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NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair, Terrestrial Restoration Ecology

Overview

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)/COSIA Industrial Research Chair (IRC), Terrestrial Restoration Ecology will build and apply knowledge on the belowground ecology of boreal forests to establish self-sustaining forests on reclaimed lands. Oil sands mining is followed by reclamation, with a large portion of reclaimed lands revegetated to become forests. Reclamation strategies vary, owing in part to differences in the geological materials available to construct new landforms.

Mined oil sands that do not contain sufficient bitumen for processing are referred to as lean oil sands (LOS). LOS that occurs immediately below reclamation soils on post-mining landforms can encroach on developing root systems of forest plants, and any effects of such contact are not fully known. However, in this region of the boreal forest, oil sands outcrops also occur naturally and forests have developed over these deposits over thousands of years following glaciation.

Relying predominantly on field studies, IRC Dr. Justine Karst and her students at the University of Alberta will investigate root growth in a range of soils of undisturbed boreal forests, including those established on naturally occurring oil sands outcrops and in reclaimed areas.

The Technology

The NSERC/COSIA IRC research program will provide industry with critical knowledge on successful reclamation practices for establishing boreal forests on reconstructed landforms. Gaps remain in science-based evidence guiding reclamation practice and the associated regulatory framework for LOS landforms.

The focus of the research program is to build knowledge on belowground features that support self-sustaining forests in both reclaimed and natural systems.

Objective

The research program will:

  • Characterize rooting patterns in natural boreal soils, broken down by species, as a reference condition for comparisons in rooting in reclaimed soils
  • Characterize rooting patterns in reclamation soils that may be restricted by substrate conditions, focusing on LOS
  • Test for impacts of the proximity of lean oil sands on rooting behaviours
  • Test for differences in specialization of mycorrhizal communities to the presence of LOS and evaluate impacts on plant growth.

Potential/Actual Environmental Benefits

Advancing understanding of belowground ecology of boreal forests will support efforts to establish self-sustaining forests on reclaimed lands.

Outcomes

The research program will address whether LOS acts as a barrier or a medium to root growth of plants that are native to the boreal forest. It will provide industry with critical knowledge of successful reclamation practices and potential constraints to establishing boreal forests on reconstructed landforms.