By Tim Kalinowski on December 18, 2017.
In the folklore of many peoples around the world rivers are often viewed as living spirits—great serpents or dragon-like beings so immense that no word or meaning can truly encompass them. A new computer-generated hydrology model of the South Saskatchewan River basin may soon change all that, as researchers come closer than ever before to understanding the DNA of this unpredictable, and at times deadly, water system.
“This integrated model looks at all aspects of the hydrology cycle,” explains technical expert Richard McConnell of DYMAC Risk Management. McConnell is quarterbacking the program’s development on behalf of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. “There is only about five or six of these integrated platforms in the world that go into this kind of detail. And this platform, called HydroGeoSphere, is the only platform in Canada that does this.”
The model not only takes into account water movement through the river itself, but also how water drains through the surrounding landscape and moves from one point to another on its way to the river. The program can not only account for weather events, prevailing winds, but also evapo-transportation, the affects of prolonged drought and how the different kinds of soil or cropland, down to the bedrock level, create the flow of ground and surface water toward its eventual migration down to the river.
The program was developed over the past 20 years by a research think-tank called Aquanty based at the University of Waterloo, says McConnell, and was originally developed using super-computers to computate all of its data. It is McConnell’s job to take this cutting-edge computational program and adapt it for the practical purposes of flood evaluation and grasslands moisture level modelling to help ranchers with insurance claims in the South Saskatchewan River basin. That’s kind of like using a naval cannon to kill a gopher, but it’s somewhere to start, says McConnell.
“The whole intent of this project was to use this very complex platform to develop a model of the South Saskatchewan,” he says, “and then make it accessible through Alberta Agriculture.”
McConnell is amazed by how much data can be entered into the program to create a model as close to the living river system as computer science will allow at the moment— a kind of virtual reality twin of the South Saskatchewan accessible at the tips of your fingers through a keyboard.
“It’s the impact of that whole hydrological system in the South Saskatchewan River basin,” explains McConnell. “You can see the broad effects, but you can also go down as fine in the data as you wish to go. This program makes the South Saskatchewan River one of the most heavily analyzed hydrological systems in the world today.”