Research Connections Calgary 2015

Inaugural Event, April 7th, 2015

University of Alberta Calgary Centre

During this event ACRRE’s world renowned research teams shared their research findings with government and industry decision makers. It served as a platform for feedback to our researchers about the questions and challenges decision makers are facing so that research programs continue to inform innovative policies and practices.

Mining and other resource extraction industries are affecting more and more areas in the forests of North America. A priority in the reclamation and certification of forest lands disturbed by industrial activity is their rapid redevelopment to forests. To rehabilitate these heavily disturbed areas back to functioning forest ecosystems, the planting of trees remains one of the most effective strategies for the redevelopment of a continuous tree canopy on a site. After landscape re-contouring and reconstruction of the surface soils, the selection and establishment of trees is a critical initial step in generating forest ecosystems that support functioning soils and their processes, understories, and the higher trophic levels.

It is well understood that access to good quality seedling stock is essential to achieve establishment success and early growth of trees. However, most reclamation areas have challenging initial site conditions. To meet these demands, new methods for the production and evaluation of seedling stock types are needed to ensure that that seedlings are fit to grow on a wide range of site conditions or are particularly designed to grow in very specific conditions.

Generally, defining seedling quality is difficult, as it is specific to species and site conditions. In comparison to the vast amount of information that is available for the quality assessment of seedling stock used for reforestation, relatively little knowledge exists on the characteristics of planting stock indicating their suitability for reclamation. Quality planting stock produced for reforestation purposes is also often used in reclamation projects; however, this has yielded mixed results. In addition, much seedling research has focused on the production of coniferous species while much less research has been dedicated to the study of deciduous tree species. In this presentation Dr. Landhäusser showed results from a range of studies that explored the role of seedling characteristics (such as seedlings size, growth strategy, root to shoot ratio, and nutrient and carbohydrate reserve status) as an assessment tool for stock quality and discussed the manipulation of these characteristics with respect to specific needs in forest restoration.

Legacy seismic lines used to explore and map bitumen resources are increasingly targeted for restoration action, particularly with respect to caribou conservation. However, less attention is given to: 1) landscape restoration planning where other biodiversity values, such as those identified in Alberta’s Biodiversity Management Framework, are considered; and 2) the effect of thresholds that necessitate use of offsets.

In this presentation, Dr. Nielsen explored approaches to prioritize restoration for some of the 53,496 km of legacy seismic lines in the Lower Athabasca. He considered constraints associated with the location of bitumen reserves and how conservation offsets can be calculated and prioritized to guide restoration-based offset projects. Specifically, Dr. Nielsen illustrated the need to consider passive versus active restoration trajectories and time-lags associated with recovery. This resulted in estimates of: 1) offset ratios; 2) the need to explicitly define baseline conditions for estimating offset ratios; and 3) the location of restoration sites where the cost-benefit is maximized at landscape scales.

Much has been written about heavy metal emissions from the industrial development of the Athabasca Oil Sands, giving rise to widespread concern for ecosystem and human health. Many of the statements made to date, however, are at odds with the established scientific knowledge on the natural enrichment of trace elements in carbonaceous sediments.
To better understand the sources and strengths of atmospheric emissions of potentially toxic heavy metals (silver, cadmium, lead, antimony, thallium), Sphagnum moss was collected from twenty-one rain-fed peat bogs in the vicinity of and surrounding open pit mines and upgrading facilities of Athabasca Oil Sands. Compared to the “cleanest”, ancient peat samples ever tested from the northern hemisphere and dating from the mid-Holocene (ca. 6,000 to 9,000 years old), after correcting for differences in the amount of mineral matter, we found that none of these metals were enriched in the mosses, relative to “natural, background” values.

To better understand aquatic emissions, water samples were collected from the Athabasca River at twelve locations between Fort McMurray and the Firebag River, as well as three tributary streams. Water samples were collected using the “clean lab” protocols developed for Arctic ice cores and measured in the new ultraclean SWAMP lab at the University of Alberta. We found that concentrations of all potentially toxic trace elements in the Athabasca River are very low. In fact, lead concentrations in some of the tributary streams of the Athabasca River (5 ng/l) are no different than Arctic snow ca. 5,000 to 8,000 yrs old – as revealed by ice cores collected on Devon Island .