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Homa Kheyrollah Pour, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and Canada Research Chair in Remote Sensing of Environmental Change, is referred to as the ‘ice lady’ in Délįnę for her dedication to bringing technology solutions to bear on making ice roads safer.Supplied

Leveraging technology solutions through Laurier-Indigenous partnerships

Winter brings a means of transportation the people living near Great Bear Lake have relied on for decades. As temperatures drop and the ice grows thick, Délįnę and other Sahtu communities in the Northwest Territories prepare to build winter roads – essential lifelines that enable a massive supply run.

A fly-in community for the rest of the year, Délįnę is accessible by “winter roads that are typically open from mid-January until mid-March,” says Chief Danny Gaudet, leader of the Délįnę Got’įnę Government. “We rely on winter roads, which are partly ice roads, for the materials we need in the community.”

Trucks bound for Délįnę bring heavy loads – including about 100 tanks of the diesel that powers tools and heats homes – and this means ice roads have to bear weights of 50,000 to 60,000 kilograms, although conditions may allow lighter vehicles to travel earlier or later in the season.

“We have a variety of vehicles on that road, from big commercial tractor trailers to personal vehicles loaded with household supplies,” Chief Gaudet says. “We have five communities in the region depending on this road that is open a very short period of time.”

The process of building ice roads relies on traditional knowledge of the land, yet “conditions have become increasingly unreliable due to climate change,” he explains. “The ice is taking longer to freeze; it is also thinner. When I grew up, the ice used to be almost eight feet thick. Now, we’re lucky to get between five and six feet.”

In addition to a shorter ice season, obstructions and cracks are becoming more common – and harder to predict – due to changing weather patterns. The answer, Chief Gaudet believes, lies in “combining the knowledge of the elders with modern technology.”

For bringing expertise in technology solutions to bear on the ice-road challenge, Homa Kheyrollah Pour, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and Canada Research Chair in Remote Sensing of Environmental Change, is referred to as the “ice lady” in the community.

Having witnessed the labour-intensive process of manually drilling into the ice every two metres along three different lines to ensure sufficient weight-bearing capacity, Dr. Kheyrollah Pour and her team came up with an alternative using a combination of techniques. They attached ground-penetrating radar to their Ski-Doos to measure the thickness of the ice, as well as monitored cracks and pressure ridges with drone and satellite imagery. As a result, a process that previously took three days for a six-kilometre stretch can now be completed in half a day.

The team also uses smart sensors to monitor the ice throughout the season in real time, “which is important because changes in weather exacerbate the variability of ice conditions,” she says. “We’ve seen temperature fluctuations as extreme as going from minus 45 to minus five within days, and this can create pressure ridges and cracks.”

Since the acronym for the system – measuring ice, snow and water temperatures in 15-minute intervals – is SIMBA (Snow and Ice Mass Balance Apparatus), the team has named each after a character from The Lion King, and Dr. Kheyrollah Pour is happy to report that Simba, Mufasa, Zazu and others are lending assistance in the North.

“This smart monitoring system allows us to help protect the well-being of community members and support the essential infrastructure they rely on,” she says, adding that challenges related to a particular route can trigger alerts to drivers. “Beyond providing a snapshot of conditions in real time, we use the data for a comprehensive ecosystem analysis.”

A web interface allows the researchers to access the data and create predictive models by applying machine-learning techniques. With temperatures changing the fastest in the North, “everything is viewed through the lens of climate change,” says Jonathan Newman, vice-president: research, at Laurier. “That’s the number one concern. Communities want to know how the land is changing and how they can adapt.”

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Chief Danny Gaudet, leader of the Délįnę Got'įnę Government (pictured here with Homa Kheyrollah Pour), believes that outcomes are stronger when research happens in collaboration with communities.Supplied

Northern research ranks prominently among Laurier’s signature areas, with teams investigating such important issues as climate change adaptation, Indigenous environmental leadership and northern food security. Many research topics align with the priorities of local communities, says Dr. Newman. “A long-standing partnership with the Government of Northwest Territories has created a high level of trust, and the government asked us to work directly with communities with the agreement that we incorporate traditional knowledge into our research and teaching.”

In the North, and especially in working with Indigenous partners, “research has to be community based,” he emphasizes. “For those who engage with the community, this not only makes their research stronger but also more rewarding. You’re not only taking measurements, hoping that someone will someday do something with them. Your work has a direct effect on people.”

Dr. Kheyrollah Pour has found that community members welcome an active engagement. “They want to know more about the ecosystem, and we train them to install the sensors,” she says. “When they have access to this data, that can be a powerful tool for decision-making and planning for the future.”

Chief Gaudet agrees that it is essential that voices from the community are heard. “We’re interested in working with researchers to figure out what’s next in our journey, but we need to be in the driver’s seat,” he says. “And there needs to be an understanding that the knowledge we share belongs to our people.”

This, to Dr. Newman, is an important element of community-driven research. “We have an obligation to report back results,” he says, “and use best practices for shared data governance and data sovereignty for Indigenous communities.”

Beyond ice-road safety and climate resilience, there is one more outcome Dr. Kheyrollah Pour hopes to see, and that is to inspire the next generation. “Engaging local youths in traditional knowledge is a concern for elders,” she says. “But they are drawn to technology, and we hope that seeing the two combined can encourage them to take an active role in the future of their communities.”

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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