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Wilfrid Laurier University Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
December 7, 2016
Canadian Excellence


Brent Wolfe, Faculty

Brent Wolfe, associate professor in Geography and Environmental Studies, has spent much of the last decade solving some of the biggest environmental mysteries in northeastern Alberta. In the latest case, Wolfe and colleagues are looking at lake sediment that has accumulated over the past few hundred years to answer questions about the Alberta oil sands in what may be the biggest environmental controversy yet.

Alberta’s Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) is a large freshwater inland delta. It’s also downstream of a source of a large amount of accessible oil sands, which are being developed in nearby Fort McMurray. Many are concerned that the PAD is being contaminated by oil sands development, and blame industry for high cancer rates in the First Nation community of Fort Chipewyan.

In September 2010, Wolfe and colleagues from the University of Waterloo travelled to Alberta to launch an investigation of past changes in contaminant deposition to sediment that accumulates in lakes of the delta. The aim is to understand the relative contributions of contaminants from natural erosion of oil sand material by the Athabasca River and from industrial development of the oil sands.

“I think the work we’re doing will contribute important new knowledge about contaminant deposition over time in the delta and shed new light over the perceived relationship between oil sands development and ecosystem health,” said Wolfe, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Northern Research Chair.

Wolfe and colleagues took 30-centimetre long “cores” of sediment from lakes in the PAD. These cores represent 200 to 300 years of history, and provide a record of environmental change in the lakes.

“We can analyze sediments that were deposited since and prior to 1970, prior to the development, and see what the contaminant concentrations were. And that will give us a sense as to the natural loading of contaminants and if contaminant concentrations have changed since development,” said Wolfe.

The team is now analyzing the cores. Preliminary results from the study will be ready in mid-2011.