Modelling the impact of climate change

climate modelling study oil sands

Climate change can have a big impact on regional water resources – and on water resources managers whose job it is to support land reclamation and return disturbed sites to a natural state. Observational evidence indicates that climate change, particularly increasing temperatures, affects natural water cycles. So, the ability to predict how it might impact water availability in the oil sands region in northeast Alberta, for example, can help predict reclamation success.

Mine operators consider a variety of complex, integrated factors when developing mine closure plans to ensure they are sustainable from an engineering and environmental perspective and it’s something that COSIA members strive to get better and better at. That’s why COSIA asked Aquanty Inc. to conduct a water modelling study on the Athabasca River and its tributaries and look into the region’s climate future. 

The Athabasca River Basin High-Res Modelling of the Impact of Climate Change report delivered surprisingly good news, predicting hotter, wetter conditions by the century’s end. It forecast abundant water supplies that will sustain aquatic features in reclamation landscapes and maintain the region’s unique boreal ecosystem and important wetlands. “Climate change is a big driving force and has a big impact on environmental conditions,” says Hyoun-Tae Hwang, Aquanty geoscientist. “This kind of modelling information can help companies plan ahead and prepare for wetter or dryer conditions and extreme weather events.”

Aquanty is a science and technology firm that specializes in cutting edge computer modelling services focused on hydrology (water movement). A University of Waterloo spin-off company, its unique 3-D software modelling tool HydroGeoSphere™ evolved out of 30 years of academic work by the company’s scientists. 

The tool captures the thousands of interactions between all surface and subsurface water in a landscape as part of the natural water cycle, in which water continuously moves above and below the surface of the earth. It combines them with other climate data to unlock the future and predict the impact of climate change on the landscape.

Hwang is Aquanty’s HydroGeoSphere director and he explains how the tool works. “It computes complex mathematical equations using geospatial data, such as surface features, and climate data such, as weather records. It’s like a big calculator that accounts for things such as rainfall and evaporation to simulate a big, complicated water cycle (hydrological system) with various climate scenarios.” 

For this study, with climate change scenarios, the tool simulated the entire terrestrial water cycle of about 150,000 square kilometres to predict the Athabasca region’s water movement over the next 80 or so years.

The report’s detailed findings include a prediction of warmer temperatures in the region by the end of the century and an increase in total precipitation of about 30 per cent. Extreme weather events may rise by 10-20 per cent in summer and by 30 per cent in winter. And while snowfall amounts will likely remain about the same, snow will begin melting a month earlier, in March instead of April. As a result, the study notes stream flow could increase by up to 40 per cent over the years, which, combined with other climate factors, would raise the area’s water table. 

“As mining winds down, companies are already actioning plans to reclaim the landscape,” says COSIA’s Water Director John Brogly. “This study goes a long way towards helping them understand how robust that reclamation will be over the decades and whether their planning is on track.”

Interested in other stories like these? Check out
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•    Top 10 Facts about Pit Lakes  

Or browse through the 2020 Water Research Report.