A picture paints a thousand words, but a map paints a million!


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Meg Southee
Lead Geospatial Analyst/Programmer

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Boreal Conservation planning

Published

2014-11-19

Today is International GIS Day!

Today is International GIS Day! A day to celebrate geography and geographic information systems (GIS) around the world by show casing real-world GIS applications to students and the general public. You can find more details on events occurring around the world (displayed, fittingly, on a map).

At its core, GIS is a tool that allows people to analyze data and make informed decisions based on the spatial relationships between objects of interest. For example, every time you use the maps in your phone or computer to plan a route, you are accessing a GIS. Today, the power of GIS is being leveraged in innovative ways for a wide variety of purposes ranging from social media campaigns to city infrastructure planning and business applications.

At WCS Canada, we harness the power of GIS to make informed decisions about future development scenarios and wilderness protection in Ontario’s Far North (Map 1). There are a number of current and potential development pressures building in the Far North and based on these pressures I developed two geospatial tools to address specific issues surrounding mining and hydropower development. The first, the Mining Claims Ownership Script, keeps track of the ongoing changes in mining claim ownership within the Far North (Map 2), and more specifically the Ring of Fire (Map 3) a mineral-rich crescent approximately 500km northeast of Thunder Bay that contains significant discoveries of chromium, copper, zinc, nickel and gold deposits. The second tool, the Dam Footprint Model, models hydropower footprints associated with potential hydroelectricity development projects (Map 4).

There has been a lot of discussion in the news about the Ring of Fire and its vast mineral wealth; however, many logistical problems exist including access to this remote location, lack of infrastructure, low commodity prices and negotiations with local First Nations. Just last year MP Tony Clement compared the Ring of Fire to Alberta’s Oil Sands, but since that time one of the major mining companies has suspended its environmental assessment, calling into question the viability of mining projects in the Ring of Fire. At WCS Canada, we have been using GIS as a key tool to track the changing developments in the Ring of Fire. The ecological impacts of opening up the Ring of Fire to mining development would be significant to caribou, wolverine and freshwater fish such as lake sturgeon and lake trout. Not only could there be spills and new contamination from the mines themselves, there would also be significant disturbance due to infrastructure including collisions, dust, and noise associated with transporting the ore to southern economies via planned roads or railways. Building infrastructure corridors in this landscape could also increase hunting and fishing pressure by providing access to this pristine environment.

A mining claim is an area of land that has been staked by a prospector or mining company for mining exploration under Ontario's Mining Act. Mining exploration has been shown to have some impacts on wildlife through increased noise disturbance from helicopters, boats, trucks and drilling equipment. If economically viable resources are found, the company can apply for a mineral lease to own the surface and mineral rights for a set amount of time. All of the mining data in Ontario is maintained by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) in the online Ontario Mining Claims Information Database. Map 2 shows that there are a number of mining claims in the Ring of Fire, but there is only one mineral lease (owned by Noront Resources Ltd.). While the individual footprints of mining claims may be small on the landscape, the cumulative impacts that occur from numerous companies exploring in the same area dramatically increase the pressure on this sensitive northern landscape.

Like many specific databases, the online Ontario Mining Claims Information Database requires a certain level of familiarity to access crucial information. The spatial data can easily be downloaded from the MNDM website, but the downloaded files contain only one relevant attribute, the claim number. The claim number can be used to search the online Ontario Mining Claims Information Database to access pertinent details about the claim, such as information about the claim owner. As you can imagine, this is a rather tedious process if you are interested in an area that contains a large number of claims. There are currently 4,567 claims in the Far North (Oct 22, 2014), but a year ago there were 5,401 claims (Nov 18, 2013). The Mining Claim Ownership Script I developed helps WCS Canada staff keep track of these changes by providing all the information with the click of a few buttons.

The Mining Claim Ownership Script has two separate modules. The first downloads the spatial data from the MNDM website and compiles it into a geodatabase. It also clips the associated mining datasets to the Far North, so that a user can see all of the mining claims in the entire province or just the claims of interest in the Far North. The second module was developed to show us a spatial dataset containing the mining claim number, the owner(s), the percentage of ownership, the date that the mining claim expires and the hyperlink to the online record in the Ontario Mining Claims Database. Map 3 shows the owners of the mining claims in the Ring of Fire.

With respect to hydropower development, the Far North is home to six of Canada’s largest rivers: the Severn, the Winisk, the Ekwan, the Attawapiskat, the Albany and the Moose. These rivers are important for navigation, drinking water, fishing and maintaining low salinity levels in Hudson and James Bays. As such, these rivers are important for both socio-economic and ecological purposes in the Far North. Together, the rivers of the Far North contribute to a resilient and natural landscape that is generally free from major human impacts and developments. Currently, five of the six major northern Ontario rivers remain intact (have no dams or barriers to flow), but the southernmost river basin - the Moose - contains a series of massive hydroelectric dams in its upper watershed (Map 4).

The recent expansion of the Lower Mattagami Project is the largest hydroelectric development project in Ontario in the past 40 years and it has added 440MW of capacity (Source: Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan). This expansion has doubled the previous hydroelectric capacity of the four existing dams by upgrading existing facilities without adding new dams to the landscape. Ontario has plans to continue increasing hydroelectric capacity in the province; however, it is unclear how much of Ontario’s new energy will come from rivers in the Far North as siting a project in the Far North can be difficult due to the increased costs associated with transmission, construction and lack of infrastructure in remote locations.

Small-scale run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects could be important for the approximately 38,000 First Nations who live in remote communities in Ontario’s Far North since there is a government priority to connect remote First Nation communities to the electricity grid via transmission lines or hydroelectric projects where feasible (Map 5). Many of these communities are currently dependent on diesel fuel for electricity and the fuel is transported via airplane or ice roads in the winter – the only way these communities are linked to southern economies for many months. Climate change has been increasing the variability of ice road seasons and consequently the length of time that the roads can remain open creating emergencies when the fuel cannot be delivered in time. For the past two decades, First Nations communities have been trying to get more reliable and cheaper options for electricity. This has led some communities to investigate alternative electricity options in collaboration with Ontario Power Generation through the Aboriginal Renewable Energy Network to reduce their sole reliance on diesel fuel for electricity. These local small-scale hydro-electricity projects are important because burning diesel fuel contributes to localized air pollution, health hazards and the risk of fuel spills during transportation and storage. Building small-scale run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects allows the river to continue to flow naturally while harnessing the power of the moving water. Consequently, these types of projects do not have the same direct or cumulative impacts associated with the hydroelectric reservoir projects and other large-scale hydroelectric projects.

So what does the future hold for the five remaining large, wild rivers in the Far North?

Using the Dam Footprint Model, we can analyze the area of land that may be impacted by flooding through the introduction of a new dam (Map 6). Building a dam disrupts the natural water flow regime in a landscape and can alter important fish habitat and spawning behaviours by adding barriers to aquatic systems which impact the mobility and the transfer of genes between populations. Unlike wide-ranging terrestrial animals, aquatic species cannot move outside of river courses without assistance, so altering these aquatic landscapes can have serious impacts on aquatic life. Finally, in Ontario's Far North, dams also mobilize mercury in aquatic systems and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Using the latest provincial digital elevation model (DEM), the Dam Footprint Model is calibrated so that the user can choose the location and specify the height of the new dam. This height is normally associated with the hydraulic head – level of water drop – in the natural landscape. Using the Dam Footprint Model, we can leverage information from reports, such as the Hatch Report on waterpower potential in the Far North, to determine feasible locations for potential hydropower developments and analyze the impacts that may occur to aquatic ecosystems and other wildlife. Analyzing the flooded area is important because flooding a new landscape increases the mobilization of methyl mercury that is present in soil. The mercury is inert in the soil, but when it is added to the water column it is more easily absorbed by aquatic species. Methyl mercury is very toxic to both people and wildlife and it bioaccumulates as it moves upwards through the food chain. Since many First Nations are dependent on subsistence fishing as one of their primary food sources, the effects of flooding and mercury mobilization is especially significant for these communities.

The Mining Claim Ownership Script and Dam Footprint Model allow us to spend more time on the important ecological analyses for protecting wildlife in Ontario’s Far North. Using the Mining Claim Ownership Script, we can easily gather all the information related to changing mining activities in the Ring of Fire without manually searching through the online database. Using the Dam Footprint Model, we can model the impacts from flooding that occur when a new dam is constructed. These tools are two practical GIS applications that leverage real-world data to improve our systems and increase our capacity to perform conservation work at WCS Canada.

Happy International GIS Day! Give your maps a hug.

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