Cold Regions Research Centre
Laurier Environmental Studies Professor part of $6.7m NSERC Oil Sands Collaborative Reclamation Study
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Richard Petrone, associate professor in Laurier’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, is part of a research team working on re-building peatland fens on the sites of depleted oil sand mines in northern Alberta.
Petrone is one of four environmental researchers who have received a total of $6.7 million in funding as one of the largest-ever Collaborative Research and Development Grants, combining funding from industry and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Of the funding, $2.65 million is from NSERC, and the rest is from Suncor Energy Inc., Imperial Oil Resources Ltd., and Shell Canada Energy.
Led by University of Waterloo geographer Jonathan Price, the group has begun work on establishing a pilot site on Suncor land in northern Alberta. Fens, groundwater-fed peatlands, cover much of the area landscape. The goal is to design and construct a fen on the reclaimed mine site, then to monitor how it develops into a “real” fen over the years.
“Research is vitally important to an economically and socially sustainable oil sands industry. Successful reclamation of the land used for mining is a big part of that,” said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier. “The research being done by Dr. Price and his team will help Canadian companies reintroduce plants and forests into regions after mining operations have ended, furthering Canada’s leadership in this important research area.”
Petrone will be responsible for looking at the exchange of carbon and water between the fen and atmosphere, and tracking how the constructed fen compares to nearby natural ecosystems.
Petrone has studied the natural systems in this boreal region for 10 years. “We have previously studied how natural fens in this climate type function and have used this knowledge to design the fen in this project,” said Petrone. “I am sure there will be some surprises as the site evolves, but we expect to see that this fen will be on the trajectory to becoming a self-sustaining peat-accumulating system over the next decade.”
Petrone’s fieldwork in northern Alberta will include “lots of students.” Six graduate students from Laurier are already tied to the program, and with this grant, more students and more post-doctoral fellows will be added.
Petrone and his team will be heading for northern Alberta early this summer to work on the nearby natural reference sites and begin instrumentation on the experimental site. “It’s an 11-hectare lab experiment,” according to Petrone.
“We are not only testing the construction of fens but, through the natural reference site work, are also learning a lot more about the details of the natural ecohydrological processes in boreal peatlands. This will not only ensure the successful reclamation of mined sites but also help us understand how climate change and land use change may impact natural peatlands in this region.”
Petrone is director of Laurier’s Cold Regions Research Centre, specializing in wetland ecohydrology in Canada’s boreal region, and a researcher with the Laurier Institute for Water Science.
For additional information about the project, see the University of Waterloo news release:
“Waterloo expert leading unprecedented project to rebuild peatlands in oil sands country.”