Site Accessibility Statement
Wilfrid Laurier University Office of Research Services
April 24, 2014
Canadian Excellence

Utikuma Region Study Area, Alberta


Graduate Student & Employment Opportunities in Ecohydrology Research

My primary research interest is to develop a further understanding of soil – vegetation – atmosphere interactions, especially as influenced by hydrologic conditions. Specific questions of interest to me include evapotranspiration and trace gas exchange in wetland systems, interactions between vegetation and hydrology and climate (weather), the impacts of ground ice (seasonal ice and permafrost) and modeling the impacts of climatic and land-use stresses on these linkages. The primary focus of this research is to examine the hydroclimatological linkages between cold region (Boreal and Subarctic) wetlands and ponds and their surrounding upland/mineral areas and the resulting impacts on the regional carbon balance. Special emphasis is placed on quantifying the impacts of disturbance in the surrounding landscape on these wetlands (i.e. agriculture, petroleum development, forestry, drought and succession) on water and biogeochemical cycling and carbon storage in the wetland complexes. My present research focuses on catchment hydrological processes and their influence on wetland permanence and biogeochemical functioning in stressed northern ecosystems (Western Boreal Forest (Slave Lake, Red Earth Creek, Fort McMurray and Anzac, Alberta), Subarctic Wetlands and Tundra (Nahani and Scotty Creek, NWT, and Coppermine River region, NWT); antecedent hydrological and larger scale climatological controls on hydrological processes and trace gas fluxes from agricultural fields (Strawberry Creek and Hopewell Creek, Ontario). All of this research involves combining theoretical, laboratory and fieldwork examining micrometeorological, hydrological and trace gas exchange in heterogeneous vegetated systems.

I am actively looking to recruit students in any of the areas below. All positions will be fully funded. 
Hydrology, Ecology and Disturbance in the Western Boreal Forest

Integrated research about the complex hydrology in the western forests and wetlands of Canada (both boreal and montane) is being conducted by an interdisciplinary group of 7 scientists from the University of Alberta and Wilfrid Laurier University. Research areas include hydrology, hydrogeology, meteorology, water resources engineering, forest hydrology, ecology, and biogeochemistry. Basic research into the hydrologic function of boreal forests and their surrounding wetlands will provide forestry companies with improved tools to limit hydrologic impacts of forest harvest activities, and will guide oil sands companies in their efforts to reclaim mining sites to functional ecosystems. (A more detailed summary is provided below).

The current research program is being conducted at research sites near Utikuma Lake, Lac La Biche and Fort McMurray in the boreal forest of Alberta. Financial support from forestry and oil and gas companies and NSERC are in place. Related projects are addressing the hydrology and hydrogeology of reclaimed oil sands sites.

The research program is actively soliciting graduate students at both the master’s (Masters of Science (MSc)) and doctoral levels to undertake a variety of field research and computer modelling projects starting over the next 4 years. General descriptions of proposed projects are below. If the nature of the integrated hydrological research in Alberta’s forests appeals to you, and if you have expertise in the areas mentioned above, please contact Dr. Richard Petrone for more information.


Forest harvesting and oil sands development are major components of the Albertan and Canadian economies that have a large potential to impact the Western Boreal Forest (WBF). A fundamental understanding of the interaction of water and energy pathways and forest succession (primary or secondary) and hydrologic recovery is the cornerstone to developing best forestry management practices and to establishing design criteria and benchmarks to which successful reclamation efforts will be built.
Our research uses a combination of a) paired catchment forest harvest experiments at fine (10ha) and coarser (>10km2) scales, and b) hydrologic modelling to develop a management framework. This framework will be used to predict the influence of forest harvest practices and vegetation succession on water cycling as influenced by the geology and sub-humid climate of the WBF. We will develop landscape indices that provide information on an area’s response to particular disturbances and allow non-hydrologists to predict and assess the hydrologic impacts of forest management practices (FMP’s) on harvested sites and forest succession on reclaimed landscapes.
Specific deliverables of benefit to the Canadian forestry and oil sands industries arising from the project include:
1) new or refined landscape hydrologic models to describe the current and predict the future behaviour of existing and reclaimed landscapes characteristic of the Western Boreal Forest;
2) effective planning tools that can be used to develop rigorous and objective scientific criteria and recommendations for cumulative risk assessment of the hydrologic consequences of FMP at a given scale, and appropriate reclamation procedures and landscape configuration of oil sands leases; and
3) appropriate and defensible soil and hydrologic indicators for monitoring and assessing success of FMP and oil sands reclamation.
We anticipate that the management framework will allow results of our research to be applied to provincial water strategies and to serve as guidelines for integrated land managers at the provincial level. The framework can also be applied at the national scale, facilitating the transfer of research knowledge among different regions.


The following graduate student positions are available.


This position will begin in 2013 to examine the ecohydrological effect of road removal on a wetland, and assess the success of restoration approaches. A rich fen system in Fort McMurray, Alberta region with a road constructed for well pad access is being decommissioned and are being used to test restoration approaches to returning the wetland to its original ecohydrological functioning. The objectives of this project are to study  the vegetation response and hydrologic conditions, and the resultant greenhouse gas exchange to the removal of the road material using several restoration approaches. Another component involves looking at the impacts and response of the peat physical properties before and after road construction and removal. This research will require the student to bridge ecological and hydrological research working in a team of hydrologists and wetland ecologists.


This position will begin in 2013 and study the influence of aspen stand age on carbon function recovery. This research will compare aspen stands of similar ages of above ground biomass but of different stand/root maturities by examining recently planted stands and recently harvested mature stands. The student will address changes in hydrological, nutrient and carbon cycling, as well as upland and peatland connectivities, and be involved in the development of lump modelling and determining functional responses to land use changes. Certain aspects of this research direction could be partitioned into MSc projects as well.


This position will begin in 2013 and build on ongoing research on natural variability in CO2 exchange within natural  peatlands along a gradient in ground ice conditions (seasonal ice to discontinuous permafrost) by examining and modelling changes in peatland water and nutrient cycling as a function of ground thermal processes.The objectives of this project are to examine/model the influence of ground ice conditions on the microclimate and hydrologic pathways, and therefore plant and microbial activity in peatlands. This will provide a more useful tool to landuse managers in this region of the Boreal Forest, where hydrologic connections between peatlands and forests are of the utmost importance.


This position will begin in 2013 and will monitor biogeochemical cycling in aspen forests of various ages. Microclimatic effects, soil/root hydraulic processes and canopy throughfall and stemflow are all expected to interact and influence biogeochemical cycling within the rooting zone of Western Boreal Plain forests. The degree of this interaction will largely be influenced by the age of the stand (clone) system - as with aspen the age/size of the above ground biomass is not necessarily indicative of the state of the clone root system. This research will integrate and use previous data from other undergraduate and graduate student work at sites in the Utikuma Lake and Fort McMurray regions of Northern Alberta.


Wildfire represents the largest natural disturbance in Canada's WBF and is predicted to increase in both severity and area burned in the future. Assessing and mitigating the impact of wildfire in the WBF is challenging due to the combination of large spatial heterogeneity of deep glacial deposits with a sub-humid climate. This results in dynamic and complex surface and groundwater interactions and potentially a large range in sensitivity of aquatic systems to local and regional disturbance. This study takes advantage of the recent Utikuma Complex forest fire (SWF-060, ~90,000 ha) that burned through the Utikuma Region Study Area (URSA), May 2011. At URSA, regional hydrogeological and local scale studies have been conducted, beginning in 1999, on forest-wetland-aquatic hydro-chemical linkages located on a variety of landforms and in landscape positions representative of the WBF. Paired temporal (pre-, post-burned) and spatial (reference, burned) comparisons will be conducted to examine how short-term evapotranspiration and carbon exchange responds in the years immediately following the wildfire disturbance along interacting landscape gradients. The longer-term goal of the research will be to test and develop regional conceptual and numerical models predicting how heterogeneity in glacial surgical deposits and landscape position influencing the scale of groundwater - surface water interactions, and influence the resilience and resistance of forest-wetland-aquatic ecosystems to large scale wildfire disturbance.

This position will begin in 2013 and build on ongoing (pre-fire) research on natural variability in CO2 exchange within natural peatlands by examining, and modelling, changes in peatland water and carbon exchange as a result of fire. The objectives of this project are to model the response of atmospheric CO2 and evapotranspiration fluxes in four peatlands to fire in order to understand how the removal of canopy structure and ground cover alters the microclimate and hydrologic pathways, and therefore plant and microbial activity. This will provide a more useful tool to land use managers in this region of the Boreal Forest, where hydrologic connections between wetlands and forests are of the utmost importance. 

Oil Sands Reclamation of Functioning Wetland Ecosystems

In the oil sands development areas near Fort McMurray, where peatlands comprise up to 65% of the landscape, most of which being fens, active mining occurs on over 250 km2and is expected to cover approximately 1400 km2by 2023 (Alberta Environment, 1999). Large tracts of undisturbed peatland are being removed in the process. This research will evaluate the reclamation of mined landscape to a fen and its watershed. Based on a conceptual design presented by Price et al. (2010) and a revegetation strategy guided by Rochefort et al. (2003), a construction plan has been created (Daly, 2009), commencing August 2010. However, fen creation is a new concept, and designing a fen and its watershed is an untested concept. Fen peatlands rely on ground- or surface water inflows to sustain the water balance and modify the water quality. The key to explaining the success of plant establishment and carbon exchanges within the system lies in understanding the hydrology and the associated transport of Na and NAs within and between constructed/natural upland areas and the constructed fen. The adequacy of recharged water for the fen is ultimately decided by its ability to sustain conditions wet enough to support fen-vegetation and suppress carbon loss. However, in the Western Boreal Plain annual water deficits exist most years, with wet years occurring on a 10 – 15 year cycle. Thus, the water budgets of wetlands here are dominated by vertical fluxes. The presence of persistent seasonal frost in these wetlands causes a perching of the water table that may be essential for sustaining an adequate level of wetness (Petrone et al., 2008). The role of this mechanism in fens is untested, and the ability of our reconstructed, revegetated fen to mimic natural systems is uncertain. We will document the process and if important, endeavour to promote it. Furthermore, the constructed landscapes will have differences in hydrology that will influence biogeochemical cycling and carbon dynamics, and therefore trace gas exchange.


The following graduate student positions are available.


This position will begin in 2013 and examine the implications of design choices and  strategies adopted to optimize fen reclamation in the future. Particular emphasis will be placed on the ecohydrological control on evapotranspiration and the role of persistent seasonal ice on lateral and vertical water fluxes from the constructed fen. This position will require field measurement and modelling, and will be best suited for a student with a strong foundation in hydrology or climatology.


This position will begin in 2013 and will compare the patterns and soil moisture and the resultant evapotranspiration fluxes from a range in natural fens in the oilsands development region. This will assess the required hydrological conditions to produce the ecological functioning necessary to produce a sustainable wetland system within the subhumid climate of the Western Boreal Plain. This position will involve field measurements and be best suited for a student with a strong background in hydrology or climatology, and some experience in ecology.

Subarctic Microclimatic Influences on Wetland Biogeochemistry

The primary objective of this research initiative is to assess the controlling microclimatic factors on the CO2 gas source/sink strength of terrestrial ecosystems in the Canadian Subarctic so that we can predict its potential fate under a changing climate. The research proposed here focuses on CO2, CH4 and N20 only. Done in collaboration with Dr. M. English (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. L. Chasmer (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. M. Macrae (University of Waterloo) and Dr. C. Spence (Environment Canada). This project is funded by NSERC and the Northern Studies Training Program. I am currently seeking masters students to investigate the role of freeze-thaw cycles in the shoulder seasons (spring, fall) on CO2 exchange processes in the 2013 and 2014 field seasons; and the role of snow accumulation and ablation patterns in providing nutrient and trace gas hotspots. Interested students should have a undergraduate background in climatology and biogeochemistry.


I am currently seeking MSc students to investigate the role of freeze-thaw cycles in the shoulder seasons (spring, fall) on CO2 exchange processes in the 2013 and 2014 field seasons; and the role of snow accumulation and ablation patterns in providing nutrient and trace gas hotspots. Interested students should have a undergraduate background in climatology and biogeochemistry.

I am also looking for a student (MSc/PhD) to build on existing vegetation community and landscape unit scale trace gas measurements using chamber and micrometeorological techniques by scaling to that of the whole ecosystem. This will be done by combining field data with optical remote sensing and lidar data at the ecosystem scale. Research will be conducted in the discontinuous permafrost zone of the southern Northwest Territories and continuous permafrost zone of the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, which will permit the examination of the role of ground ice (seasonal and permafrost) in controlling soil - plant - atmosphere interactions. Interested students should have an undergraduate/masters background in hydrology and biogeochemistry, and/or remote sensing. 

Synoptic Climatology and Surface Interactions

A key aspect of much of my research is the interaction of the surface - atmosphere interface with larger scale climatic patterns, and controls. Much of this research will involve a synoptic climatological analysis of the Western Canadian Boreal Forest zone, and much of the Southern and Montane areas of Alberta, in addition to ground energy balance and ecohydrological research at similar sites throughout the province, to study the influence of large scale weather on the surface hydrological and biogeochemical regimes. I am also, looking at synoptic scale patterns in Southern Ontario in the non-summer months; specifically the conditions responsible for, the probability patterns of, freeze - thaw cycles. Especially in agricultural soils, these cycles have been found to be critical periods of trace gas emissions on an annual scale.


For this research I am seeking masters, or doctoral, student(s) with a strong background in climatology with excellent mathematical and computer skills.

Ecohydrology in Temperate Multiple Landuse Catchments

Much of this research involves: (1) studying basin-scale evapotranspiration in the establishment of an antecedent hydrologic index to predict the export of nutrients, (2) spatial variability in trace gas exchange, and (3) the effects of nutrient loading on the productivity of riparian zone wetlands. Done in collaboration with Dr. M.C. English (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. S. Schiff (University of Waterloo), Dr. M. Macrae (University of Waterloo), Dr. Rick Bourbonniere (Environment Canada) and Dr. C. Mitchell (University of Toronto). This research will be done under the Southern Ontario Watershed Consortium and will involve examining these processes as governed by the influence of urbanization and landuse change.


I am currently seeking MSc students to investigate the role of antecedent hydrologic conditions and upslope landuse practices on riparian zone trace gas exchange processes as part of the Southern Ontario Watershed Consortium. I am also looking for a PhD student to examine the scaling of hydrologic and trace gas flux point measurement to the local and regional scales. Interested students should have a undergraduate background in climatology or hydrology, and biogeochemistry.