Oil Sand Reclamation: Construction and Assessment

In the oil sands development areas near Fort McMurray, where peatlands comprise up to 65% of the landscape, most of which being fens, active mining occurs on over 250 km2and is expected to cover approximately 1400 km2by 2023 (Alberta Environment, 1999). Large tracts of undisturbed peatland are being removed in the process. This research will evaluate the reclamation of mined landscape to a fen and its watershed. Based on a conceptual design presented by Price et al. (2010) and a revegetation strategy guided by Rochefort et al. (2003), a construction plan has been created (Daly, 2009), commencing August 2010. However, fen creation is a new concept, and designing a fen and its watershed is an untested concept.

Fen peatlands rely on ground- or surface water inflows to sustain the water balance and modify the water quality. The key to explaining the success of plant establishment and carbon exchanges within the system lies in understanding the hydrology and the associated transport of Na and NAs within and between constructed/natural upland areas and the constructed fen. The adequacy of recharged water for the fen is ultimately decided by its ability to sustain conditions wet enough to support fen-vegetation and suppress carbon loss. However, in the Western Boreal Plain annual water deficits exist most years, with wet years occurring on a 10 – 15 year cycle. Thus, the water budgets of wetlands here are dominated by vertical fluxes. The presence of persistent seasonal frost in these wetlands causes a perching of the water table that may be essential for sustaining an adequate level of wetness (Petrone et al., 2008). The role of this mechanism in fens is untested, and the ability of our reconstructed, revegetated fen to mimic natural systems is uncertain. We will document the process and if important, endeavour to promote it. Furthermore, the constructed landscapes will have differences in hydrology that will influence biogeochemical cycling and carbon dynamics, and therefore trace gas exchange.



The following graduate student positions are available.


This position will begin in 2018 and examine the implications of design choices and  strategies adopted to optimize fen reclamation in the future. Particular emphasis will be placed on the ecohydrological control on evapotranspiration and the role of persistent seasonal ice on lateral and vertical water fluxes from the constructed fen. This position will require field measurement and modelling, and will be best suited for a student with a strong foundation in hydrology or climatology.


A fully funded PhD is being sought for 2018 to study the Nikanotee constructed fen in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region to quantify how CO2 exchange at the fen and surrounding upland vary over time in response to interannual variations in weather, how the  components of GHG exchange at fen and upland change as the system evolves, and identify the main ecohydrological and biogeochemical drivers of these changes. This doctoral research will also address whether nutrient sources from ongoing mining activities are driving high rates of plant productivity, and whether the water use of this productivity is sustainable given the region’s sub-humid climate.


This position will begin in 2018 and evaluate how fluxes of water and carbon dioxide from ecosystems can be used to establish equivalent capability in an oil sands reclamation framework. This will use state-of-the-art measurements of ecosystem-scale fluxes of water, energy and carbon from a range of reclaimed, natural and disturbed sites. This will lead to an understanding of the timing, rate and quantity of water balance components, the interactions with nutrient availability, and how these are sensitive to ecosystem change (primary and secondary succession) and climate variability. Such information will help establish the key performance indicators of ecosystem success making site assessment more efficient and scientifically sound. This student will also strive to provide a mechanistic understanding of how ecosystem site and age affect water, energy and carbon fluxes by examining the sensitivity of evapotranspiration, net ecosystem exchange of CO2 and water use efficiency to soil water limitations, soil nutrient status, climate and ecosystem age and placement strategy. This will help standardize productivity metrics to assess/predict the trajectory of reclaimed systems.


This student will begin work in 2018 on the measurement of vegetation species, composition, forest density and site index at flux measurement sites will allow the extrapolation of processes and metrics to non-studied sites with similar vegetation characteristics and at similar developmental phases. This will provide interpretations on the implications of studied processes to ecosystem characteristics that determine reclamation success and achievement of equivalent capability.


Ecohydrological Evolution of a Constructed Fen in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. These fully funded MSc positions will begin in 2018 and will: quantify the hydrological/microclimatic effects of the developing vegetation layer in a constructed fen, its surrounding upland and reclaimed slopes on the trajectory of ecohydrological conditions in the constructed peatland; examine the constructed fen response to water stresses associated with greater weather variability; and, determine the relative importance of internal water conservation mechanisms versus external water sources for the long-term feasibility/maintenance of the constructed fen. As well as work on the constructed watershed, these projects will also analogues from a range in natural fens in the oilsands development region. This will assess the required hydrological conditions to produce the ecological functioning necessary to produce a sustainable wetland system within the subhumid climate of the Western Boreal Plain. This position will involve field measurements and be best suited for a student with a strong background in hydrology or climatology, and some experience in ecology.


This post-doctoral fellow, available immediately, will develop future climate change and extreme weather scenarios for the Boreal Observatory Network (Global Water Futures) and link to future fire regimes and boreal ecohydrology vulnerability research, oil sands mine water management and water futures risk assessment framework. This work will be a component of the Global Water Futures program, Boreal Water Futures component to develop improved pan-boreal future climate change, extreme weather, and fire regimes predictions through the collaboration with the core GWF future climate outputs and with a key stakeholder and user – the Canadian Forest Service, leveraging existing infrastructure and partner in-kind support to establish an evidence-based pan-Canadian Boreal Observation Network of boreal forests and wetlands to assess boreal water services vulnerability, and collaborate with NGO and industry users to integrate hydrological modelling approach to assess water futures risk at the wildland-society interface (mine management and communities).