Oil Sands Environmental Realities and the Nature of Things: Researchers enhance natural growth with successful agricultural soil methods, wetlands restoration with beavers, avian protection with hi-tech marine radar and light spectrum research


Who’s the real problem when it comes to oil sands reclamation?  Impatient humans.  Can ducks survive landings on tailings ponds?  Yes – though hi-tech methods are in development to keep them away. And how can beavers be partners in wetlands reclamation?

These and other findings were presented recently at the University of Alberta’s Calgary Centre where three scientists addressed their leading edge work in the management of the oil sands environmental footprint.

Leading off the evening, Dr. Anne Naeth walked the audience through a visual compilation of comparisons of natural vegetation growing at different research reclamation sites. Naeth is a biologist and agrologist who has worked in industrial land reclamation and ecological restoration at industrial sites around the world.

In a lively presentation, Naeth discussed the differences in definition of what constitutes reclamation – some people believe it means to return the land to its exact form; her definition and that of Alberta Environment require the land to be returned to an ‘equivalent capability’. This, however, requires restoring a complete ecosystem, not just the land.

Naeth pointed out that reclamation takes time, but humans are impatient. Her team has discovered methods to improve natural responses – for instance adding LFH or forest floor material to soil substrates – to triple the plant growth response. Reclamation specialists establish the building blocks for nature to take over.

Images of early abandoned work sites in Fort McMurray area from some 30 years ago proved that nature has a mind of its own and without human contribution, can reconstruct itself well; with human intervention, the response time is minimized and species diversity enhanced.

Most surprising was the news that some 70 species can grow in tailings soil alone – but to ensure they thrive, Naeth’s team has developed methods of recreating the decomposing litter typically found on forest floors. The vibrant green results shown in her presentation spoke for themselves.

Dr. Glynnis Hood followed. She discussed her research of small aquatic mammals undertaken for CEMA – Cumulative Effects Management Association – in 2009.

She had ploughed through historical records and interviewed many elders and fur trappers of the area. It was astounding to hear that in the early days, trappers could take some 300 muskrat from northern ponds in a day – and return for more the next day.        

Likewise, it was sad to learn that the beaver had been trapped out of Wood Buffalo by the 1940’s and amazing to know they’d proliferated after reintroduction in 1948.

Beavers are Hood’s focal point. Her recent book “The Beaver Manifesto” highlights the fact that beavers are an integral part of wetlands recharge. Her GIS mapping study revealed that ponds with beavers have 9 times more open water – even during significant drought periods such as that of 1950 and 2002. A hydrologist colleague of hers reported that beavers supply greater water than a 200 year flood volume in recharging surface and ground water.

However, beavers are also consummate diggers and earth-movers. Some of Hood’s research has focused on innovative methods of creating “pond levellers”, so that beaver ponds don’t flood important facilities. This innovation reduces the human-animal conflict.

Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair completed the panel’s presentation, reviewing her leading edge work on avian protection. After the much publicized duck deaths in Syncrude tailings ponds in 2008, the courts required the company to support ways to improve avian safety and protection.

St. Clair presented three innovations.

The first, based on earlier work with Rob Ronconi, is an on-demand system that uses marine radar to detect birds and then activate deterrents so as to avoid bird “habituation” at tailings ponds.

The second is an automated photographic bird monitoring system to estimate the number and type of birds coming in contact with ponds. The system offers surprisingly high levels of precision for both counts and species identification and could eventually replace human monitors.

Finally, St. Clair discussed European research findings indicating that birds actually ‘see’ magnetic fields while flying, but that this ability appears to be disrupted by red light. It seems possible that altering the color of industrial lighting may protect wild birds. A drilling platform using green lights had reduced visitation by birds. The same may hold for oil sands infrastructures.

Significant strides are being made in environmental innovation and oil sands reclamation. The elegant solutions and insightful research presented left no doubt of the view expressed by the researchers that “Science is based in creativity in its best moments.”