment.” (https://gwf.usask.ca)

Climate change plays a large part in Petrone’s research because, as glaciers recede and permafrost melts, wetlands and other alpine catchment areas increase. Researchers want to find out how climate change will affect water use and yield from these catchment areas. “What’s happening up high is really important both when there’s a lot of water and when there’s not a lot of water,” he said.

Petrone added that alpine areas prove more challenging for researchers due to factors like altitude, gradient, wind flows and terrain. “In the mountains, things are a little more complicated,” he said. “Everything is really driven by the topography.”

So far he and Pomeroy have chosen three main sites for their hydrological research – a high alpine site near Fortress Mountain, a foothills site in the Sibbald Creek area and a subalpine site in the Burstall Lakes area. They’ve already instrumented and begun collecting data from the first two sites and are working on permitting for the third.

Their equipment includes shallow wells, about 1 inch in diameter and 1 metre deep, to measure variability in the water table and its response to changes in precipitation. They’ll also measure precipitation, weather and relative humidity as well as complete vegetation surveys. None of the scientific equipment they install is permanent, he added. “Even 30-foot weather towers come down.”

This spring they’ll start to look for other research sites in the Ghost, Jumping Pound and Elbow River watersheds using a combination of satellite data and local knowledge.

Ideally, the selected sites will cover a wide area—wide but still close enough to allow researchers to travel between sites—and include both natural and disturbed wetlands.

Petrone hopes to return to Alberta this month for field work. Work will ramp up by mid-May, and all sites should be selected and set up by the end of 2018. ERWP members are invited to send links to local wetland areas for the team to consider. If you have a suggestion, please email: rich.petrone@uwaterloo.ca.

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MSc students Jessica Williamson and Dylan Hrach work at the foothills wetland station at Sibbald Creek, in collaboration with Dr. Cherie Westbrook of the University of Saskatchewan. 


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MSc student and research technician Lindsey Langs stands near a forest tower at the group’s Fortress Mountain site. 


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This alpine wetland station is located at Bonsai Lake, Fortress Mountain.


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University of Saskatchewan research technician Greg Galloway works at the Sibbald Creek site.


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Former research technician George Sutherland does maintenance at the main forest site at Fortress Mountain.

Photos and caption information provided by Rich Petrone.


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