Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 61, Issue 2, pp 147–163 | Cite as

A diatom-based paleolimnological survey of environmental changes since ~ 1850 in 18 shallow lakes of the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Canada

  • Jamie C. SummersEmail author
  • Kathleen M. Rühland
  • Joshua Kurek
  • John P. Smol
Original paper


Aerially transported contaminants from the industrial development of the bituminous sands in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) of western Canada may threaten the water quality and community structure of the region’s lakes. This environmental threat is further compounded by the region’s changing climate (i.e. increased temperatures and reduced moisture). Because environmental monitoring began ~ 30 years after the initiation of the region’s bitumen-based industry (~ 1967), a paleolimnological approach is required to document pre-disturbance conditions and to determine how lakes have changed, if at all, in response to environmental stressors. Our bottom–top (before and after) study of dated sediment records compared pre-disturbance (~ 1850) and modern subfossil diatom assemblages from 18 shallow, isolated lakes (which are typical of the region), located along a spatial gradient (up to ~ 110 km) relative to the main area of local industry. Despite the region’s substantial environmental stressors, the changes in mostly benthic-dominated diatom communities were minor at 15 of the 18 lakes. We conclude that the muted biological responses may be a consequence of naturally high nutrient concentrations and/or the typically subtle nature of changes in assemblages dominated by benthic generalist taxa. At all sites, including three lakes with marked changes, we found no evidence of a diatom assemblage response to airborne inputs of contaminants (i.e. dibenzothiophenes) and nutrients (i.e. bioavailable nitrogen) from the AOSR industry. Instead, it is likely that regional warming played a role in the modest diatom assemblage changes observed in these shallow lakes, with responses mediated by lake-specific characteristics.


Alberta Bitumen Before-and-after environmental assessment Aerial transport Nutrient deposition Climate change 



Thanks to D. Muir, J. Kirk, X. Wang, J. Keating, A. Gleason, J. Wiklund, C. Cooke, and personnel from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Centre for Inland Waters for their contributions in the field and the lab. Additionally, thanks to colleagues from Queen’s University’s Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory. This study was supported by the Canada-Alberta Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program (; 2012–2014) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (; Grant Nos. 2360-2009 to Smol).

Supplementary material

10933_2018_50_MOESM1_ESM.tif (99.5 mb)
ESM Fig. S1 Radionuclide activity versus depth and date versus depth for cores from the 23 lakes that were included and/or considered for inclusion in the study. Profiles are arranged by the year the sites were cored (indicated in parentheses after the site name). Decay curves of total 210Po activity, which was used as proxy for total 210Pb activity, are shown by black circles and the associated error bars (± 1 SD). Background 210Pb activity, also known as supported 210Pb, was measured using 226Ra as a proxy and is plotted on the same scale as total 210Po activity (black dashed line). Dates calculated using the constant rate of supply (CRS) model are shown by grey circles and the associated error bars (± 2 SD) (TIF 101909 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM2_ESM.tif (99.5 mb)
Supplementary material 2 (TIF 101909 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM3_ESM.tif (99.5 mb)
Supplementary material 3 (TIF 101909 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM4_ESM.tif (24.9 mb)
Supplementary material 4 (TIF 25487 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM5_ESM.tif (99.5 mb)
ESM Fig. S2 Detrended correspondence analysis (DCA) plot including species scores from the first two ordination axes. Taxa are indicated by numbers that are listed in ESM Table S3. Assemblage tops were included actively in the DCA whereas bottoms were included passively (TIF 101909 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM6_ESM.tif (26.1 mb)
Supplementary material 6 (TIF 26693 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM7_ESM.pdf (7.5 mb)
Supplementary material 7 (PDF 7645 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM8_ESM.xlsx (10 kb)
ESM Table S1 Summary of environmental variables included in the principal components analysis, the sources of the measurements, and the transformations applied to achieve approximately normal distributions (XLSX 11 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM9_ESM.xlsx (11 kb)
ESM Table S2 Summary of geographic lake characteristics and core information for each of the 18 lakes (XLSX 10 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM10_ESM.xlsx (11 kb)
ESM Table S3 Taxa represented by numbers in the detrended correspondence analysis (DCA) plot, including species scores from the first two ordination axes (XLSX 11 kb)
10933_2018_50_MOESM11_ESM.xlsx (12 kb)
ESM Table S4 Taxa included in the complexes and summed groups shown in the histogram of diatom relative abundances (Fig. 3) (XLSX 12 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jamie C. Summers
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kathleen M. Rühland
    • 1
  • Joshua Kurek
    • 2
  • John P. Smol
    • 1
  1. 1.Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL), Department of BiologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada
  2. 2.Department of Geography and EnvironmentMount Allison UniversitySackvilleCanada

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