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Aaron Coelho Receives Highest Award Offered to Canadian Graduate Students

headshot of Aaron, young caucasian man with dark hair, sparse beardUrban System’s own Aaron Coelho’s grad thesis project is getting some serious accolades – he was recently awarded the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal, the highest award offered to Canadian graduate students.

“The award was a complete surprise,” says Aaron. “In fact I was clearing out my junk mail and I saw the award notification in there. The title was ‘You’ve Won a Prestigious Award,’ so I thought well that’s spam for SURE, but decided to open it. I was glad I did! This isn’t something you can even apply for, so it’s an amazing honour.”

Aaron’s thesis project focused on examining the impact of climate change on natural ponds in B.C.’s grasslands. He looked at the decline in the number of ponds in the grasslands, and the implications of those declines.

Today, 99% of B.C.’s grasslands are working rangelands, and ranchers have noticed a dramatic decrease in available water for their cattle during grazing. This is particularly troubling as cattle will not venture far from a water source, so, lack of water availability limits a producer’s ability to maximize the use of grassland forage. Cattle require 40-80 liters of water per day depending on the size of the cow.

“Cows have sort of their own internal GPS and won’t wander far from a source of water. If we lose these natural water ponds, we lose access to valuable rangeland and forage crops, because the cattle just won’t go there,” says Aaron.

The options to bring water to the cows—trucking it in or installing wells—are expensive.

“We wanted to evaluate the extent of the loss of water and validate the ranchers’ observations that this is really happening.”

He started by looking at historical aerial photos and comparing them to modern satellite imagery. The images he focused on were all from the same time of year (mid-July) and he examined surface water availability during that time frame from the early 1990s, versus the 2010 period to track how the surface area of the water changed over time.

“In a lot of occasions the water had completely dried up. It was drastic and more than we expected, but it was consistent with the ranching community observations.”

Aaron, wearing hip waders, heading into a pond to gather samples

In addition, Aaron completed fieldwork in the Lac Du Bois grasslands of Kamloops. Along with him was his trusty sidekick, Vader, a therapy dog who often charms the team at the office.

In Kamloops there are ponds that hold water throughout the year, and other ponds that would dry up in spring or summer. Aaron wanted to find out why.

“I loved doing this fieldwork,” he says. “There’s nothing like getting outside and away from the computer. My best buddy Vader and I got to hike and explore the grasslands—they’re an underrated ecosystem—they’re open and beautiful and full of interesting birds, plants and soil.” And during this research phase, he was able to show that groundwater—or the lack of it—was a key element in the health of the ponds.


marshy grassland pond with trees in the distance“Our conclusion was that there are different types of ponds, and that their reliability with respect to sustaining surface water is related to groundwater connectivity. Ponds respond to different climate scenarios from year to year. Most water comes in the spring snowmelt surface runoff. The last time we had a big snowpack was 1996. Looking at climate data from 1900 to 2010, typically every five to six years there is a large snow year. But since 1996 we haven’t had a large snow year to recharge the system.” The impacts are further intensified by changes in spring streamflow timing.

Aaron’s study concludes that if current climate trends continue further declines in closed-basin ponds are probable. He hopes some of his data will help demonstrate the issue and allow ranchers to lobby the government for support to bring in solutions to maintain the productivity of the ranching industry.

He plans to continue his work by creating a high level feasibility/risk assessment tool for livestock water sources, that looks at the risk in regard to future climate change.

“We’re looking at climate data and field data, and it will all be put into a model that can predict the risk to certain water bodies. We’re hopeful this will be a useful tool for the ranch community to use to plan ahead—if their most valuable water sources are at risk, they need to know.”

Today Aaron combines his expertise in microbiology and hydrology and works in Urban’s Water and Wastewater department. “Wastewater treatment is quite a complicated process—I really enjoy it and it’s a lot of fun. A lot of really cool things go on, for example natural microorganisms are used to treat water and remove contaminants.”Small black dog in grasslands

He wishes to thank his supervisors Wendy Gardner and Tom Pypker at Thompson Rivers University for accepting him into the program. “They started out as my supervisors and are now my mentors, role models and friends.”

And last but not least Aaron wants to give a shout out to Vader, “Field days would have been lonely without Vader, my furry little companion and all around best pal.”

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