5Q with environmental science professor Dr. Joshua Kurek
12/5/2014 9:55:11 AM1- You were the lead author in a study that showed contaminants from the development of the oil sands around Fort McMurray are increasing in surrounding lakes. What do these findings mean for the environment in this area?
The resource in Northern Alberta is one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon deposits and there is a huge effort by industry to mine the bitumen as fast as possible. The way that we understand what the impact will be of these activities is to monitor the environment. For years the Alberta government and industry were relying on advice from a monitoring program that was not designed properly and was not using state-of-the-art techniques. The recommendations received were in some cases not entirely reliable.
So studies such as ours are useful. By collecting sediments in lakes, we essentially go back in time. We can provide the baseline conditions before oil sands development began in 1967, and we can look at how much conditions have changed since development.
Environmental issues are very complex and often take a long time to understand. The first step is recognizing there is an issue. We are at that point in time, where both industry and government recognize there is a pollution effect. Today’s oil sands production rate is about 1.8 million barrels of oil per day, but in the next 15 years it is predicted that production will triple. So, it is unlikely that contaminants are going to be decreasing. Therefore, for sound policy, we need to recognize environmental trajectories in industrial regions such as Alberta’s oil sands.
2- How does your research inform your teaching?
I am teaching a course on research methods and students are using samples collected from lakes in Alberta’s oil sands region. It is a different model of learning, a more hands-on approach. The class is essentially acting as a research lab. They are learning how environmental samples are collected, how they are processed, and how to obtain relevant data and analyze it for their own research projects.
In the process, students are learning how environmental monitoring works. I lecture to keep everyone up to speed, but my course is really about experiential learning. They learn by doing. Students are generating their own data of bioindicators from oil sands lake and pond environments, and they are going to interpret how these ecosystems have changed through time. For example, whether the lakes have deteriorated in water quality, which is a measure of ecosystem health. Students will be able to see the impact from industry and other environmental stressors, such as climatic and hydrological change.
3- National Geographic recently wrote a piece on your research on “rock snot.” What is it and why is the fact that it is increasing around the globe significant?
“Rock snot” is the common name for a microscopic algae that lives on the bottom of rivers and lakes. When it proliferates or forms blooms, people suggest that it looks like dirty shag carpet from the seventies, but I think it looks like dreadlocks. ”Rock snot” blooms can carpet the bottom of pristine rivers that have high water quality. These blooms began appearing in the 1990s across Canada and other regions of the world.
Researchers at first believed that recreational users of rivers were spreading it from place to place. This was a reasonable hypothesis in the early stages of the blooms. But, using our paleolimnological techniques in Eastern Quebec, we were able to show that this algal species has always been present in these remote ecosystems. It is now much more abundant because some environmental condition in the habitat that it likes has changed. We are seeing blooms because the conditions that this organism prefers are becoming more common.
"Rock snot" prefers low nutrient conditions. This may be why we are seeing more blooms because nutrients in these rivers are decreasing. We don’t know why exactly this is occurring. Climate change is a huge stressor and we are also putting large amounts of nitrogen into our atmosphere, therefore potentially altering nutrient cycles. Discovering why these low nutrient conditions are happening in remote ecosystems is the next step in my research.
4- You have been dropped off on the tundra with little more than a rifle and some sampling gear to do research. Can you talk about this and where else you have done research?
As a student I was fortunate to be involved in several great research projects. Most of the research I completed was laboratory based, but we always had a chance to collect field samples from amazing landscapes. For example, I spent weeks on the tundra in western Alaska with a field assistant sampling lakes that had formed within inactive volcanoes. We stayed in tents, with all our personal and field sampling gear, plus a firearm for protection from bears.
Also, as a graduate student, I was able to sample dozens of pristine, remote alpine lakes in Tasmania, Australia. Talk about an amazing landscape and truly bizarre flora and fauna. Plus, the Australian trip beat spending another cold, snowy February in Canada. Even as an undergraduate, by chance, I happened to become involved in field research that sent me hiking and sampling lakes and ponds, all throughout the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine.
One of the most extreme places I have conducted research on was an island in the middle of the Bering Sea, Alaska. From there on a clear day, we could see Russia. Interestingly, that island is home to a unique First Nations culture that to this day largely practices a subsistence lifestyle living off mainly marine resources. It’s great to visit new places and experience diverse ecosystems and landscapes. I am hopeful that I will be able to help students at Mount Allison gain field-based research expertise and enjoy similar, positive field experiences as I have.
5- You are an avid salmon fisherman. What attracts you to this?
There are many iconic rivers in New Brunswick that are known around the world. It is one of the gems of our province. It is a chance to get together with friends and family. We go into the wilderness and we camp for a few days and canoe. We see amazing landscapes and if we are lucky, we occasionally catch a fish. Salmon are notoriously difficult to catch. The catching is a very small part of it for me. I truly enjoy being outdoors, especially around rivers and lakes. I do practice catch and release because salmon populations are declining and have been for decades. Salmon anglers are conservationists at heart.