Creating New Landscapes and Ecosystems

The Alberta Oil Sands


Address for correspondence: E.A. Johnson, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4, Canada. Voice: +1-403-220-7635; fax: +1-403-289-9311.


Extraction of oil from the Alberta Oil Sands through surface mining involves the removal of the overburden and oil sand to a depth of up to 100 m and over extremely large areas. While the operation of the bitumen processing plants has serious environmental impacts on downstream habitats, this article focuses on the reclamation of areas from which the oil sands have been removed, processed, and returned. This reclamation following closure of the mines will entail the complete re-creation of landforms and ecosystems at a landscape scale, with the goal of producing suitable habitats for plants, animals, and people. Such projects will require a reasonable understanding of the geophysical and ecological processes that operate at a wide range of scales. Some information is provided on the climate, hydrology, vegetation, and land use (past and current) of the Oil Sands area, situated within the Boreal Plain ecozone, to provide a framework for discussion of issues to be addressed in, and proposed guidelines for, such large-scale reclamation. Although none of the mines has yet closed, numerous consultant reports have been produced with recommendations for various aspects of such reclamation projects (e.g., wetland hydrology, vegetation, wildlife habitat). The scientific basis of such reports is found to vary with respect to depth of understanding of the relevant processes.