PEARL  Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory

Department of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston ON, Canada, K7L 3N6


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Bitumen processing facility. Emissions from bitumen upgrading facilities in the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, are recognized as an important source of these contaminants. Contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) measured within lake sediments have increased in concentration since commercial development of the bitumen resource began in the late-1960s.  PAHs (and other contaminants) are a prominent component of bitumen. Image courtesy of John P. Smol (Queen's University).

Bitumen processing facility near AR6. Industrial facility on the Athabasca River near site AR6 (February 26, 2008). In March 2008, Kelly et al. completed a snow-pack survey and reported high deposition of PAHs within a 50-km radius of AR6. They speculated that this deposition pattern has existed for decades. Image courtesy of and copyrighted by Kevin Timoney (Treeline Ecological Research). Surface mining. An example of active surface mining of bitumen (August 10, 2006)The footprint of active surface mining has increased from ~40 to 71,500 ha between 1974 and 2010. To date, about 170,000 ha of surface mine area has been approved to operate. Image courtesy of and copyrighted by Kevin Timoney (Treeline Ecological Research).

Industrial facility in the Athabasca oil sands region. The scale and pace of development of Alberta's oil sands is impressive, resulting in environmental concerns by some stakeholders and the public. Emissions from bitumen processing facilities have been linked to the distribution of contaminants across the regional landscape. The spatial and temporal patterns of contaminants in ecosystems can be recognized by direct monitoring, as well as indirect techniques, such as those utilized by researchers that examine lake sediment records. Image courtesy of and copyrighted by Kevin Timoney (Treeline Ecological Research). Bitumen processing facility. In 1980, production was 100,000 barrels per day. Currently, ~1.5 million barrels per day are produced. Production is expected to grow by 150% over the next 15 years, providing significant economic benefits and energy security for North America. Image courtesy of Jane Kirk (Environment Canada). Surface mining. Oil sands are natural hydrocarbon deposits composed of bitumen, clay, sand, and water. These deposits makeup 97% of Canada’s proven oil reserves and are predominantly found in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Bitumen is recovered from oil sands deposits by surface mining and steam-injected drilling. Much of the bitumen is too deep to be mined. Image courtesy of John P. Smol (Queen's University).

Natural PAH sources. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a natural component of oil sands deposits. They are also produced by other natural processes (forest fire, hydrocarbon deposits, volcanic eruptions), in addition to human activities. Natural erosion of exposed oil sands deposits by flowing waters has been suggested as an important process delivering PAHs to waterways. Image courtesy of John P. Smol  (Queen’s University). Example of study lake. Small, shallow lakes with undisturbed catchments near major oil sands operations were selected for sediment coring. Sediments at the bottom of lakes provide an important natural archive of environmental change. Patterns in the atmospheric deposition of contaminants associated with Athabasca oil sands mining and processing activities can be determined from sediment records. Image courtesy of Jane Kirk (Environment Canada). Collection of sediment core. Lakes were visited by  helicopter in March by an Environment Canada field team. Sediment cores were collected from the ice surface using a standard approach. In a laboratory, sediment intervals can be dated to provide age estimates (e.g. 1970 AD ± 4 years). Collectively, this yields a timeline of environmental changes that can be measured from the sediment core. Image courtesy of Derek Muir (Environment Canada).

Extrusion of sediment layers from core. Layers of lake sediment are removed or “sectioned” at intervals (typically 0.5 or 1.0 cm) from a core. In a laboratory, contaminants and biological remains are analyzed from select sediment layers to understand lake history and to “reconstruct” environmental changes. Image courtesy of Jane Kirk (Environment Canada). Daphnia. An example of Daphnia, commonly known as a water flea. Daphniids are important grazers of algae and are eaten by fish, waterfowl, and macroinvertebrates. Because Daphnia are sensitive to environmental conditions, including contaminant levels, they are used worldwide in toxicology and ecological studies. The arrow points to the body part (postabdominal claw) that is often recovered as a "sedimentary remain" in lake sediment cores. Image courtesy of Kim Lemmen (Queen's University). Daphnia sedimentary remains. Postabdominal claws of the cladoceran Daphnia are well-preserved in lake sediment cores. Daphnia are key members of a lake’s zooplankton community and consume algae floating in the water column. In our study lakes, Daphnia have increased in relative abundance since ~1960-1970 because of greater algal production due to climate change. Image courtesy of Joshua Kurek (Queen's University).
Chydorus sedimentary remain. The carapace of the benthic (substrate-associated) cladoceran Chydorus is a common biological remain in our study lakes from the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta, Canada. Image courtesy of Joshua Kurek (Queen's University). Bosmina sedimentary remains. Most body parts of the pelagic (open-water) cladoceran Bosmina are well-preserved in lake sediment cores. Pictured here is a headshield (right) and carapace (left) magnified at 400x. Image courtesy of Joshua Kurek (Queen's University). Alona sedimentary remain. The body parts of some zooplankton, such as cladocerans, are recognizable as biological remains in lake sediments with aid of a microscope. This postabdomen of the shallow-water genus Alona is pictured magnified at 400x. Image courtesy of Joshua Kurek (Queen's University).

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