Skip to main content

Through the Interior University Research Coalition, researchers from University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, Thompson Rivers University and the University of Northern British Columbia are delving into the impact of fires and other disturbances on the Fraser and Upper Columbia River basins watersheds.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Natural disasters such as fires, floods, landslides, drought and insect infestation are nothing new to British Columbia’s forests and watersheds. But as climate change and land development emerge as influential factors in their occurrence, it is important to better understand how to plan for, respond to and recover from them, according to researchers at three B.C. universities.

The three institutions – University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) – have teamed up to tackle the problem through the Interior University Research Coalition (IURC) and the establishment of the Disaster Prevention, Response, Recovery and Resilience (PR3) fund.

Earlier this month the fund awarded a total of $120,000 to three research teams, made up of faculty and students at the three universities, to examine natural disturbances and their impacts on various watershed processes in forests, hillside slopes and Crown land.

The goal of the coalition is to amplify research that addresses the new realities faced by communities in B.C.’s Interior, particularly First Nations who live off the land and water.

“The goal is to establish inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary research teams to address an important and complex research area,” says Janice Larson, director of the Tri-University Partnership Office, which oversees the IURC.

UNBC professor Stephen Déry has teamed up with UNBC and TRU researchers to examine changes in climate and hydrology across key watersheds in the Fraser and Upper Columbia River basins, which have been affected by wildfires over the past two years.

Along with assessing the impact of fires and other disturbances on watersheds, the researchers aim to better understand how these disasters have affected Indigenous people’s health, with the goal to develop innovative measures to help mitigate future disasters.

UBC Okanagan professor Adam Wei is working with Prof. Déry and TRU’s Tom Pypker to examine the long-term effect of forest disturbances – wildfire, mountain pine beetle, timber harvesting and climate change impacts – on the hydrological systems of forests.

Prof. Wei says forests are critical elements in the aquatic ecosystems. Large-scale disturbances of forests can increase stream flow and soil erosion and consequently cause floods, landslides and other hazards that affect communities.

“As far as we know, there are currently no identified thresholds for large forest landscapes or watersheds in B.C. or elsewhere,” he adds. “In addition, there are no studies on forest disturbance thresholds for peak or low flows.”

A third project will examine how wildfires and climate change have increased the risk of landslides in B.C. Dwayne Tannant, a UBC Okanagan civil engineering professor, notes that assessing landslides is problematic due to the unstable nature of slope regions.

This project will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to perform 3D mapping of landslide areas in co-operation with forest products company Tolko.

“Landslides, by their nature, are dangerous places to work, and many areas are inaccessible,” says Prof. Tannant. “We believe that UAVs will prove to be excellent tools for assessing burn intensity, soil types and slope gradients, and allow us to create accurate hazard maps for debris and mudflows.”

All three research teams expect to see results over the next two years.

“This is just the beginning of what our three interior universities are capable of when they work together to tackle pressing challenges facing the region,” says Ms. Larson.

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.