The Future of Environmental Monitoring

Through investments by governments and private sector members into research and development, new technologies such as remote sensing, new DNA technologies, big data, robotics, and social networking, are drastically changing how the environment is monitored. As new technologies arise, tools adopted in the environmental monitoring system will share some common “technological DNA” with other surveillance systems such as health and security—shaping the future of environmental monitoring in Alberta.

The advance of sensor technology in recent years has greatly improved our ability to detect changes in our environment. In the recent Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Science Symposium, the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division (formerly AEMERA) demonstrated an Air Mapping Tool for Alberta. The tool combines satellite images with hourly air quality data from ground air monitoring stations to create hourly simulations of ambient air quality for the entire province. With a resolution of 10km by 10km, the tool is equivalent to more than six thousand virtual air monitoring stations.

Figure 1: The Air Mapping tool showcasing the Richardson Fire

The condition of the environment can impact the expression of genes. Advanced DNA technology is the fastest growing area in health science and the governments and businesses around the world are investing huge amount of money in this area.  With the advancement of DNA technologies, it is possible to detect environmental impact on species at the DNA level in the future.

Vast improvement in robotic technology in the areas of aviation, transportation, health care and environmental monitoring can significantly improve our measurements of the environmental quality. Last year, EMSD received an autonomous mobile platform that can carry air and water monitoring instruments. Powered by solar energy and guided by GPS, the mobile platform can measure water quality in our lakes and rivers as well as emissions from tailings ponds.

Figure 2: A rendering of the autonomous mobile platform

We are living in the digital era of ‘big data’. Companies like Google, eBay, and Facebook process huge amounts of data every day.  In 2010, Facebook had a database of 26 petabytes (PB), in 2009, eBay had a one of 50 PB. Google handles the highest amount of data, processing 20 PB of data per day in 2008. (Note: 1PB is equivalent to 1000 terabytes and 1TB is equivalent to 1000GB.)  With the increased amount of data we collect every day, data dissemination and visualization become important.  To that end, we are working on innovative ways as shown below to present and communicate environmental data and information.

Figure 3: Daily NO2 Values in Edmonton from 2004 to 2014.
Each ring holds daily data for a year, ranging between 2004 (innermost ring) to 2014 (outermost ring). Each year starts with January at the top, moving clockwise for each ring.

Advancement of science and technology, combined with social networking platforms, encourages organizations and individuals to participate in environmental monitoring. For example, a product and online system like Air Quality Egg makes it easy for people to set up air quality monitors for as affordable as $200. Other products include portable devices for people to check their health and environmental conditions. In the near future, a host of user generated environmental data will be accessible for government and individuals to use.

In the new era of “New Enlightenment,” millennials, also known as “digital natives,” will be the key to integrating the various information technologies available. Combining the techniques and knowledge of “digital immigrants” (many of us born before the digital age) with the know-how of “digital natives”, new opportunities will emerge when we start to understand and implement new technologies. A number of surveillance systems will use similar technologies, so those systems can be integrated and complement each other. These similarities mean that our future environmental monitoring will include design components that encompass both integrated information and intelligence systems.