April 11, 2022

International water experts work to improve modelling for flood forecasting

Alain Pietroniro joins unprecedented effort by hydrologists collaborating to meet growing need for cross-border management of a scarce resource

Memories of Alberta’s 2013 floods remain vivid for many who lived through the devastation, especially when they see similar disasters like what happened last year in B.C.

As the spring melt begins, many wonder what lies ahead. But what if flooding could be better predicted?

An unprecedented international collaboration involving the University of Calgary aims to revolutionize flood predictions in North America.

Dr. Alain Pietroniro, PhD, a professor with the Schulich School of Engineering, is among a team of hydrologists who will spend the next five years developing new modeling for water management and flood forecasting.

The new Co-operative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology (CIROH) will be headquartered within the Alabama Water Institute at the University of Alabama, with academic institutions, non-profit organizations, government and industry partners from Canada and the U.S. taking part.

The Canadian contingent

Pietroniro isn’t the only Canadian on the team. He will joined by Dr. John Pomeroy, PhD, and Dr. Martyn Clark, PhD, of the University of Saskatchewan, where Pietroniro previously served as an adjunct professor and was executive director of the National Hydrological Service of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“I have a long history of developing research programs with USask and many other universities across Canada,” Pietroniro says. “Our core modelling efforts in Global Water Futures have led to many innovations in hydrology prediction, which garnered attention south of the border.”

While the Canadian researchers will contribute expertise in cold-region hydrology, they will be working on both sides of the border.

A collaborative approach

Pietroniro says flood prediction in Canada is a provincial responsibility, and many of the systems are custom-made models designed and developed at the local level.

“The federal government recently started an initiative for a pan-Canadian flood guidance system that they have been developing since 2018,” he says.

One of the challenges, however, is that many waterways cross national and international borders, so consistency and communication are sometimes lacking.

We hope the research we are developing here will assist in moving our capacities further both in Canada and globally.

While the team is headquartered in Alabama, the goal is to have researchers visit USask’s Coldwater Laboratory in Canmore every two years.

Downstream impacts

Flooding will be just one focus for the researchers, as they see this as an opportunity to improve advance warnings for droughts and harmful water-quality conditions.

The modeling is also expected to give administrative bodies the ability to optimize water supply and irrigation, hydro power operations, reservoir-management and recreation.

Dr. Jocelyn Hayley, PhD, head of Schulich’s Department of Civil Engineering, says it’s a worthwhile project that will have a far-reaching impact.

“Our department is excited to enhance our collaborations with the University of Saskatchewan on this important international project,” she says. “We are thrilled to have our water faculty help lead Canada’s contributions to this important prediction work and contribute to the future of sustainable management of water supplies.”

The CIROH initiative is funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a grant of up to US$360 million over five years, with the potential for renewal for another five years, based on successful performance.