The Global Institute for Water Security: Saskatchewan river basin

The Global Institute for Water Security has set up a large-scale field observatory in the vast Saskatchewan River Basin to model the effects of climate change on water security. Find out more about about its work and what the research has discovered.

Canadian Rocky Mountains, Alberta. Modelling the effects of climate change in cold regions.
Canadian Rocky Mountains, Alberta. Modelling the effects of climate change in cold regions.

Location: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada (the Institute's office is based at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon).

Project manager: Howard Wheater FREng, FICE, Canada Excellence in Water Security and Director, Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan

Challenge summary: A large-scale field observatory for modelling environmental change during an era of increasing uncertainty and changing climate.


Howard Wheater FREng, FICE arrived in Canada in 2010 as Canada Excellence Research Chair. Since then he's launched the Global Institute for Water Security and developed the Saskatchewan River Basin as a large scale observatory for new water science.

The project is now recognised as a Regional Hydroclimate Project (RHP) by the World Climate Research Programme. It's one of 11 RHP projects in the world, and the only one that's entirely focused in North America.

Find out more about the Global Institute for Water Security

The multiple dimensions of water security and the accompanying science and management challenges are all represented in the Saskatchewan River Basin project. These include issues of water quality and quantity, anthropogenic activities, competing societal uses, industrialisation, agricultural intensification and extreme weather events such as flooding and drought.

The basin, with an area approximately half the size of France, spans Canada's three Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and faces a climate characterised by extremes and rapid climate change. The basin also encompasses critical environments deemed significant both nationally and globally.

The basin raises numerous globally relevant science challenges due to the importance of its cold region hydro-climate and ecological zones, the rapid rate of environmental change, and the need for improved understanding, diagnosis and modelling of change.

Saskatchewan River Basin
Saskatchewan River Basin

The Saskatchewan River Basin provides a focus for disciplinary research and new inter-disciplinary integration.

Its 25 research projects produce data, models and outcomes that interpret complex effects of climate change and land-use management on available water resources and biomes of local and global relevance. They also investigate societal dimensions of land and water management, including extreme events.

These studies range from the development of new statistical down-scaling tools for climate change impact studies in western Canad, to the assessment of links between water, animals and people in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Scientific programme

The project has led to several key science questions. These involve improved understanding and modelling of:

  • Climate variability and change over the basin, including, in particular, the extremes of floods and droughts
  • Effects of land use/management change on environments of regional and global importance, and
  • Societal controls on water management, including operational constraints, water management vulnerabilities and policy and governance opportunities.

Highlights of the modelling programme include:

  • Cold regions hydrological model
  • Large-scale and down-scale models - climate past and future, hydrological models, atmospheric models, and dendrochronology
  • Water resources and decision support
  • Prairie modelling
  • Land-surface-hydrological models for environmental prediction
  • Fine-scale modelling - snow-melt models and water and energy balance models in alpine and forested terrain
  • Parameterisation, up-scaling and land surface schemes - the Canadian Land Surface Scheme (CLaSS) and Canadian small-lake model
  • Large basin-scale modelling - hydrological models for McKenzie River Basin, and Saskatchewan River Basin
  • Environmental modelling - river ice, fish habitat, basin-scale nutrient modeling
  • Groundwater flow and contaminant transport models

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Find out more about this project and others at

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