High-tech tools allow environmentalists to remotely monitor the development of coal exploration projects
The helicopter’s blades begin their whup-whup-whup as the pilot checks his flight path over coal exploration projects in the Alberta foothills.
The zigzag path on its tablet indicates roads, boreholes and lease limits. He knows exactly where to go, thanks to the technology that has given the environmental movement powerful new tools for understanding what is going on in the landscape.
“Without these tools, it’s impossible,” says Tara Russell of the Parks and Nature Society of Canada. “It’s pretty revolutionary.
Russell talks about what happens when information is combined with location.
Called geomatics, it is the product of increasingly common and affordable satellite imagery, the proliferation of devices such as precise global positioning systems, Google Earth, the availability of ever more powerful computers and the pressure on governments to make data public.
“It’s the democratization of information,” says Nicholas Coops, professor of remote sensing in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia.
This democratization provided for a flight taking Wilderness Society videographers and three journalists on a flight over two coal exploration concessions in the foothills between Calgary and Rocky Mountain House.
The route was traced using publicly available permit applications from the Alberta Energy Regulator.
It covers two of at least six coal exploration concessions in the foothills over tens of thousands of hectares. These leases last for two years, with up to three years after that to clean up the mess.
One of the mines on the bridge was licensed just before the United Conservative Government of Alberta revoked a 1976 policy that protected landscapes like this from surface coal mines.
The region, listed by the province as environmentally sensitive, is home to endangered bull trout and grizzly bears and still contains examples of foothills forests – a shrinking ecosystem that the Nature Society says is under-represented. in the Alberta Protected Areas System.
“(We) had mapped out all of their exploration proposals,” Russell said. “We were just trying to get a feel for the extent of exploration that had actually taken place at this mine site.”
Entire hillsides cleared of trees
A lot, it seems.
Although further work was suspended during the government’s coal consultations, entire hills that would cover many city blocks have been cleared of trees.
Miles of cool roads wind between them along valleys and up steep slopes as the Clearwater River flows nearby.
Next to it, stretching as far as the eye can see, are checkerboards of clearcuts and pockmarks of well sites.
It lasts for hours. After a while, the videographers stop leaning out the helicopter door for the shots. They have plenty.
“It’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on in these areas,” says Russell. “They are remote and difficult to access and overlap very strongly with forestry.”
It used to be much more difficult, says Peter Lee, a retired researcher for Global Forest Watch, one of the first environmental groups in Alberta to use geomatics.
“What the companies were doing was hidden,” he says. “It was only when you were able to get true medium to high resolution images from space that you could understand the pace and magnitude of what was happening to our landscapes.”
These first images became available in the early 2000s at a price of around $ 500 per image.
“It would have cost four or five million dollars to get satellite images for the whole country,” says Lee.
But then NASA, Google and the World Resources Institute teamed up to make all Landsat imagery available for free on the web, says Lee.
“It changed everything.”
Other changes were happening, adds Coops.
The US military has changed the way it publishes GPS information to make it more accurate for civilians. More and more countries – and private companies – have launched shooting satellites.
“GPS is everywhere,” says Coops.
Public attitudes have also changed. People began to demand access to the information that governments collected on their behalf.
“It is expected that this information will be available to people,” says Coops. “It wasn’t like that in the 80s.”
Now, he says, every forestry company and environmental group works with spatial data.
“Space skills are essential.”
“What areas should we focus on”
The Nature Society has had a geomatics specialist on its staff for eight years. The organization’s geomatics-generated maps have been featured widely in Alberta media as the province debates coal mining, Russell said.
“Our mapping permeates everything we do.”
Video shot over the foothills will be closely analyzed, Russell says. Geomatics allows them to find exactly what they are looking for.
“It helps us understand which areas we need to focus on, which areas may be most at risk and what those real impacts would be on the ground.
“How many hectares? How close to the river? Who is the operator in which area? This information is very difficult to extract from hundreds of pages of publications but is really easy to visualize on a map.”