GeneralOil Sands

The Athabasca River, Canada

The Athabasca River, Canada

The Athabasca River is the longest river in Alberta, Canada.1 Beginning in the Canadian Rocky Mountains at Jasper National Park, it meanders northeast before ending its 765 mile-long course in Lake Athabasca.2 This journey takes it through the centre of Alberta’s oil sands region.3 The oil industry uses large quantities of its water for industrial processes.4 The potentially devastating effect this has on the river’s water quality and quantity is an area of considerable concern.5 

Where does the Athabasca River end?

Lake Athabasca is where the mouth and delta of the Athabasca River can be found.6 River flow is at its highest during the summer months and lowest during winter, when it is covered in ice.7 The river passes through four ecological zones: the Rocky Mountains, foothill forests, temperate grasslands and boreal forests.8 Each area is home to a diverse assortment of wildlife who rely on the river to sustain such rich ecosystems.9 

What are the concerns about the Athabasca River?

One of the principal concerns about the Athabasca River is the depletion of its water level. Alberta’s oil sands industry uses vast quantities of water for surface mining, in situ drilling, strip mining and separating bitumen from the surrounding sediment.10 Once this water has been used, it is too toxic to be returned to the Athabasca River.11 As such, one of the world’s largest collections of tailings waste ponds has developed along the rivers’ banks, containing more than a trillion litres of toxic water.12 At present, 4.4 per cent of the river’s annual flow is diverted for oil sands operations.13 If the industry continues to expand, the amount of diverted river is predicted to double, and water scarcity will become a significant issue.14 

Besides the risk of droughts and other problems caused by low water levels, the Athabasca River’s water quality is also a concern. An international investigation discovered leaks from the massive tailings ponds into both the Athabasca River and the area’s groundwater.15 It is currently unverified whether the water – which is so poisonous that birds have to be prevented from going near it – is directly contaminating local wildlife.16 However, increasing levels of mercury in fish-eating birds’ eggs and consumption advisories for walleye fish strongly suggest that it is.17  Previous studies have also found high levels of toxic elements, such as mercury and lead, in the river.18 Not only is this potentially damaging from an environmental perspective, but the river also plays a “vital role in the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of many Aboriginal peoples”.19 Elevated cancer rates amongst people living in northern Alberta have long pointed to the damage caused by the oil industry.20 

Which ocean does the Athabasca River flow to?

Water from the Athabasca River eventually ends up in the Arctic Ocean.21 It would be impossible to estimate how many animals, plants and people depend upon the river’s water. If the oil sands industry continues to deplete water levels and endanger its quality, the environmental repercussions are likely to be monumental.

Athabasca riverAthabasca river journeyAthabasca river water depletionAthabasca river concerns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

  1. www.travelalberta.com. (n.d.). Athabasca River | Alberta Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.travelalberta.com/uk/listings/athabasca-river-4210/ [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Athabasca River | river, Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Athabasca-River [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  3. Nasa.gov. (2011). World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/Athabasca.
  4. Nasa.gov. (2011). World of Change: Athabasca Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/Athabasca.
  5. October 14 and Axelrod, 2015 Joshua (n.d.). Low Water Levels in the Athabasca River are a Preview of Future Problems for Alberta’s Tar Sands Industry. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/low-water-levels-athabasca-river-are-preview-future-problems-albertas-tar-sands [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Athabasca River | river, Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Athabasca-River [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  7. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. (n.d.). Athabasca River | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/athabasca-river [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  8. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. (n.d.). Athabasca River | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/athabasca-river [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  9. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. (n.d.). Athabasca River | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/athabasca-river [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  10. October 14 and Axelrod, 2015 Joshua (n.d.). Low Water Levels in the Athabasca River are a Preview of Future Problems for Alberta’s Tar Sands Industry. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/low-water-levels-athabasca-river-are-preview-future-problems-albertas-tar-sands [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  11. October 14 and Axelrod, 2015 Joshua (n.d.). Low Water Levels in the Athabasca River are a Preview of Future Problems for Alberta’s Tar Sands Industry. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/low-water-levels-athabasca-river-are-preview-future-problems-albertas-tar-sands [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  12. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/ [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  13. Sauchyn, D.J., St-Jacques, J.-M. and Luckman, B.H. (2015). Long-term reliability of the Athabasca River (Alberta, Canada) as the water source for oil sands mining. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 112(41), pp.12621–12626. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/112/41/12621 [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  14. October 14 and Axelrod, 2015 Joshua (n.d.). Low Water Levels in the Athabasca River are a Preview of Future Problems for Alberta’s Tar Sands Industry. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/low-water-levels-athabasca-river-are-preview-future-problems-albertas-tar-sands [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  15. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  16. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  17. edmontonjournal. (n.d.). Opinion: Contaminant problems in the Athabasca River not overstated. [online] Available at: https://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-contaminant-problems-in-the-athabasca-river-not-overstated [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  18. Elevated levels of toxins found in Athabasca River. (n.d.). The Globe and Mail. [online] Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/elevated-levels-of-toxins-found-in-athabasca-river/article1319819/ [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  19. Parlee, B. (2011). Traditional Knowledge Overview for the Athabasca River Watershed _ Contributed to the Athabasca Watershed Council State of the Watershed Phase 1 Report. [online] Available at: https://awc-wpac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/AWC-WPAC-State-of-the-Watershed-Phase-1-Traditional-Knowledge-Overview.pdf [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  20. Features, S.L.|, Energy and December 17th 2019, P.| (2019). Downstream of oilsands, death by cancer comes too often. [online] National Observer. Available at: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/12/17/features/downstream-oilsands-death-cancer-comes-too-often [Accessed 19 Jan. 2021].
  21. Athabasca River Basin Research Institute, Athabasca University. (n.d.). About the Athabasca River Basin. [online] Available at: http://arbri.athabascau.ca/About-the-Athabasca-River-basin/Index.php.
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