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How scholarship winner François Robinne studies wildfires’ impact on water

Disasters like last year’s wildfire in Fort McMurray can have devastating and long-lasting impacts on the affected communities as well as the local ecosystem. François-Nicolas Robinne, the 2017 Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipient from the University of Alberta, studies the potential consequences of wildfires on water quality and quantity. Find out more about François and his research.

The wildfire around Fort McMurray in May 2016 reminded Canadians of the devastating impact forest fires can have on a community. However, such events can also have significant but often less visible consequences on the surrounding environment. François-Nicolas Robinne, one of this year’s Esri Canada GIS Scholarship  recipients, studies the risk to water security posed by wildfires around the globe. I asked François via email to tell me more about himself and his research.

KA: Where are you currently studying and what are your previous degrees?

FR: I’m a PhD candidate in forest biology and management in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta. I’m part of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science. My research focuses on wildfires and how they create a risk to water security. A large part of my work aims at raising awareness on the potential adverse consequences of landscape fire on water supply quality and quantity for societies and ecosystems around the world. It’s a topic that has been of growing interest for the past few years, particularly after the Horse Creek fire in Fort McMurray or the massive blaze in Chile early this year. 

My previous degrees (BSc and MSc) were in environmental geography. They gave me a broad view of natural and human processes in the world, and I’m now proud of being a geographer, which I’ll still consider myself to be after my PhD.

KA: You are originally from France. Why did you choose to come to Canada to do a PhD?

FR: A good friend of mine – a scientist, by the way – called me one day in 2012 and asked me if I was interested in starting a PhD on the risk to water security caused by wildfires, as he knew I worked on this before in France. He offered an incredible opportunity, and I said yes.

I’ve also wanted to come to Canada since I was a child. I remember watching, again and again, National Geographic videos my grandmother had, which consisted of long episodes on Canada’s wonderful landscapes. I made my dream come true, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity Canada gave me. I’m euphoric I made this choice, and, even if the PhD process has been long, I enjoy the program and my department!

KA: Do you feel that winning an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship has helped you?

FR: Well, first, I felt it was a self-confidence boost, which is critical to achieving a PhD! After working so long with Esri products and achieving so much using them, it was a real reward, as well as an honour to receive this scholarship. Then, on a more practical aspect, I’ve been using the funding from the scholarship to buy scientific books and to cover a part of my expenses during the European Geosciences Union Assembly in Austria, where I was invited to present my research.

KA: What software and resources have you used from the scholarship or do you intend to use?

FR: I’m a dedicated user of ArcGIS Desktop, so this is what I use the most, and I am very happy my laptop has a full version now installed thanks to the scholarship. Now I can be a nerdy GIS user at home too! I have also booked two instructor-led courses to improve my use of Python in the ArcGIS environment.

KA: When did you start using GIS and why?

FR: I started using GIS almost 15 years ago, during my BSc in Environmental Geography at Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 in Southern France. I recall working with ArcView 3.2 back then. It seems like an eternity! I think I couldn’t handle the interface anymore…

KA: Do you think GIS skills are important to have in your chosen field?

FR: I think GIS skills are a requirement when one is working on natural processes such as wildfires or the water cycle. At the least, anyone working in this field should know how to make a state-of-the-art map. I know I’m very biased because I’ve been using GIS technologies for so long, I like it and I teach it. I’m not saying that anyone should have mastery over spatial analysis. However, understanding spatial processes, or at least being curious about them, truly widens the vision one has of the world and helps to shape research questions. This is a fundamental aspect of geographic information science.

KA: Can you tell me a bit about a couple of projects you have worked on where you’ve used GIS?

FR: My PhD research is centred on the global analysis of wildfire risk to water security. I use an approach based on indexation modelling, which means that I use a large panel of indicators representing different aspects of post-fire hydrogeomorphic hazards and their impacts on freshwater resources. All those indicators are organized into different categories representing the themes commonly accepted for risk analysis. Then, those indicators are weighted depending on the importance I want to give them, and they are aggregated. The result gives a score for each pixel where a higher score means a greater level of risk. My first paper on this topic was published last year. Other papers will come soon!

The top map shows the Global Wildfire-Water Exposure Index as provided by additive aggregation. It intersects wildfire activity with water resources to provide a measure of exposure. The index is dimensionless; scores are between 0 and 100. Higher values (100, dark red) mean a higher concentration of risk factors to surface freshwater resources. The bottom map shows the terrestrial biomes also provided for comparison purposes. In “A Global Index for Mapping the Exposure of Water Resources to Wildfire” - doi:10.3390/f7010022

Related to this topic, I also worked on adapting the “From the Forests to Faucets” approach developed in the U.S. to the geographic context of Alberta, as a part of a project led by the Canadian Water Network. The original goal was to get a sense of the potential exposure of provincial watersheds to wildfire activity, and I developed a toolbox that would allow any user to reproduce the steps in their region of interest. I hope to publish the initial results for Alberta by the end of this year.

KA: Do you plan/hope to stay in Canada after you graduate?

FR: Yes, I do plan to stay. My advisor and I just got funding, so I can start my post-doc in the same lab and on the same topic, although with much more focus on Canada. I would like to stay in academia, but, if that doesn’t work out, I think I have enough skills, especially in GIS, to find an interesting position in Canada. Moreover, my fiancée is from Alberta, and this is another excellent reason to stick around! We want to live our life in Canada, but we may be open to opportunities overseas. We love Scotland by the way. 

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins