How does Nitrogen Emission from the Alberta’s Oil Sands affect forests? TrentU Graduate Adam Bird tells us

Adam Bird, from Orangeville, Ontario, completed his undergraduate degree at Trent University in Environmental & Resource Sciences. He recently completed research for his Masters of Science in the Environmental and Life Sciences program at Trent.

He was studying how Nitrogen Emissions from the Alberta Oil Sands affect forests.

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Adam’s research focused on the impact of reactive nitrogen emissions (NOx, NH3) (pollution!!!!) that are emitted from certain activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels from transportation, agriculture and industrial activities.

Adam wanted to find out how the oil sand’s development have impacted the forest health in Northern Alberta by studying “eutrophication”. 

Eutrophication is when plants and algae receive excessive nutrient factors needed for photosynthesis, like sunlight, carbon dioxide and nutrient fertilizers. This can lead to overgrowth in plant and algae. 

Human activities have accelerated the rate and extent of eutrophication because more nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, are entering into aquatic systems – which have detrimental consequences for:

  • drinking water sources;
  • fisheries; and
  • recreational water bodies.

This causes a shift in vegetation composition and the loss of sensitive species.

Adam’s work investigated the fate of increased nitrogen deposition on forest floor communities dominated by reindeer lichen.

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Adam set up experimental treatment plots in the forest which were treated with different quantities of Nitrogen. A separate experiment was conducted using an N isotope tracer to detect the pathways that nitrogen entered.

Biomass and soil samples were collected on a regular basis after treatments and were returned to the lab for chemical and microbial analysis.

In Adam’s experiments, he found that when N deposition increased, lichen tissue N concentration also increased.

All together these results showed that the impacts from increased Nitrogen deposition may not manifest as rapidly in terrestrial forests as they do in temperate forests.

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This research has implications for setting pollution management policy in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. In the past policymakers have used a “Critical Load” framework to set pollution limits and measure compliance. This work shows that mobility of Nitrogen in these forests might change dynamically over a very long timescale, making application of the traditional critical load framework difficult.

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Adam says, “At Trent, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of curious and supportive people. During field campaigns and in the lab I gained a wide range of hands on experience.”

Thank you for sharing your research with us Adam and for having the courage to study this important topic!

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