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WBEA report assesses forest health in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region

Fort McMurray, Alberta – The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) published a report today, Assessing Forest Health in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, that summarizes 15 years of results from its Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring forest health monitoring program. 

WBEA’s Forest Health monitoring approach determines cause-effect relationships between air pollutants and forest ecosystem function. In 1998 WBEA established a program to determine if emissions of acidifying compounds were having long-term adverse effects on the regional terrestrial environment and, if so, to what extent. Between 2008 and 2011, WBEA embarked on a significant science build. This included adopting an ecological analogue approach to site selection, new biological, physical and chemical indicators, and instrumentation of plots.

By 2011/12, WBEA’s Forest Health Network was significantly expanded to 25 interior jack pine stand plots, 25 forest edge plots for early warning of change prior to a measureable effect, 6 meteorological towers, and passive/active monitoring analyzers.

The report, comprised of twelve chapters, integrates monitoring history, network design, results from air and deposition monitoring, deposition modeling above and below ground biological and chemical measurements made in 2011/2012. It also provides comparisons of indicators measured at five sites that were sampled in 1998, 2004 and 2011/2012.

Dr. Kevin Percy, WBEA Executive Director, says, “Environmental monitoring must never be complacent. It should always be innovative, adaptive and responsive. As such, our approach to forest health monitoring is truly holistic, and this report provides solid scientific data on emissions, pollutant transport, air quality, deposition and source contributions to terrestrial ecosystems.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • The highest passively measured and modeled air concentrations of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ammonia (NH3), and nitric acid (HNO3) were reported nearer to the oil sands operations.
  • Ozone (O3) concentrations, as expected, increased with distance from oil sands operations.
  • Similar patterns of air concentrations and spatial deposition for sulphur (S) and nitrogen (N) were reported.
  • Air quality and deposition measurements showed that sulphur (S) and nitrogen (N)  concentrations/deposition amounts are enhanced within 30 km of Oil Sands operations, and decline with increasing distance from them.
  • Sulphur (S) and nitrogen (N) air concentrations and deposition amounts reach background (very low) levels approximately 40-50 km away from the main oil sands emission sources.
  • Trace element and heavy metal concentrations in vegetation generally follow the same spatial distribution pattern.
  • There was no correlation between ecosystem variables and sulphur (S) and nitrogen (N) as acidifiers due to the deposition of base cations which neutralizes the acid input.
  • Aluminium (Al) toxicity is considered an important factor in forest deterioration caused by soil acidification. A ratio of base cations (BC) to aluminium (Al) in the soil solution is widely used as an indicator for potentially adverse effects on tree health.
  • There was no correlation between base cation/aluminum (BC: Al) ratios in the LFH and mineral soil and modeled sulphur (S) and nitrogen (N).
  • The BC:Al trigger set under the CEMA Acid Deposition Management Framework (http://cemaonline.ca/index.php/cema-recommendations/acid-deposition) was not exceeded, in 2011/12.

Of the report, Percy states, “The development in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) has been the focus of a lot of attention in recent years, making the information contained within this report all the more important. Data from this report can be used to inform environmental decisions, environmental impact assessments, and stakeholders and the public at large about environmental air quality in the Wood Buffalo region.”

BACKGROUNDER

WBEA’s Forest Health Monitoring Program

Shortly after its inception in 1997, WBEA established a program to determine if anthropogenic emissions of acidifying compounds such as SO2 and NOx gases were having long-term adverse effects on the regional terrestrial environment, and, if so, to assess the magnitude of any impact. The Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) is situated within the Canadian Boreal Plains Ecozone (with some extension of the Canadian Shield into the northeast), dominated by upland jack pine, aspen, and mixed forest, along with bogs and wetlands.

In 1998, WBEA initiated measurement and sampling at a network of 10 jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.) dominated interior forest stand plots (AMEC, 2000). Five additional plots were added between 1999 and 2003, and two were lost to development.

Another cycle of measurement and sampling of soils and vegetation occurred at 13 jack pine plots in 2004 (8 plots were previously sampled in 1998, and one in 2001).

The Forest Health monitoring approach establishes/determines cause-effect relationships between air pollutants and forest ecosystem function. Between 2008 and 2011, WBEA embarked on a significant science build, including adoption of the ecological analogue approach to site selection, adoption of new

biological/physical/chemical indicators, and instrumentation of plots. By 2011/12, WBEA’s Forest Health Network had expanded to 25 interior jack pine stand plots, 25 forest edge plots for early warning of change prior to a measureable effect, 6 meteorological towers, and passive/active monitoring analyzers.

In 2011, a multidisciplinary team of scientists and technical professionals completed an extensive sampling and measurement and sampling at the 25 regional forest health plots.

WBEA’s 2015 Forest Health Monitoring Report

The WBEA Forest Health Monitoring Report summarizes the most recent results from the Association’s forest health monitoring program, and compares these results where possible to historical monitoring carried out in 1998 and 2004. Specifically, results from the following sampling cycles:

  • 1998: measurement and sampling at a network of 11 jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.) plots took place.
  • 2004: measurement and sampling of soils and vegetation occurred at 13 plots.
  • 2011/12: the enhanced forest health network of 25 plots was sampled.

The 12chapter WBEA Forest Health report integrates monitoring history, network design, results from air/deposition monitoring, deposition modeling, above-and below-ground biological and chemical measurements made in 2011/12, as well as comparative status of some indicators measured at five plots that were sampled in 1998, 2004 and 2011/12.

Key results from the Report include:

  • The highest passively measured and modeled air concentrations of SO2, NO2, ammonia (NH3), and nitric acid (HNO3) were reported nearer to the oil sands operations.
  • Ozone (O3) concentrations, as expected, increased with distance from oil sands operations.
  • Similar patterns of air concentrations and spatial deposition for S and N were reported.
  • A west to east pattern was detected which resulted in higher S and N concentrations/deposition east of the mining and upgrading operations, than to the west.
  • A north-south pattern in air concentrations was detected, which demonstrated the influence of valley topography upon pollutant dispersion.
  • Air quality and deposition measurements showed that N and S concentrations/deposition amounts are enhanced within 30 km of Oil Sands operations, and decline with increasing distance from them.
  • N and S air concentrations and deposition amounts reach background levels approximately 40-50 km away from the main oil sands emission sources. 
  • Trace element and heavy metal concentrations in vegetation generally follow the same spatial distribution pattern.
  • Levels of S and N in jack pine foliage at six plots increased from 1998 to 2012.
  • Sulphur in soils was correlated with modeled S+N deposition at the LFH, 0-5 and 5-15 and 15-30 cm depths.
  • Nitrogen is being taken up in vegetation, and is not accumulating in mineral soils.
  • Neither soil N nor pH showed any correlation with measured deposition. 
  • Soil microflora, as well as vascular cover, forb cover and shrub richness were strongly and positively related to atmospheric deposition of base cations.
  • There was no correlation between ecosystem variables and S and N as acidifiers due to the deposition of base cations which neutralizes the acid input.
  • The role of atmospheric N deposition, as a nutrient, has the potential to increase in relative importance
  • Aluminium (Al) toxicity is considered an important factor in forest deterioration caused by soil acidification. A ratio of base cations (BC) to Al in the soil solution is widely used as an indicator for potentially adverse effects on tree health.
  • There was no correlation between base cation/aluminum (BC: Al) ratios in the LFH and mineral soil and modeled S and N deposition.
  • The BC:Al trigger set under the CEMA Acid Deposition Management Framework (http://cemaonline.ca/index.php/cema-recommendations/acid-deposition) was not exceeded, in 2011/12.

Environmental monitoring must never remain complacent, and must always be innovative, adaptive and responsive as is demonstrated in this report. We hope science-based monitoring continues to be responsive, and adaptable to continuing oil sands development, and will be fully supported and adequately funded going forward.

Click to read the full report: Assessing Forest Health in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region