Hydrogeochemistry Studies in the Oil Sands Region to Investigate the Role of Terrain Connectivity in Nitrogen Critical Loads




Gibson, John J.
Birks, Sandra Jean
Moncur, Michael C.
Vallarino, Amy
Kusel, Caren
Cherry, Mikaela

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Hydrology and geochemistry studies were conducted in the Athabasca Oil Sands region to better understand the water and nitrogen cycles at two selected sites in order to assess the potential for nitrogen transport between adjacent terrain units. A bog—poor fen—upland system was instrumented near Mariana Lakes (ML) (55.899° N, 112.090° W) and a rich fen—upland system was instrumented at JPH (57.122° N, 111.444° W), 100 km south and 45 km north of Fort McMurray, Alberta respectively. LiDAR surveys were initially conducted to delineate the watershed boundaries and topography and to select a range of specific locations for the installation of water table wells and groundwater piezometers. Field work, which included a range of physical measurements as well as water sampling for geochemical and isotopic characterization, was carried out mainly during the thaw seasons of 2011 to 2015. From analysis of the runoff response and nitrogen species abundances we estimate that nitrogen exchange between the wetlands and adjacent terrain units ranged between 2.2 and −3.1 kg/ha/year for rich fens, 0.6 to −1.1 kg/ha/year for poor fens, and between 0.6 and −2.5 kg/ha/year for bogs, predominantly via surface pathways and in the form of dissolved nitrate. A significant storage of dissolved ammonium (and also dissolved organic nitrogen) was found within the pore water of the bog-fen complex at Mariana Lakes, which we attribute to decomposition, although it is likely immobile under current hydrologic conditions, as suggested by tritium distributions. In comparison with the experimental loads of between 5 and 25 kg/ha/year, the potential nitrogen exchange with adjacent terrain units is expected to have only a minor or negligible influence, and is therefore of secondary importance for defining critical loads across the regional landscape. Climate change and development impacts may lead to significant mobilization of nitrogen storages, although more research is required to quantify the potential effects on local ecosystems.



boreal wetlands, hydrology, geochemistry, stable isotopes, nitrogen, groundwater, surface water, connectivity


Gibson, J. J., Birks, S. J., Moncur, M. C., Vallarino, A., Kusel, C., & Curry, M. (2021). Hydrogeochemistry Studies in the Oil Sands Region to Investigate the Role of Terrain Connectivity in Nitrogen Critical Loads. Water, 13(16), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13162204.