Ecosystem Services of the Eastern Slopes - Research Reports

Estern SlopesUniversity of Calgary, Environmental Science Program students presented their studies on Ecosystem Services April 17, 2015.

Information about the program is available on the ENSC website,

The Environmental Science Program studied the Impact of Septic Systems in Bragg Creek in 1999-2000. We now have water services. They studied the flood of 2005. The government now plans to dam the Elbow River. It appears that we should pay attention to what they are doing. These student projects can help us understand how natural systems work and what impact our activities are having in this ecosystem.

We live in a natural environment, in the Foothills of the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It’s pretty rugged country, populated by bears and cougars. I often say it’s like living in a wilderness park at the end of civilization. It’s a pretty harsh environment and it's also fragile. We are very fortunate that the University of Calgary, with all its resources and bright, young, inquisitive minds has chosen to help us understand the ecosystem we live in.

We know that the watershed provides critical resources for people living downstream. The Ghost wilderness area feeds the Bow River and the watershed in the Elbow Valley feeds the Elbow River. All of Calgary's water supply depends on these two rivers. What we are now learning is that the forest plays an important role in regulating the storage and release of both water and carbon dioxide. We are also begining to understand and evaluate the economic benefits of the ecosystem and the cost when we damage it. The flood of 2013 was a wake-up call to pay attention to the watershed, but drought may be a bigger problem for us in the future.

We've known since a research report in 1969 that ecosystem services provide important societal, health and economic benefits. One of the interesting things about these reports is the number of recent studies refered to when the students built their scientific analysis. People all along the 90,000 square km of the Eastern Slopes, in particular, from the Castle Wilderness on Alberta's southern border to the Ghost up near Sundre have been campaigning for protection of the ecosystem for about 15 years. Many of the reports referenced didn't exist to inform these campaigns. Now we know that the forest canopy plays a key role in the rate at which snow melts, is absorbed into the ground and released into the watershed. These reports help quantify the vast quantities of water that are contained in the watershed. According to their calculations, about 4% or 3,800 sq. km, of the Eastern Slopes is wetlands. Those wetlands hold about 4.7 billion cubic metres of water. One cubic metre of water is equal to 14 loads of washing or 28 showers.

Scientists and economists have developed ways of calculating the value of the ecosystem so that can be factored into the cost/benefit analysis when we extract resources from the environment. This valuation is known as natural capital. The concept of natural capital and ecosystem services is attributing a monetary value to nature. For example, it is estimated that the wetlands in protected areas of Nova Scotia, Canada provide $466-$519 million dollars of services annually. You can read more about the Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada here. There are several systems of measurement in development that take a holistic approach to evaluating our "Gross Wellness Index", our "Social Progress Index" and our "Gross National Happiness" that expand on the current "Gross National Product" index. These systems include environmental and social factors as well as economic.

As these students enter the workforce and start families they are concerned that the damage done and the potential for further degrading the environment through resource development will be a cost and burden they can't afford. A musician named Prince Ea made a viral video titled, Dear Future Generations: Sorry. My sense is that these students don't want to know that we're sorry. They want to fix this problem.

Two Reports are available here

The effect of clearcutting on snow accumulation and snow melt potential in Kananaskis, Alberta.
Environmental Science 505, Winter 2015

Ryan Bennett
The University of Calgary

The removal of the forest canopy as a result of clearcutting results in the loss of precipitation interception by the canopy. This study compares the snow height, snow density, snow water equivalent, and the wind speeds between a Kananaskis clearcut and an adjacent old forest stand. In light of the devastating 2013 floods in Southern Alberta, the results of this study were used to predict how clearcutting affects the snow portion of the hydrological cycle, and what implications this has on the potential spring flooding in the Elbow and Bow river watersheds.

Quantifying the Wetland Water Storage Potential of the Eastern Slopes in Alberta, Canada
Environmental Science 502, April 20, 2015
Jordan Zukowski, Ryan Bennett, Carlee Beaver, Jean-Philippe Hervieux & Jake MacLaine
The University of Calgary

Executive Summary (edited abstract)
Ecosystem services are often taken for granted, or improperly valued. The ecosystem services provided by the Eastern slopes of the Alberta Rocky Mountains are beneficial to the residents of Southern Alberta, and are best maintained by ensuring the integrity of the ecosystems that provide us these essential services. Naturally functioning wetlands, and other watershed features are our first line of defense against flooding events. The benefits of wetlands and other watershed features include ecosystem services in addition to water storage. Water filtration is another important ecosystem service.