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Recreating a functioning Forest Soil in Reclaimed Oil Sands in Northern Alberta

Rowland, S.M. 2008. M.S Thesis. University of British Columbia, Vancouver


During oil-sands mining all vegetation cover, soil, overburden and oil-sand is removed, leaving pits several kilometres wide and hundreds of metres deep. These pits are reclaimed by a variety of treatments using mineral soil or a mixed peat and mineral soil as the capping layer and planted with trees with natural colonisation from adjacent sites. A number of reclamation treatments covering different age classes were compared with a range of natural forest ecotypes to identify the age at which the treatments become similar to a natural site with respect to vegetation composition and key soil attributes relevant to nutrient cycling. Ecosystem function was estimated from plant community composition, litter decomposition, development of an organic layer and bio-available nutrients. Key response variables including moisture, pH, C:N ratios, bio-available nutrients and ground-cover were analysed by non-metric multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis to discover which reclamation treatments were moving towards or merging with natural forest ecotypes and at what age this occurs. On reclaimed sites, bio-available nutrients including nitrate generally were above the natural range of variability but ammonium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and manganese were generally very low and limiting to ecosystem development. Plant diversity was similar to natural sites from 5 years to 30 years after reclamation, but declined as reclaimed sites approached canopy closure. Grass and forb leaf litters decomposed faster than aspen or pine in the first year, but decomposition on one reclamation treatment fell below the natural range of variability. Development of an organic layer appeared to be facilitated by the presence of shrubs, while forbs correlated negatively with first-year decomposition of aspen litter. The better restoration amendments for tailings sands involved repeated fertilisation of peat: mineral mixtures in the early years of plant establishment, these became similar to a target ecotype at about 25 years. Good results were also shown by subsoil laid over non-saline overburden and fertilised once, these became similar to a target ecotype at about 15 years. Other treatments receiving a single application of fertiliser remain entrenched in the early reclamation phase for up to 25 years.