UBC Okanagan researcher joins team to protect B.C. forested watersheds

Interior university coalition funds disaster prevention research initiatives

B.C.’s forests and watersheds have taken a beating over the past few years.

Wildfires, floods, landslides and pests such as the Mountain Pine Beetle have all had significant environmental and socio-economic impacts on communities across the province.

A new initiative from the Interior University Research Coalition (IURC)—the Disaster Prevention, Response, Recovery and Resilience (Disaster PR3) fund—is helping researchers explore the impacts of these forest disturbances. The goal of the coalition is to amplify research that addresses the new realities faced by communities in B.C.’s Interior, where researchers are on the front lines of disaster events.

Faculty and students at UBC’s Okanagan campus, Thompson Rivers University and the University of Northern British Columbia—which together make up the IURC—are collaborating on three research projects that will examine natural disturbances and their impacts on various watershed processes in forests, hillside slopes and crown land.

“We want to establish inter-institutional and interdisciplinary research teams to address an important and complex research area,” said Janice Larson, director of the Tri-University Partnership Office, which oversees the IURC.

“Climate change and increased land development have emerged as influential factors in the occurrence of wildfires, floods and other natural disasters. The Disaster PR3 grant will fund research that will allow us to better plan for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters.”

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UNBC Professor Stephen Déry has teamed up with UBCO 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.

“Changes in the land, air and water all affect the inhabitants of BC’s Interior,” sais Déry. “It is essential to gauge how floods and drought impact the lives of British Columbians, particularly Aboriginals who live off the land and water.”

UBC Okanagan Professor Adam Wei is working with 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.

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

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

“The results from this proposed research will greatly advance watershed science and provide timely results that will help the province manage forest disturbances and reduce or minimize severe hydrological hazards.”

A final project will examine how wildfires and climate change have increased the risk of landslides in BC. Dwayne Tannant, a UBC Okanagan civil engineering professor, notes that assessing landslides is problematic due to the unstable nature of slope regions. Working with TRU’s Crystal Huscroft and John Church, and UNBC’s Joseph Shea, this project will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to perform 3D mapping of landslide areas in cooperation with Tolko.

Images acquired from the UAV will be used to visualize geomorphic features and measure the landslide geometry and movement. Tannant notes that previous attempts to measure landslides have been unsuccessful, with instruments being destroyed by moving earth.

“Landslides, by their nature, are dangerous places to work and many areas are inaccessible,” said 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.”

The funding was awarded earlier this month, and 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,” said Larson.

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