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Oil sands effects studied at Saskatchewan’s boreal lakes

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 25, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Drilling deep for samples in Northern Saskatchewan. Student Mohamed Anas (l) with Steve Wilkie from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.
Drilling deep for samples in Northern Saskatchewan. Student Mohamed Anas (l) with Steve Wilkie from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ken Scott.

Student Mohamed Anas has had to travel far and dig deep for his research.

Anas needed a helicopter to land on the frozen boreal lakes of Northern Saskatchewan. Once there, he drilled through thick ice to get to lake bottom sediment for samples to take back to the lab at the University of Regina.

“It’s been an adventure,” says Anas, who is a PhD student in Biology and part of a research team that includes the U of R’s Department of Biology and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. 

The team is examining the potential link between oil sands emissions and acid stress on northern Saskatchewan lakes.

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Dr. Björn Wissel

“We are seeing some intriguing trends but we don’t have any baseline data on the water chemistry and biology of these lakes,” says Anas, who is working under the supervision of  Dr. Björn Wissel, Adjunct Professor at the U of R and Associate Director of the Institute of Environmental Change and Society, located on the U of R campus.  Dr. Wissel and Anas have co-authored several research articles on the acid sensitivity of boreal lakes.

The research team surveyed 250 lakes and found that zooplankton communities exhibited signs of acid stress.

Zooplankton are widely used as indicators of environmental stress as it relates to acidification of lakes.

What is unclear is the cause.

“Is this a natural phenomenon? Is it the result of what’s going on at the oil sands? Is it climate change? Or a combination of things,” says Dr. Wissel.  

Anas is analysing zooplankton fossils in ten sediment cores from lakes on the Saskatchewan side of the border, which are close to and downwind from the oil sands. The cores act like a time capsule and allow for analysis going back from decades to centuries. In this case it’s at least 100 years.  

“This allows us to examine the conditions of the lakes as they were before the oil sands development and if and how things changed over time,” says Anas, who has received support from the U of R’s PhD Graduate Research Fellowship program.  

Anas hopes the results can be used as a framework to monitor and protect lakes in the boreal region in the future which could be a challenge given effort and cost required to do work in the far north.

“For the most part these are not accessible parts of the province.” he says.

Anas is now involved in the long task of analysing the sediment. He hopes to have some preliminary results this spring.

The information is being shared with Dr. Kenneth Scott, senior scientist from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, which is providing financial, technical and scientific support for this project.

Recently, Anas was able to expand his research with the help of Environment Canada to include lake samples from Northern Alberta, located closer to the oil sands.