RPF 16/17: High resolution mapping of mass balance changes of the Columbia Icefield, Canada

Project: Research project (funded)Internal pump-priming

Project Details


Amount awarded £10,954

Layman's description

We will investigate a unique approach for monitoring the health of glaciers in Canada. Glacier change here is significant with consequences for river levels and irrigation. However, measurements of changes are sparse and problematic, severely hampering understanding of processes and projections of future change. Our project will develop and implement a monitoring system, capitalising on existing tourist flights. This new system will allow repeated high-resolution monitoring of change on the Columbia Icefield. In the future, this innovative approach could be developed to monitor glaciers more widely. This project will also develop a new, collaborative relationship with University of Alberta academics.

Key findings

The original objectives were:

1) To gather helicopter-borne imagery and sUAV imagery and then to utilise Structure from Motion techniques to create high-resolution digital elevation models of the Columbia Icefield. Doing this multiple times will allow fine-resolution measurements of change to be made.
2) To determine the feasibility of this opportunistic image-gathering approach as a tool for regular, ongoing, low-cost monitoring of glacier change, as a collaborative partnership with tourist flight operators.
3) To develop and build a new collaborative relationship with academics at the University of Alberta with a view to continuing with the opportunistic approach to data-gathering for long-term glacier monitoring.

In relation to Objective 1 - it became apparent early on that the approach proposed would not achieve the desired outcome (i.e. effective mapping of the Columbia Icefield). While tourist flight companies were keen to cooperate, they could not guarantee that the same areas of the Icefield would be regularly flown, or that they would be able to cover the whole Icefield at all. They also could not they commit to flying at a consistent elevation and speed (and thus the quality of the imagery gathered would be inconsistent). Finally, they also required that a specialist camera-rig was built which was aerodynamically-tested. This would have been very expensive. As a consequence, I was put in touch with a company called Z-Air (http://www.z-air.ca/) - a small company which could provide the imagery I required via a number of dedicated surveys across the Icefield. This avenue was pursued. Two survey flights were carried out (in May and July - early and mid-season) and a third was cancelled due to extensive wildfire smoke and the arrival of fresh snow at the end of the season. I thus have a very extensive dataset from two time-periods, and a third flight will take place in summer 2018). The accuracy and quality of the imagery/data that these surveys have provided far outweighs that which would have been achievable using opportunistic surveys.

In relation to Objective 2, as described above, it was determined that opportunistic image-gathering was not feasible. It requires extensive financial investment (in camera-rigs) which was beyond the capabilities of this work. The Icefield is also far too big to reliably survey opportunistically in any systematic manner, and the data quality would be too inconsistent and unreliable from survey-to-survey. Regular, repeat monitoring of the whole Icefield requires dedicated flights. Z-Air are willing and keen to provide these, but there is a cost with this.

In relationship to Objective 3, this was easily met. A good, strong and forward-looking relationship was built with Professor Martin Sharp (and colleagues) at the University of Alberta. In addition to the submission of a paper from this work already, I am also involved in other work being led by Professor Sharp, and I myself am writing a NERC standard grant proposal (with Professor Sharp as a partner) based on new insights gained in Canada. I also have a further research proposal I wish to develop in due course. I envisage this link to be ongoing, and hope that future collaboration continues for many years to come.
Effective start/end date1/08/1623/08/16