Tar Sands/Oil Sands Could Acidify an Area the Size of Germany
Acid contamination of air, soil, and water from Canada’s tar sands/oil sands could eventually damage an area the size of Germany, according to a study published late last month in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
Five summers ago, researchers from Environment Canada, Trent University, and other public and non-profit institutions “flew over the Alberta oil sands to measure airborne emissions in the vicinity and downwind of major mines,” CBC reports. Combining their findings with weather and snowpack data, the researchers built a model of the acid contamination to be expected on the ground and in wetlands.
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The model results show that pollution is “threatening terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, already fragile from years of acid exposure.”
“This is a warning,” said study author and Environment Canada senior research scientist Paul Makar. Noting that “acid pollution can result in stunted tree growth, diminished aquatic life, and reduced fish stocks,” he cautioned that “if we continue to emit at this level, there will be ecosystem damage at some point in the future.”
The model produced by Makar and his fellow scientists shows impacts extending “over 330,000 square kilometres of wetlands and across 10,000 square kilometres of terrestrial ecosystems,” an area the size of Germany and half the size of Alberta, CBC states. “Some industry players have invested heavily in recent years to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions, which lead to the acidification of water and soil,” CP notes. “But it’s not clear whether overall oilsands emissions have fallen.”
Part of the value of the study lies in its fine-grained accounting for variations in sensitivity to acid pollution, a measurement that depends on minute particulars of soil and water chemistry, CBC notes. Soils that are rich in limestone, for example, will be alkaline and therefore better able to neutralize airborne acids which settle on them.
The study found that wetlands, which tend to lack that buffering capacity, are the ecosystems at greatest risk. “Fish will be the canary in the coal mine,” Makar said. “They’ll start having problems first.”