Déry named UNBC's first Industrial Research Chair

Magazine Fall 2020

Led by Environmental Science Professor Dr. Stephen Déry, the NSERC/Rio Tinto Industrial Research Chair on Climate Change and Water Security partnership aims to better understand how climate change and human activity are impacting water security in the Nechako Watershed.

December 10, 2020
Dr. Stephen Déry along the Nechako River
Environmental Science Professor Dr. Stephen Déry is leading a multi-year project on the sustainability of the Nechako Watershed as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Rio Tinto Industrial Research Chair on Climate Change and Water Security.

From its headwaters in the Coast Mountains to its mouth in Prince George, the Nechako River is a key artery that flows through British Columbia’s Interior Plateau. Home to iconic species such as the Nechako white sturgeon and an important stop for migrating waterfowl, the river is also embraced by canoeists and anglers.

However, rising temperatures associated with climate change are diminishing seasonal snowpacks and glaciers, which in turn influence the entire Nechako River watershed. UNBC Environmental Science Professor Dr. Stephen Déry is an expert on the impact that climate variability and change is having on the Nechako River and with the help of federal and industry funding he launched the latest phase of research.

As the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Rio Tinto Senior Industrial Research Chair in Climate Change and Water Security, Déry is leading a team of scientists who are examining the role of climate change and the management of water resources on the Nechako River basin’s water supply.

The five-year, $1.5 million project, includes monitoring water temperatures in regulated and unregulated sites across the Nechako Watershed, rainfall gauges to measure the difference in precipitation from the wet Coast Mountains to the drier Interior Plateau, and the installation of a comprehensive weather station to monitor storms in the upper Nechako Watershed. The station is equipped with sensors to measure and record temperature, relative humidity, precipitation, snow depth, wind speed/direction, incoming solar radiation and barometric pressure.

Results collected from all of these sites, along with simulations from computer models currently in development, will be shared with communities.

“Our climate and environment are in a rapid state of transition and the IRC program of research is at the forefront of understanding these complex and pervasive issues along with their impacts on ecosystems and communities across the Nechako Watershed,” Déry says.

Water is of primary importance for the day-to-day operation of Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. Water is diverted from the river to fill the Nechako Reservoir, which in turn powers the Kemano hydroelectric generating station and supplies electricity to the smelter. At the same time, sufficient water flows are also critical for the wellbeing of the entire Nechako watershed. An expanded program of research and monitoring related to water security in the Nechako River Basin remains a top priority for the communities in the Basin and Rio Tinto.

“This partnership will build on Rio Tinto’s long-standing support for the UNBC and commitment to managing the Nechako watershed responsibly,” said Rio Tinto BC Works general manager Affonso Bizon. “We share UNBC’s commitment to advancing education and research in the region and look forward to seeing the findings from this work to build on our environmental management program for the Nechako.”

The objective of this Industrial Research Chair is to better understand the impacts of climate change and human activity on the long-term water security of the Nechako watershed.

“It is important to collaborate with a private sector partner such as Rio Tinto, with a view to seeing our research findings applied to help manage the environmental impacts of industrial activity, especially in the face of climate change,” says Déry.