Aboard NASA jet, Sahtu students prepare to protect the land

Space agency NASA is helping to train the next generation of Sahtu environmental specialists.

Students Joanne Speakman and Mandy Bayha joined a NASA team aboard a Gulfstream III jet on Wednesday to survey sections of the Northwest Territories using an advanced form of radar developed by the United States.

Equipment attached to the underside of the aircraft uses radio waves to gather data about the land and water below.


The Sahtu Secretariat sponsored the students’ trip, hoping it will both inspire and prepare them for the future task of protecting Sahtu land as the climate changes.

“It was amazing. It was really valuable to have people share what they know with us,” said Speakman, who is studying at the University of Alberta. “I’m really passionate about this field and I always think about the people who can benefit from this.”

Bayha, a student at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC, said: “My passion is about bridging the gap between traditional knowledge and science.

“This is really exciting. It’s in the North, where I’m from, and we have NASA scientists coming in and studying climate change. It’s one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve had.”

NASA's Tim Miller explains a feature of the team's radar pod to Joanne Speakman and Mandy Bayha
NASA’s Tim Miller explains a feature of the team’s radar pod to Joanne Speakman and Mandy Bayha. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Speakman and Bayha both have a range of environmental science experience, including work for regional regulatory boards and the Deline Got’ine Government.


Sahtu Secretariat staff told Cabin Radio the Mackenzie Valley Highway – a project worth in excess of $700 million, the first phase of which recently received federal backing – will create ‘huge’ environmental planning and monitoring obligations if all phases are eventually funded.

Staff hope the likes of Speakman and Bayha will step in to help manage the environmental impact of such large projects.

“I’ve always felt that going to school equips me to come back to the North one day, help protect the land, and involve the community as well – make communities more independent,” said Bayha.

“I want to bring this to communities back home and be the in-between that brings those conversations together and brings understanding on both sides; be that middle ground where those two things [science and traditional knowledge] meet.”


More: NASA’s guide to synthetic aperture radar

Peter Griffith is the project manager for NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, often referred to by its convenient abbreviation, ABoVE. The project, lasting roughly a decade, is designed to study the social and ecological impacts of rapid environmental change in the North.

Griffith joined the students on Wednesday’s flight, which passed over Kakisa, Fort Providence, and the Scotty Creek permafrost research site near Fort Simpson.

“People up here don’t need me to tell them this part of the world is on the forefront of the warming part of the planet,” he said. “There are a lot of environmental changes that are a consequence of actions that have actually taken place, for the most part, in an entirely different part of the world.”

A map of Wednesday's NASA flight. Turquoise boxes indicate radar swaths gathered by the aircraft's radar pod
A map of Wednesday’s NASA flight. Turquoise boxes indicate radar swaths gathered by the aircraft’s radar pod. Image: NASA/ABoVE

Griffith said the synthetic aperture radar installed beneath the aircraft allows the capture of data fields up to 15 km wide and 100 km long.

“We have flown over areas where scientists are studying the 2014 wildfires that burned so much of the Northwest Territories – sites that have been studied on the ground to look at how much of the carbon in the trees and soil has burned, and the impacts on the soil,” he said. “This radar gives us information on how much moisture is retained in the soil, which tells us a lot.

“There will be long-term consequences from those fires that will play out over decades from now. It’s important to know what kind of forest will grow back, or if it will even be a forest.”

Of his passengers, Griffith added: “It was inspiring to have them along and talk about their passions for their community and the future that they are trying to build for themselves and their whole region.

“I just hope we can have continued conversations to come up with some common interests, common questions that we may be able to help address from the air and from space that matter to their community.”