SACKVILLE, NB — Recent research between scientists from two Canadian universities — Mount Allison University and Queen’s University — and government agencies has identified climate warming as the main driver of increased aquatic primary production in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR).
A research team including Mount Allison University geography and environment professor Dr. Josh Kurek and 2016 Mount Allison honorary degree recipient and Queen’s University biology professor Dr. John Smol, has found that industrial contaminants, including nutrients that enhance algal growth, are now widespread in the AOSR.
Understanding these trends is important because shifts may indicate lake-health declines. Their study was recently published in PLOS ONE and can be accessed free-of-charge on their website.
Lacking systematic monitoring data predating oilsands activities that began in the late 1960s, the researchers used dated sediment cores to reconstruct past algal production and industrial impact at 23 remote lakes in the oilsands region. Snowpack samples were also used to determine the modern nutrient deposition across the landscape.
“One of the biggest challenges we have in environmental work is the lack of reliable long-term monitoring data. Fortunately for lakes, their sediments act like a ‘history book’, archiving past environmental changes,” noted Smol, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change.
The study found that algal increases were independent of a lake’s location relative to industry, industry’s impact on the lake, and the deposition of nutrients in snow samples near the study sites.
“The region is continually experiencing substantial multiple stressors” says Kurek. “Our findings show the legacy of these stressors and further ecosystem shifts are likely to occur given humankind’s track record on carbon emissions.”
Other members of the research team include lead-author Ms. Jamie Summers (Queen’s), Dr. Jane Kirk, Dr. Derek Muir, Ms. Xiaowa Wang, Dr. Johan Wiklund, Dr. Marlene Evans (Environment and Climate Change Canada), and Dr. Colin Cooke (Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency).
Funding for the research was provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Canada-Alberta Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program, the Alberta Environmental, Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting Agency, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Mount Allison geography and environment professor Dr. Joshua Kurek conducts research in New Brunswick with Mount Allison University students.
Lake sediment core being collected through the ice using a corer on a metal pole. Photo credit: Jamie Summers, Queen’s University.