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Research in Northern National Parks

Remote sensing

ParkSPACE: our ongoing search for surprises

Satellite imagery provides a practical means to contribute in monitoring and assessing the status and trends of ecosystem integrity. Icefield (in blue) derived from Landsat eTM satellite (August 27, 2009)Dark blue indicates higher water content in the glacier lower elevation. Source: Parks Canada Agency
© Parks Canada

A central theme of Canadian history is the tremendous effort that went into assembling the first detailed maps of the country’s vast landscape. From Aboriginal people travelling the land extensively and making detailed mental maps to generations of explorers and surveyors making written maps, this goal still remains incomplete. Discoveries like prehistoric mammoth remains or ancient archeological sites only serve to remind us of the land’s continuing capacity to surprise us, even after we have identified all of its most obvious features.

We still seek such surprises, but over the last 60 years our ability to do so has improved significantly. In the years following World War II, many bombers and their pilots were pressed into the service of aerial photography. They flew systematic patterns across the country’s northernmost reaches, compiling images that became the foundation for the first collection of topographic maps covering this entire region.

This comprehensive photographic record is even more valuable today, since it provides a definitive starting point for assessing the changes that may have taken place over the ensuing decades. Evidence of warming trends or other major environmental shifts can emerge directly as these earlier photographs are compared with more recent observations.
At the same time, today’s observations take advantage of far more sophisticated technology. The advent of orbiting observation satellites in the 1960s opened up the possibility of monitoring huge areas for extended period. By the 1980s, these spacecraft were not only outfitted with powerful cameras, but also with sensors capable of making much more subtle physical measurements.
Advanced sensors s, for example, have been tracking changes in the amount of thermal energy striking the planet’s polar regions for more than two decades. Such instruments are making it possible to assess the state of snow or ice cover, vegetation, and permafrost, all of which serve as key environmental indicators.

Between 2004 and 2008, Parks Canada undertook a project under the Government Related Initiatives Program (GRIP), funded by the Canadian Space Agency. This work demonstrated how decades’ worth of data collected by satellites could support the monitoring of ecological integrity in national parks. The success of this initial venture — which focused on the country’s more southerly parks — prompted a second GRIP project in 2008, dubbed ParkSPACE.

ParkSPACE confronts a more significant logistical challenge for Parks Canada, which is the need to monitor the sizeable array of 12 parks and reserves across northern Canada. The agency is legally bound to submit detailed reports to Parliament every two years, and this project will make it possible produce extensive protocols for monitoring the ecological integrity. This principle is at the heart of the Parks Canada mandate, which imposes a reponsibility for overseeing those processes that maintain the plant and animal life within any given region.

Ecological integrity therefore serves as the backbone for a sustainable, long-term monitoring program in Canada’s northern national parks, which altogether cover some 217,000 squarekilometres representing about 79 per cent of the entire area overseen by Parks Canada. These are large, remote parts of the country, without road access. ParkSPACE projects have already demonstrated a feasible approach to tracking ecological integrity and related aspects of environmental change, including changes observed in permafrost, plant growth, or wetlands.

Complementary factsheets also available on terrestrial and aquatic ecological integrity research conducted in the context of the International Polar Year

Stories from the field: 

  • Reading the many signs of life in the north
    As Canada’s newest national parks are large and remote, the task of managing these vast territories has become ever more challenging. Scientists are developing and testing methods to monitor them using the latest technology, on the ground as well as from space. 
  • Setting a higher bar for environmental monitoring
    Parks Canada has teamed up with the Canadian Space Agency and Natural Resources Canada to make the most of this country’s capabilities in orbital technology. The resulting project, called ParkSPACE, is shaping a vision that uses the most sophisticated earth-observing satellites to study every corner of Canada’s northern national parks. 
  • A walk in the clouds: our evolving view from above
    It has been only sixty years since the first comprehensive aerial photographic survey of Canada’s north was conducted, offering the first detailed assessment of this huge territory. This archive of geographic images is now being dramatically enhanced by surveys conducted from space using satellites that are providing key insights into the most remote corners of the country’s national parks.