Eye in the sky: Brock collection captures 100 years of Niagara’s changing landscape

Niagara’s landscape has changed dramatically over the past 100 years — and its transformation has been captured in a collection of aerial photos available through Brock University.

The Niagara Air Photo Index is the most extensive collection of aerial imagery of the region, documenting its changing landscape from 1921 to 2020.

Preserved by Brock’s Map, Data and GIS Library, the collection contains more than 10,000 images.

Viewed by professionals and hobbyists alike, the air index is often used by researchers and environmental consultants in Niagara and around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

“Previously, to access the collection, an individual would have had to come into the library and look at each photo artifact one at a time,” says Sharon Janzen, Map Library Associate and Geospatial Data Co-ordinator. “Now, individuals can look at surrounding and adjacent areas all online, and they can do so without us worrying about damage to these fragile collections.”

To capture the original images, an airplane would have flown over the entire region in a prescribed linear pattern. Scheduled near the same day roughly every three years, each air photo was taken sequentially and overlaps with the next by 60 per cent. From line to line in the flight pattern there is a 20 per cent overlap.

“I’m often asked if we have older images before the 1920s,” says Janzen. “I remind people these images were dependant on the technology — the aviation and camera equipment — available at the time.”

As modern methods to capture images have evolved to use satellites, digital cameras or drones, the Niagara Air Photo Index provides a valuable look at the landscape and shorelines of the past. The flight paths in 1921 and 1932, for example, covered the historical construction of the third and fourth Welland Canals respectively.

“One way the index is often used is when a site is being considered for future development,” says Janzen. “It is necessary to see what existed on the land in the past. Learning whether a site was an open field or if there was a gas station with underground tanks needs to be considered for future development.”

The index is also regularly used as a research tool and teaching resource for scholars like Meredith Decock-Caspell (MS ’20), who created the interactive ArcGIS StoryMap, “If Coastlines Could Talk: A Story of Lincoln, ON,” as part of her Master of Sustainability Science and Society thesis research.

In the classroom, Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies David T. Brown incorporates the index into the curriculum of his second-year course, Human Dominated Ecosystems.

Examining landscape changes in the Niagara region, students in the course are tasked with creating a “Local Landscape Report” that describes how their chosen area has changed and evolved as a result of natural processes and human intervention.

“Brock’s Air Photo Index collection provides an invaluable resource for tracking and understanding these changes over the past century,” says Brown. “Each year, Sharon and her colleagues in the Brock Maps, Data and GIS Library provide students with an excellent overview of how to use this tool, providing a skill set they can revisit time and time again in their academic careers.”

Due to copyright law, there is a gap of publicly available photos between 1972 and 1995. If select images in that time span are required, they can be provided on a case-by-case basis.

For more information or to view historical photos of Niagara, visit Brock’s Map, Data and GIS Library website.

Read more stories in: Community, Digital Displays, Featured, Front Page, News
Tagged with: , , , , , , ,