5200 year record warns of impending water shortages in western North America - Wilfrid Laurier University news release

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Waterloo – Researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo are predicting a freshwater shortage in western North America beyond anything experienced in societal memory. The shortage will have implications for many sectors of society, including the Alberta oil sands industry, hydroelectric production and agriculture.

Using a 5,200-year record of water-level variations in Lake Athabasca, researchers show that western Canadian society developed during a rare period of abundant water supply that was ‘subsidized’ by glacier expansion. Now, shrinking glaciers and snowpacks are reducing the discharge in rivers originating in the central Rocky Mountain region that support downstream societies in western North America – a pattern which is expected to continue for many decades.

"We must now prepare for water shortages of duration and magnitude not evident in hydrometric records or our collective awareness,” said Brent Wolfe, principal investigator on the study and associate professor and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Northern Research Chair in Laurier’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

With the anticipated growth in the petroleum sector, along with additional demands on existing freshwater availability, decision-makers will be increasingly challenged to manage freshwater resources appropriately to minimize risks to downstream ecosystems.

"Our findings suggest that predictions made by decision-makers and planners in government and industry – based entirely on inadequate, short instrumental records – will grossly underestimate how rapid and severe the impending water scarcity will be,” said Tom Edwards, professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences.

This is particularly true for large areas of the arid interior of western North America, where water supplied by rivers originating at high elevation is the life-blood of regional economies.

The Alberta oil sands industry uses more than half of the total water allocation in the Athabasca River Basin. The industry’s water use is expected to increase by 120-165 per cent by 2025.

"As the 'alpine water tap' closes, much drier times are ahead,” said Roland Hall, professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Biology. “The transition from abundance to scarcity can occur within about a human lifespan. Our findings convey an important message that government and industry must start now to prepare for unprecedented water scarcity.”

Researchers emphasize that recent spring floods in the Prairies should not be misconstrued as an abundance of water. These short-lived floods were driven by snow that accumulated over a single winter at low-elevations. In contrast, sustained high flows occur during summer, fed by high elevation snowpacks and glaciers that grow and shrink over longer time periods. The study identifies that changes in these summer flows are likely to present the greatest challenges.

The study was published June 9, 2011 in Geophysical Research Letters.

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