Sable Island Study

Scientists from Dalhousie’s Process Engineering and Applied Science (PEAS) and Oceanography Department have been awarded a $840,000 research contract from the Environmental Studies Research Funds to conduct a five-year study (2012-2017) of the natural and anthropogenic factors affecting air quality on Sable Island. The Environmental Studies Research Funds is a mechanism under the Canadian Petroleum Resources Act and the NS and NL Accord legislation that, under the management of a joint government/industry/public board, sponsors environmental and social studies pertaining to oil and gas exploration and development on Canada's frontier lands. Funding is provided from levies raised on oil and gas companies operating on these frontier lands.

The research team consists of Dr. Mark Gibson (Principal investigator, PEAS), Dr. Susanne Craig (Principal investigator, Research Associate, Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie), Professor Douglas Wallace (co-investigator, CERC.Ocean, Department of Oceaography, Dalhousie) and Professor Suzanne Budge (co-investigator, PEAS, Dalhousie).

Sable Island, Canada’s newest National Park Reserve has been the site of important meteorological and air quality monitoring for more than a century, providing the ideal location to host this new study and to build on existing research infrastructure and knowledge. The atmosphere surrounding Sable Island is affected by both terrestrial and marine air masses, and could include contributions from man-made pollution from the North American continent, chemicals emitted from terrestrial and marine plants, forest fires, emissions from shipping and petrochemical production activity, and the sea itself. The team’s objective is to quantify the contribution from each of these potential sources to the total amounts of very small particles and gases measured on Sable Island using state of the art instrumentation, while displaying results in near-real time on an interactive website.

To aid in this task, the researchers will use satellite imagery of both land and ocean to identify events such as forest fires or marine phytoplankton blooms combined with sophisticated models to determine whether the air measured on Sable Island has passed over these regions and, if so, how the resulting particles and gases have changed chemically during their journey.

MODIS Aqua image of phytoplankton bloom around Sable Island – July 3, 2010.
(Image courtesy of NASA,

This study will provide valuable insight into the factors affecting air quality on the Scotian shelf in the context of a changing climate, increased oil and gas extraction activity and under new regulations on marine shipping emissions. It is also hoped that knowledge gained during this study will provide important guidance on responses to environmental emergencies. The team is very excited about the opportunity to undertake such a multidisciplinary study that will include atmospheric chemistry and modelling, analytical chemistry, oceanography and remote sensing, and anticipate that the results will be highly relevant to understanding complex atmosphere-ocean interactions both here in Canada and around the world.

Observations are now being taken on the Island.

Study Photos

How we get there and back! Courtesy of Maritime Air

Environment Canada air chemistry building where our instruments are housed

Some of our air quality instrumentation (Thermo 5012 black carbon, Thermo 55i methane and total non-methane hydrocarbons, TSI DRX size-resolved PM mass)

Sable Island horse

Sable Island at sunset September 17, 2013