The Hub Q&A with Dr. Scott Ketcheson

Q&A with Dr. Scott Ketcheson

Dr. Scott Ketcheson, the Canada Research Chair in Hydrological Sustainability, is researching how water moves within and between forests, wetlands and streams. Learn more about his work evaluating the sensitivity of ecosystems to natural and human disturbances like wildfires, flooding and resource extraction.

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Can you list your own post-secondary schooling history? 

I completed my Honours BSc at McMaster University. After taking some time off to travel, I completed my MSc at the University of Waterloo, mostly part-time as I also worked fulltime as project manager for a NSERC research program in the James Bay Lowlands. I also completed my PhD studies at the University of Waterloo.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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When did you become a Canada Research Chair (CRC)

My research chair was officially announced in May 2018, however, I learned of the positive outcome of my application at the start of November 2017. So, I actually began working at AU in January 2018.

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What are the duties and expectations in your role as an Athabasca University CRC?

As a research chair, my job is to develop and lead a research program that is cutting-edge, externally-funded, and internationally recognized. This will allow me to contribute to increasing AU’s profile as a Comprehensive Academic and Research Institution (which Alberta only has four of).

I am also keen to involve students in the research process. So basically, the expectation I have for myself is to build and grow an awesome research program, while communicating my progress and findings broadly. I want to promote AU research as much as possible. 

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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How does being an AU research chair help your research?

For starters, sharing the title of “Research Chair” with my research chair colleagues here at AU, as well as the many additional research chairs throughout the country, provides an immediate benefit of carrying a level of recognition and expectation for excellence in research.

AU has also provided a great deal of support for me in establishing my research program. The research office has been immensely helpful. As a research chair, I also have a reduced teaching load, which allows me to dedicate most of my time, focus and efforts on research.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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In layman’s terms, what is your current research about?

I am a hydrologist, so I study the movement of water. As an environmental scientist and field hydrologist, I study the movement of water between forests, wetlands, and streams. My chair title is in Hydrological Sustainability, so my research team and I are working towards ecosystems sustainability through understanding hydrological processes. My research involves a lot of fieldwork and time outdoors, which I love.

This past summer, my research team – an undergrad from King’s University and a field research technician – and I spent a lot of time doing fieldwork, establishing research sites on Stony Mountain, which is about 40 kilometers south of Fort McMurray. These research sites are small headwater areas all less than 10 km² that produce water which eventually flows into the Athabasca River.

Several of these research sites are very difficult to access, involving lots of hiking in challenging terrain. Many days we hiked between 10-12 kilometers, not as a stroll down a nice pathway, but as bushwhacking down cut lines and trudging across wetlands. But, yes, I do love it!

We also worked with a technology development company – Riot Technology – throughout the summer to develop and deploy a new, innovative technology that allows us to remotely collect data from the sensors we installed in those difficult-to-access study sites. Now, I am able to collect information and hydrological data, such as soil moisture, water levels, and rainfall from many locations within the study sites from my home office, which is really neat.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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How long have you been studying this topic? 

My first position working on a field-based hydrology project was as a field assistant in the summer of 2004, and I have spent a considerable amount of time conducting research at many locations across Canada ever since. For example, I conducted research at field sites in the Saint Lawrence Lowlands in eastern Quebec, the James Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario, which is the world’s second-largest peatland complex, and at a research site within the middle of a “big game” park in South Africa.

However, my interests in these headwater systems in northern Alberta started as a bit of a side project when I began my PhD research on oil sands reclamation in 2011. Although my PhD field work was completed on Suncor’s Millennium mine, I also was involved in research at regional, relatively undisturbed “reference sites.” As a part of this, I began working in one catchment that became my favourite research site that I have ever worked in (on Stony Mountain), and it provided the inspiration for my entire research chair program.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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What led you to study this? Why are you so interested in it?

I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and the environment and was drawn to the sciences. During the first year of core science courses in my undergraduate degree, I took a few environmental science electives and it was clear to me that this was the topic I wanted to focus on. Since that time, as I progressed more and more into research, I found the discovery associated with research to be really exciting and interesting for me.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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If you were to speak to someone who knows nothing about your research and expertise, can you summarize in a few sentences why they should be interested in your work?

Hydrology and the movement of water between forests, wetlands, and streams is so important because downstream ecosystems and streams or rivers are particularly affected by water movements upstream of them. So understanding the movement of water in upstream, or headwater areas, can allow us to evaluate the sensitivity of ecosystems and streams to natural and human disturbances, such as wildfire, flooding, and resource extraction.

Also, there is a water paradox in northern Alberta. This region has a sub-humid climate, which means that there is very little water available. Most of the rainfall happens in the middle of the summer, which is also when trees and vegetation are using a lot of water. This leaves little water free to contribute to streamflow. However, large river systems, such as the Athabasca River, still show an increase in the amount of water flowing within them as they flow through this apparently dry region. We still don’t really understand how this can happen. I believe that small upland areas, such as the Stony Mountains, are important contributors of water to regional river systems, and can help to explain this apparent water paradox. This is why I am conducting my research in this area.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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What does an average week look like for you?

It really depends on the season. In the summer, I do a lot of field work, which involves lots of hiking and installation of sensors, troubleshooting, and measurement of water levels and stream flows. Northern Alberta has really long daylight hours in the summer months, which is great as it allows me to work into the evenings and put in long days, which I like. During the fall and winter, I spend more time applying for grants, working up the data collected in the previous field season, and writing publications on the findings. Spring time means preparation for the approaching field season again.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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Does your research affect or involve AU students? How?

Ideally, the goal would be to have AU students come out with me to do some fieldwork, so they could learn about and participate in field-based research. This way, the students could collect the data that they would then use for their undergraduate thesis project. However, I also have a growing amount of data that could be used as a part of an undergraduate thesis project as well, if doing the field work was not an option for the student.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

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How will your intended research results impact any, or all, of the following: AU students? AU as a university? Your community? Canada?

AU students: Hopefully they will be involved in the research program through undergraduate thesis projects etc., and will gain experience in this capacity.

AU as a university: My intention is to increase AU’s research profile by developing an innovative and high-profile research program, both nationally and internationally.

Community: I am working directly within the Athabasca River Basin (ARB), where many communities are located, including Athabasca. Helping to understand water movement in the ARB allows us to better understand and predict the response of the ARB to development or disturbances, which will benefit everyone within the basin.

Canada: My research outcomes and analysis of water flow and water quality can be used by scientists around the world, government policy makers and environmental consultants, and oil sands and resource extraction industries.

Dr. Scott Ketcheson

Published:
  • September 9, 2019