Understanding the processes behind Boreal landscape disturbances

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences

Abstract

While ecosystems are generally resilient, if pushed beyond a tipping point, a catastrophic shift in ecosystem function will occur as the result of strong positive feedback mechanisms. Within the boreal, this will result not only in a local transformative state shift in the ecosystem, but also a loss of landscape resilience due to the interactions and feedbacks between adjoined ecosystems units. Such a transition could cascade through the mosaic and lead to its large scale landscape failure. The reclamation of the Athabasca Oil Sands requires the construction of such mosaic landscapes of lakes, wetlands and forestlands that characterize the undisturbed Boreal Plains. Such landscapes must develop over time to rapidly develop expansive productive forests, maximizing the economic potential of the landscape, whilst maintaining high water fluxes to flush ecological harmful salts. Mine closure plans must therefore understanding and recognize the risk of such potential failures in mine closure plans, and weigh the desire to minimize risk of failure, and the loss of desired ecosystem services, against the economic costs of initial landscape construction, and the magnitude and diversity of ecosystem services that are targeted by the mine closure plan.

Through over decade of ongoing industry funded research within the western Boreal Plain, the Hydrology, Ecology and Disturbance programme (HEAD) has developed a detailed conceptual understanding of the ecohydrological functioning of the landscape through processed based field and modelling research; knowledge that is informing current mine closure plans. This research has demonstrated that the climate cycle, a superposition of varying climate signals of different intensities and phases, provides the overarching driver of the ecohydrology behavior of these landscape systems. This cycle cascades through landscape storage units that vary in configuration, extent and scale of connectivity. The resulting local hydraulic signature provides the primary control on the ecological risk to the different units over time.

This project develops on this conceptual foundation, utilizing the legacy of close to two decade of research activities across the HEAD research programme (measurements from ~15000 wells and piezometers in addition to a range of supplementary hydrological, meteorological and ecological data) to provide a top-down statistical analysis of the ecohydrological behavior of the complex mosaic landscape. To test how the hydrology, ecology and biogeochemistry of the diverse array of hydraulic units respond to the climate cycle. To determine the sources of risk for potential conditions that would likely instigate failure of the ecosystem units, their drivers and the impact such local failures within the complex mosaic landscape system. This knowledge will direct future mine closure design plans, in addition to ongoing process based processes based field and modeling studies.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M009009/1 05/10/2015 31/10/2021
2220568 Studentship NE/M009009/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2019 SAMANTHA PROBERT
 
Description Research has explored the hydrological interaction of Boreal landscapes with climate and disturbance to identify landscapes at greater risk of shift into new ecosystem states (e.g. from drying too much to sustain the current ecosystem). Process understanding gained from analysing observations from over 20 years has been applied into a model which can simulate these systems under future climates with varied landscape configurations. This tool can then be utilised in landscape reclamation and design for evaluating hydrological outcomes (e.g. will the designed landscape generate sufficient runoff to sustain the ecological community).
Exploitation Route Model utilisation of landscape design and reclamation. Education on the balance between ecosystem productivity and water generation. Greater understanding on landscape resilience and how human disturbance can risk or mitigate catastrophic shift in ecosystem state and function.
Sectors Energy,Environment

 
Description Utilisation of model for oil sands mining reclamation design
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Environment
 
Description UK National Productivity Investment Fund : NERC Allocated Innovation Placement Funding
Amount £1,500 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 02/2020
 
Title Reduced complexity hydrological model interface 
Description A versatile, reduced complexity model has been developed using STELLA Architect to numerically simulate physical hydrological processes in boreal landscapes. This tool is novel in its ability to easily adapt to represent multiple landscape configurations. This makes it highly useful in landscape reclamation by enabling the user to explore multiple landscape designs and evaluate their landscape resilience quickly and efficiently. A user friendly interface has been developed to enable users with limited knowlege (including non-academic) to use the tool for their own research. 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - in vitro 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This tool will be made available to industrial parterns once published for use in landscape reclamation and design within boreal oil sands mining landscapes. 
 
Title Versatile, reduced complexity hydrological model 
Description A versatile, reduced complexity model has been developed using STELLA Architect to numerically simulate physical hydrological processes in boreal landscapes. This tool is novel in its ability to easily adapt to represent multiple landscape configurations. This makes it highly useful in landscape reclamation by enabling the user to explore multiple landscape designs and evaluate their landscape resilience quickly and efficiently. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This tool will be made available to industrial parterns once published for use in landscape reclamation and design within boreal oil sands mining landscapes. 
 
Description HEAD3 and Industrial Partners - Oil Sands Reclamation, Alberta, Canada 
Organisation University of Alberta
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution HEAD3 (Hydrology, ecology and disturbance, scope 3) is a collaboration between academics at University of Birmingham, University of Alberta, McMaster University, University of Waterloo, and industrial partners Syncrude Canada Ltd and Canadian Narural Resources Ltd for "Applying Natural Analogues to Constructing and Assessing Long-Term Hydrologic Response of Oil Sands Landscapes". Knowledge gained from this research will direct future management and catchment design, by providing the foundation for the development of resilient catchments and self-sustaining ecosystems in the next generation of reclaimed oil-sands environments. My research specifically contributes towards understanding water use, storage and redistribution within natural analogues in response to interactions between hydrology, climate, geology and land use at the landscape scale. This entails big data analysis of >20 years of climate and hydrologic observations to understand hydrological processes and controls on hydrologic functioning. This knowledge gained is then applied within a reduced complexity, versatile, numerical and physically based model to simulate pond, peatland and forest water tables and water fluxes across multiple landscape configurations to both test our conceptual model within this landscape and then explore landscape resilience to climatological and anthropogenic disturbance. The model has also served as an educational tool for industrial partners in addition to a tool for designing resilient reconstructed landscapes in the Oil Sands.
Collaborator Contribution The Utikuma Region Study Area (URSA) research sites, in the Boreal Plain region, have been the focus of ecohydrological and hydrogeological research for over 19 years (TROLS, HEAD, HEAD2, SFMN projects that are informing the oil-sands mining industry on the natural functioning of aquatic, peatland and forestland systems with heterogeneity in vegetation and geology representative of the Ft. McMurray region (Devito et al. 2012). Industrial partners
Impact Devito, K.J., Kettridge, N., Mendoza, C., Petrone, R.M., Waddington, J.M., 2017. "Applying natural analogues to constructing and assessing long-term hydrologic response of Oil Sands reclaimed landscapes. Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) Grants 2nd Progress Report - CRDPJ 477235 - 14, 27pp
 
Description HEAD3 and Industrial Partners - Oil Sands Reclamation, Alberta, Canada 
Organisation University of Birmingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution HEAD3 (Hydrology, ecology and disturbance, scope 3) is a collaboration between academics at University of Birmingham, University of Alberta, McMaster University, University of Waterloo, and industrial partners Syncrude Canada Ltd and Canadian Narural Resources Ltd for "Applying Natural Analogues to Constructing and Assessing Long-Term Hydrologic Response of Oil Sands Landscapes". Knowledge gained from this research will direct future management and catchment design, by providing the foundation for the development of resilient catchments and self-sustaining ecosystems in the next generation of reclaimed oil-sands environments. My research specifically contributes towards understanding water use, storage and redistribution within natural analogues in response to interactions between hydrology, climate, geology and land use at the landscape scale. This entails big data analysis of >20 years of climate and hydrologic observations to understand hydrological processes and controls on hydrologic functioning. This knowledge gained is then applied within a reduced complexity, versatile, numerical and physically based model to simulate pond, peatland and forest water tables and water fluxes across multiple landscape configurations to both test our conceptual model within this landscape and then explore landscape resilience to climatological and anthropogenic disturbance. The model has also served as an educational tool for industrial partners in addition to a tool for designing resilient reconstructed landscapes in the Oil Sands.
Collaborator Contribution The Utikuma Region Study Area (URSA) research sites, in the Boreal Plain region, have been the focus of ecohydrological and hydrogeological research for over 19 years (TROLS, HEAD, HEAD2, SFMN projects that are informing the oil-sands mining industry on the natural functioning of aquatic, peatland and forestland systems with heterogeneity in vegetation and geology representative of the Ft. McMurray region (Devito et al. 2012). Industrial partners
Impact Devito, K.J., Kettridge, N., Mendoza, C., Petrone, R.M., Waddington, J.M., 2017. "Applying natural analogues to constructing and assessing long-term hydrologic response of Oil Sands reclaimed landscapes. Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) Grants 2nd Progress Report - CRDPJ 477235 - 14, 27pp