University of Saskatchewan

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Photo of Nicole Wunderlich
October 21, 2008

Research hopes to reduce oil industry footprint in North

October 6, 2008

By Anne-Marie Hickey

Back in the '70s, the Northwest Territories' Mackenzie River Delta was a central target for the oil and gas industry, though the dream of a massive pipeline to the South ended up being put on hold by a long government assessment.

Now University of Saskatchewan biology student Nicole Wunderlich is researching how vegetation on abandoned wells along the Mackenzie River Delta recovered after experimental seeding.

"I really wanted to come to the Mackenzie Delta before it changes. It is really vulnerable," says Wunderlich. "The results of this study will help to minimize future impacts caused by pipeline development on the natural ecosystem."

She spent the summer in the North identifying more than 100 species of plants to determine which re-vegetation method used in the '70s led to the most re-growth and the least amount of disturbance.

Her findings will be considered by the federal government as it creates industry guidelines for the North. Funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the U of S, her study is timely since oil and gas companies are revisiting the Mackenzie River as commodity prices rise and exploration in the area becomes viable again.

"Often in ecology we don't have the opportunity to directly give policymakers information but in this case the agencies are very interested in putting this research into their policy guidelines," says Wunderlich's supervisor Jill Johnstone, an assistant biology professor who heads a research program focusing on climate change and disturbance in northern tundra.

When oil and gas companies left the area in the '70s, they were required to fill in the wells with surrounding ground. Wunderlich focused on these mounds, called sumps, which enclosed the drilling fluids and salts in the ground.

Some Mackenzie River Delta sumps were seeded by helicopter and covered with non-native grass seed and fertilizer. She will compare these sumps with unseeded sumps more than 30 years after they were created to determine if the costly seeding program actually helped re-vegetation.

"There needs to be something concrete for the oil companies to follow," Wunderlich says. "They need a management plan that says they need to fill in the sump and put soil, fertilizer and specific plant species on there."

Wunderlich will help determine whether non-native plants introduced by oil and gas companies in the '70s have become too aggressive. Non-native species can become invasive and take over. She will take plant samples from sump sites and study them at the U of S's large plant collection in the W.P. Fraser herbarium. If she discovers new or rare species, it will be important to conserve them, she says.

"The herbarium doesn't have a lot of plants from the North, so I would be able to add to that inventory," she says.

Adding species to the herbarium would help researchers get a better understanding of past and present plant life in Northern Canada. "We need to know the incremental effects we're imposing in the environment," says Johnstone.

"Our ecosystems are resilient but only to a point and we have stepped over the threshold before."

The sumps are in different habitats, with some in the river valley and some upland. Previous research by the team revealed that sumps closer to the Mackenzie River recover more quickly due to flooding.

They also found drilling in winter is less harsh on the ground than drilling in summer because the snow protects the permafrost and vegetation.

Johnstone believes these discoveries will help the industry revegetate land effectively, and hopes Wunderlich's findings will add to the now sparse knowledge of northern sump disturbances. "We have the potential to do this development in a wise and informed way, but the only way we can do that is with scientific research," she said. "We can make northern development as sustainable as possible."

--Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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