Dr. Heather McNairn

Dr. McNairn banner Text: We cover a lot of ground
Dr. Heather McNairn

Dr. Heather McNairn

Research Scientist – Remote Sensing Specialist
Ottawa Research and Development Centre

Why did you become a scientist?

I simply followed my curiosity. Science was never my grand plan, but I was always wondering 'why,' and what better way to scratch that itch than to become a scientist!

Meet Dr. Heather McNairn

Video transcript

This footage was recorded prior to the Government of Canada’s physical distancing guidelines. Canadians are encouraged to continue to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

[Soft, upbeat music starts.]

[Shot of green and purple lettuce crops.]

Heather McNairn's voice : Canada has almost 160 million acres of crop land...

[Satellite view of farmland, zooms out to reveal all of Canada.]

Heather McNairn: … so you can imagine how difficult it would be to put boots on the ground ...

[Aerial view of fields and a farm.]

Heather McNairn: … to map and monitor what's happening.

[Heather McNairn is being interviewed in an office as she stands in front of bookshelves.]

Text on screen : Dr. Heather McNairn, Research Scientist – Remote Sensing, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Heather McNairn: My name is Heather McNairn, I'm a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

[A team of researchers carefully move a satellite that they are building. A rocket carrying the satellite is propped up on its launch pad.]

Heather McNairn: Satellites are really our eyes in the sky, and what that allows us to do ...

[The rocket pierces through the clouds as it takes flight. Now in space, the rocket releases the satellite in orbit around the Earth.]

Heather McNairn: … is to take information from satellites…

[Animation of a satellite flying over Canada as it scans the land.]

Heather McNairn: …  and relate it to the condition of both our crops and soils.

[A worker cleans off a small lettuce crop. A group of researchers are in a meeting discussing complex mathematical equations.]

Heather McNairn: We've developed this methodology where we can estimate how much water is in the soil using radar satellites.

[Time lapse of large rainy clouds above farmland.]

Heather McNairn: If we have too much water in the soil, or not enough water, it creates risks...

[Heavy droplets of rain fall on a crop's leaves. A hand grazes the dry soil at the base of a corn crop.]

Heather McNairn: … so on one hand we could have drought, on the other hand we could have flooding...

[Aerial shot of a farmer standing in a flooded field.]

Heather McNairn: ... or we could have a situation where it's extremely wet…

[Close up of leaves with yellowish spots.]

Heather McNairn: … and that creates disease in the field.

[Shot of Heather McNairn being interviewed.]

Heather McNairn: As humanity in general, we have …

[A butterfly and a bumblebee harvest nectar on a sunflower.]

Heather McNairn: … the Earth to take care of. We have to do that in a very sustainable way.

[A woman buys fresh vegetables in a farmer's market. Two researchers analyze the moisture contents of soil in a field with specialized equipment.]

Heather McNairn: Where my science comes in, is it allows us to measure how we're doing and it allows us to monitor over time how we are doing.

[Two researchers work in a field. A satellite soil moisture map of Canada. Aerial shot of tractors harvesting a field.]

Heather McNairn: Are we being good stewards of the Earth and are we being good stewards of our resources?

[Fresh vegetable section in the grocery store. A group of people share a meal at a table.]

Text on screen : Learn more at agr.gc.ca/fields-of-science. We cover a lot of ground.

[Cut to the Canada wordmark. The soft, upbeat music fades out.]


What do you like the most about your job?

Believing that I am making a difference. I may be adding only a small drop of knowledge to a big ocean, but I know that my contributions are helping to improve our understanding of the world around us.

What was the biggest challenge you have ever encountered in your career?

Balancing the workload and my family. I think part of the challenge is that I have a difficult time saying "no" to anything.

What is the coolest fact about your field of science?

Seeing the Earth in so many different ways. Every image we look at tells us something different about our environment, and when we put a bunch of images together, the changes that are happening on the Earth come alive.

What is the most common question people ask you about your work?

"What can you see from space?" They are most curious about the level of detail at which we can see objects on the Earth.

Who inspired your career or who is your idol?

I don't have anyone specifically in my field who sent me in this direction, but two wildly different influencers in my life were my parents ("Work hard and always be honest"), and Nelson Mandela ("Quiet conviction to what you believe in"). I think about these concepts often, and they have definitely influenced how I approach my career.

NASA and Canada partner to manage impacts of extreme weather

Nobody beats the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, known globally as NASA, for keeping a sky-high watch on extreme weather events like drought and floods.

But even NASA can't see through clouds without their Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite equipped with unique microwave technology. Research partners like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) are important collaborators for NASA. Dr. Heather McNairn and her team at AAFC are helping NASA determine how accurately the SMAP satellite estimates the amount of water in soils under agricultural production, and what can be done to improve NASA's products. Just the right amount of soil moisture is essential to produce abundant, high quality harvests. That's the kind of information Dr. McNairn's team—and satellites—help provide.

So when NASA needs a partner to better understand these conditions for agriculture, it turns to Dr. McNairn. "We are a go-to partner for NASA in this research," says Dr. McNairn. "I think Canadians would be proud to know that."

Together with other federal scientists and Canadian universities, she and her team have led several major research projects to help NASA improve its soil moisture data. NASA provides these global moisture maps every 2-3 days, and these products are improving drought and flood forecasting.

Dr. McNairn and her colleagues also use a special class of satellites equipped with what's called synthetic aperture radars, to provide more detailed maps, complementing NASA's technology. This includes Canada's newly launched RADARSAT-Constellation Mission (RCM). RCM also sees through clouds and provides estimates of moisture content of soil at high resolutions.

The information from both SMAP and RCM technologies help farmers manage production. Soil that's either too wet or too dry for top crop production might not be obvious from the ground. And that's a problem.

Crops seeded into ground that's wet and could get flooded may rot and develop disease. Yet too little soil moisture from a pending drought can be just as damaging. Dry soil doesn't give seeds the water they need to grow, or get a good start. That's especially true when temperatures are hotter than usual.

Their research really is rocket science!

More agriculture and agri-food science