By Katie Watt
Dr. Stephen Déry doesn’t chase storms. Instead, he lets them come to him. For the last month, Dr. Déry and a team of undergraduate students from various universities across Canada have been living off the grid at Nipika Mountain Resort as they undertake a scientific experiment to study storms across the continental divide.
Dr. Déry’s group is one of two teams involved in the Storms and Precipitation Across the Continental Divide Experiment (SPADE), a study that aims to understand the atmospheric conditions leading to storms and precipitation across the continental divide.
“There have been very few campaigns like this anywhere in the world, which makes this project unique,” says Dr. Déry.
The SPADE project is a collaborative research study between the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), University of Saskatchewan (USask), and University of Manitoba (UofM). The experiment is funded by the Global Water Futures program, a research initiative supported by the federal government’s Canada First Research Excellence Fund.
The design of the experiment was a joint effort between Dr. Déry, Dr. Julie Thériault from UQAM, Dr. John Pomeroy from USask, and Dr. Ronald Stewart from UofM. To execute the experiment, 10 undergraduate students from the four universities are also working on the study.
“It’s a collaborative project which is really cool because you get to work with people from across the country. We’ve all gotten to know each other, and everyone has gotten along super well.” says Juris Almonte. Ms. Almonte received her Masters of Sciences with a specialization in atmospheric sciences from the University of Manitoba. She is currently employed by UNBC as a project manager for SPADE.
Currently, there are two main stations for the SPADE project. Dr. Déry, Ms. Almonte, and two other undergraduate students are stationed at Nipika Mountain Resort on the western side of the continental divide. On the eastern side, at approximately the same elevation and 50 km away, is another group stationed at Fortress Powerline in Kananaskis Country. This group is comprised of the other half of the team, and the researchers rotate stations regularly between Fortress and Nipika.
In order to execute the aims of the project, the teams have a variety of high-tech instruments used to measure precipitation, atmospheric changes, and weather. The instruments are stationed in an open field at Nipika, and they stand in sharp contrast to their natural, green surroundings. The same instruments are used at the Fortress station.
Regardless of time of day, if there’s a storm the team will be there to observe it.
“The storms dictate the shifts. Whenever precipitation is happening, we’ll be there,” says Dr. Déry.
The team is using the instruments to gather data such as the fall speed and direction of precipitation, the amount of accumulated precipitation, and the atmospheric conditions in which different types of precipitation occur.
“There’s incredible differences in what we’re seeing on our side versus what’s happening on the other side,” says Dr. Déry.
Ms. Almonte adds that “there are times when it’s hot and sunny on one side of the divide, and then storming on the other.”
Ms. Almonte explains that the dissimilarities in observation between the two sides can be attributed to the fact that air from the Pacific Ocean can help form precipitation on the western side of the mountain. Once that precipitation is formed, it tends to be released at the top of the mountain, which leaves the eastern side more dry.
“One of our big concerns was that we wouldn’t actually see any storms, but thankfully there have been a lot,” says Dr. Déry.
While it may seem like May and June were the months chosen to conduct the experiment because they’re relatively warmer than the winter, that isn’t exactly the case.
“We chose May and June because those are the months that this area receives the most precipitation,” says Ms. Almonte.
Once the study is completed at the end of June, the team is hoping the data they’ve gathered can be used to enhance our understanding of precipitation, and also provide insight into the question of how storms behave as they cross the continental divide.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is to improve numerical weather predictions, improve weather models, and understand precipitation and all of its complex formations,” says Dr. Déry. “Precipitation is still something that’s really difficult to simulate in models because of the complex processes in the atmosphere, and it’s especially challenging to predict in the mountains.”
To learn more about the SPADE project and to receive updates from the field, visit https://gwf-spade.weebly.com/ for more information.