Wetlands in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region: the Nexus between Wetland Hydrological Function and Resource Extraction

Olena Volik
Matthew Elmes
Richard Petrone
Eric Kessel
Adam Green
Danielle Cobbaert
Jonathan Price

Oil sands development within the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) has accelerated in recent decades, causing alteration to natural ecosystems including wetlands that perform many vital ecosystem functions such as water and carbon storage. These wetlands comprise more than half of the landscape, and their distribution and local hydrology are the result of interactions among a subhumid climate, topography, and spatially heterogeneous surficial and bedrock geology. Since hydrology plays a fundamental role in wetland ecological functioning and determines wetland sensitivity to human disturbances, the characterization of anthropogenic impacts on wetland hydrology in the AOSR is necessary to assess wetland resilience and to improve current best management practices. As such, this paper reviews the impacts of oil sands development and related disturbances including infrastructure construction, gravel extraction, and land clearing on wetland function in the AOSR. Hydrologic disturbances in wetlands in the AOSR include changes to soil hydrophysical properties that control water table position, the interruption of recharge–discharge patterns, and alteration of micrometeorological conditions; these in turn govern wetland ecological structure and wetland ecosystem processes (e.g., evapotranspiration, nutrient cycling). Given that anthropogenic disturbance can affect natural wetland succession, long-term hydrological monitoring is crucial for predicting the response of these ecosystems to varying levels of human impact.