Drivers, Pressures, and State Responses to Inform Long-term Oil Sands Wetland Monitoring Program Objectives

Cari Ficken
Stephanie Connor
Rebecca Rooney
Danielle Cobbaert
Resource Date:

Boreal peatlands provide numerous ecosystem services ranging from carbon sequestration to the provisioning of habitat for species integral to Indigenous communities. In the Oil Sands Region of Alberta, Canada, human development related to oil and gas extraction occurs in a wetland-dominated landscape. Wetland monitoring programs can determine the extent to which development impacts wetlands, but existing monitoring programs focus on characterizing biodiversity across the region and on compliance and regulatory monitoring that assumes impacts from oil sands development do not extend past lease boundaries. This is unlikely to be true since some impacts, such as particulate deposition, can extend over large areas contingent on local weather and topography. To inform the development of a new regional wetland monitoring program to assess the cumulative effects of oil sands development on wetlands, we synthesized information on the scope of wetland research across the Oil Sands Region, including the anthropogenic stressors that impact wetlands and the wetland characteristics sensitive to different disturbances. We developed a conceptual model linking human development with wetland ecology in the region to make explicit the relationships among oil sands development stressors and different components of wetland ecosystems. By highlighting testable relationships, this conceptual model can be used as a collection of hypotheses to identify knowledge gaps and to guide future research priorities. relationships among We found that the majority of studies are short-term (77% were ≤ 5 years) and are conducted over a limited spatial extent (82% were sub-regional). Studies of reclaimed wetlands were relatively common (18% of all tests); disproportionate to the occurrence of this wetland type. Results from these studies likely cannot be extrapolated to other wetlands in the region. Nevertheless, the impacts of tailings contaminants, wetland reclamation activities, and surface water chemistry are well-represented in the literature. Research on other types of land disturbance is lacking. A coordinated, regional monitoring program is needed to gain a complete understanding of the direct and indirect impacts of human development in the region and to address remaining knowledge gaps.