Climate change impacts land reclamation

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A&nbsp;study by Waterloo researchers, released in <em>The National Climate</em>, predicts that the omission of climate change projections in land reclamation planning could eventually cost industry leaders and the Canadian government billions.</p>

Land reclamation is known as the process of reclaiming land, or rebuilding land from eco-substitutable materials, familiar and cohesive with the landscape.

Rebecca Rooney, an assistant professor in the department of biology, with co-authors Derek Robinson and Richard Petrone, assistant professor and professor, respectively, in geography and environmental management, published the report Oct. 23.

Inspired by the ecological degradation of the lakes in northern Ontario, Rooney became interested in the process of cleaning up ecosystems. After coming to Waterloo, she joined forces with Robinson and Petrone and published a six-step process to expand reclamation planning on mining sites to include climate change projections and hydrologic modelling.

“The issue is that plans for what type of habitat will be created as part of the reclamation and how that habitat will be arranged on the reclaimed landscape do not currently account for climate change projections,” said Rooney.

While studying wetland reclamation in the oilsands region of Alberta, Rooney realized that “wetlands are really driven by their water budget,” which is considerably affected by the conditions of the landscape surrounding it. Thus, to reclaim wetland, Rooney, Robinson, and Petrone suggest an inclusive landscape study is required.

Rooney explained that the future landscape is expected to be drier: “[industries] could spend the billions that it costs to reclaim the land they have mined for oilsands, only to have all that vegetation die of inadequate water or unsuitable climate.” The research suggests that replanting in this case would be expensive.

Presently, companies are not required to consider climate change when filing applications to the Alberta Energy Regulator. During the closure of mining sites, particularly megaprojects, reclamation of the land is an important consideration.

The research suggests that figuring out the water budget using hydrologic models and climate forecasting will improve the ecosystem post-reclamation. This includes studying how much water is currently available for the site and how much water will be available in the future. Rooney says that companies need to stop isolating their research and start looking at the bigger picture: “An important part of doing this successfully is going to be looking at the entire landscape as a whole, and not just one piece at a time.”

The researchers believe that the six-step process can be implemented by any large-scale or long-term project involving heavy reclamation planning. However, Rooney does suggest that each project should extensively consider the landscape prior to referencing the framework.

Rooney, Robinson, and Petrone hope that their research is recognized by government regulators and industry members. “If the industry adopts our framework for reclamation planning, it will minimize the risk that the reclaimed landscapes will fail to adapt to the changing climate,” said Rooney, adding “we also need government to encourage this kind of forward thinking as they ultimately review and approve reclamation and closure plans [for mining sites].”

When asked about similar research happening concurrently, Rooney mentioned that there is work going on in upland habitat studies. However, the disintegration of the habitat classes is what sets them apart: “We are not aware of any work that focuses on wetland habitat or, which is more important, integrates the upland and wetland habitats at the landscape level.”

Rooney, Robinson, and Petrone are now focusing on implementing their research at a marketable level, so that companies and government officials interested in protecting the ecosystem will consider climate change during land reclamation.