Implications of shallow groundwater and surface water connections for nitrogen movement in typical Boreal Plain landscapes

Date

2014-09-05

Authors

Vallarino, Amy

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Abstract

This thesis examines both surface water and shallow groundwater connections in boreal watersheds at two study sites in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region using conventional hydrological techniques as well as stable water isotope techniques. Increased emissions due to oil sands development are expected to contribute significantly to acidifying airborne emissions. Specifically, nitrogen is forecasted to be deposited on the surrounding area within approximately 100 km of operations. The purpose of the research is to provide background information for predicting how individual terrain units such as fens, bogs, and uplands will respond to increased nitrogen loads, and to assess whether or not these units will act as sources or sinks of nitrogen under higher nitrogen deposition. Two study sites situated within 100 km of Fort McMurray, Alberta were instrumented with a total of 30 nested piezometers, 26 water table wells, 4 micro-meteorological stations, and two gauging stations (weirs) at outflow points. Monitoring occurred during the open water season of 2011 and 2012. This study estimates evaporation through a simplified energy balance, documents hydraulic conductivity of shallow aquifers, utilizes stable isotopes of water to assist in mapping seasonal flow patterns, and calculates a vertical water balance for the sites. Bogs and fens were hydrologically connected, as bogs fed fens laterally at shallow depths within the acrotelm during wet years. Upland terrain units were found to have more variable connections. In spring, upland runoff recharged the wetlands at both sites. At JPH groundwater flowed towards the fen, whereas in ML limited connections were observed between the uplands and the fen. Also, no connections were seen to indicate that the wetlands recharged the uplands. A conceptual model is developed that emphasizes the role of connectivity in the boreal landscape. The main implication for nitrogen cycling is that it is difficult to quantify one landscape as a source or sink for additional nitrogen as its role may vary depending on seasonality and temporal scales. Further work is needed to identify if nitrogen loadings will have adverse affects on geochemistry of water at the sites.

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Keywords

isotope hydrology, hydrology, wetland hydrology

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