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Have atmospheric emissions from the Athabasca Oil Sands impacted lakes in northeastern Alberta, Canada?

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The rate of bitumen extraction in northeastern Alberta, Canada, is outpacing the state of ecological understanding of the region, so that the extent of potential disturbances caused by atmospheric deposition remains largely unknown. Atmospheric SO2 emissions from the Fort McMurray region of Alberta (~300t·day–1) constitute ~5% of the Canadian total. Combined with an estimated NOx production of ~300t·day–1, these emissions have the potential to acidify surface waters. Diatom assemblages in dated sediment cores from eight acid-sensitive lakes were analyzed to assess the effects of acidifying emissions on boreal lake ecosystems. There is no evidence that these lakes have become acidified. Instead, many of the lakes show characteristic changes towards greater productivity and occasionally greater alkalinity. The absence of evidence for acidification does not imply that emissions from the Oil Sands are environmentally benign, but rather suggests that the biogeochemistry of these lakes differs fundamentally from well-studied acidified counterparts in northern Europe and eastern North America. Complex interactions involving in-lake alkalinity production, internal nutrient loading, and climate change appear to be driving these lakes towards the new ecological states reported.

Le taux d’extraction du bitume dans le nord-est de l’Alberta est en train de surpasser l’état de notre compréhension de l’écologie de la région, au point où l’importance des perturbations potentielles causées par les précipitations atmosphériques reste en grande partie inconnue. Les émissions de SO2 atmosphérique dans la région de Fort McMurray de l’Alberta (~300 t·jour–1) représentent ~5 % du total canadien. Combinées à une production estimée de ~300 t·jour–1 de NOx, ces émissions peuvent potentiellement acidifier les eaux de surface. Nous avons analysé les peuplements de diatomées dans des carottes de sédiments de date connue provenant de huit lacs vulnérables à l’acidité afin d’évaluer les effets de ces émissions acidifiantes sur les écosystèmes des lacs boréaux. Il n’y a pas d’indication d’acidification de ces lacs. Au contraire, plusieurs des lacs affichent des changements caractéristiques d’une évolution vers une plus grande productivité et, à l’occasion, une alcalinité accrue. L’absence de signes d’acidification n’implique pas que les émissions provenant des sables bitumineux soient sans effet sur l’environnement, mais elle indique plutôt que la biogéochimie de ces lacs diffère de celle des lacs acidifiés similaires bien connus du nord de l’Europe et de l’est de l’Amérique du Nord. Des interactions complexes impliquant la production d’alcalinité dans le lac même, la charge interne de nutriments et le changement climatique semblent être en train de conduire ces lacs vers les nouveaux états écologiques que nous avons décrits.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2008

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  • Published continuously since 1901 (under various titles), this monthly journal is the primary publishing vehicle for the multidisciplinary field of aquatic sciences. It publishes perspectives (syntheses, critiques, and re-evaluations), discussions (comments and replies), articles, and rapid communications, relating to current research on cells, organisms, populations, ecosystems, or processes that affect aquatic systems. The journal seeks to amplify, modify, question, or redirect accumulated knowledge in the field of fisheries and aquatic science. Occasional supplements are dedicated to single topics or to proceedings of international symposia.
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