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Individual Highlight

Industrial Air Pollution May Have Ecological Consequences

Photo of Passive samplers for air pollution in Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Forest ServicePassive samplers for air pollution in Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Forest ServiceSnapshot : Elevated concentrations of ammonia can negatively impact lichen communities and elevated levels of nitrogen and sulfur deposition can potentially harm boreal forests and other ecosystems

Principal Investigators(s) :
Bytnerowicz, AndrzejFenn, Mark E.
Research Location : Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta, Canada
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2012
Highlight ID : 87


The Athabasca Oil Sands Region in Alberta, Canada, contains boreal forests where epiphytic lichen communities are increasingly at risk from industrial air pollutants emitted by mining, oil extraction, and upgrading operations. (Epiphytics rely on other plants for physical support, growing on trunks and branches rather than rooting themselves to the ground. They are not parasitic because they do not derive any nutrients from their hosts.)

The concentrations of industrial emissions in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region are rising as the area of exploited oil sands and rate of bitumen production continues to expand. Ambient air pollutants of biological importance (ammonia [NH3], nitrogen oxides [NO2], nitric acid [HNO3], and sulfur dixode [SO2]) and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) have been monitored by a Forest Service team sponsored by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association since 2005.

Concentrations of these compounds and N & S deposition decline sharply with distance from the industrial center. Although levels of the measured pollutants do not indicate direct toxic effects to vegetation, sensitive epiphytic lichen communities could be affected by elevated NH3 concentrations. As a consequence, NH3 is of highest importance among the measured pollutants because of its high biological activity and high contribution to nitrogen deposition. In the most polluted areas, elevated N and S deposition may have significant ecological consequences for forests and other ecosystems, such as acidification and changes in the nutritional status of vegetation.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Wood Buffalo Environmental Association