Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: The Peace-Athabasca Delta

“You hold in your hands a masterpiece,” writes Ben Gadd in the foreword to The Peace-Athabasca Delta: Portrait of a Dynamic Ecosystem, and he is not kidding. Kevin P. Timoney, an Alberta-based ecologist, researcher and teacher who has spent more than 20 years studying this globally significant wetland which lies downstream of Alberta’s bitumen sands, has given us a rich portrait that, like all great works, feels stirringly true and proves deeply troubling at the same time.

To say this book is timely and relevant would be an understatement. As Timoney points out, “The Athabasca bitumen sands have come to play a dominant role in the socio-economic landscape of Canada” and have “become a magnet for immigration and development as evident from Fort McMurray’s exploding population.” Indeed, Canadians have been paying increasing attention to the region, if the focus of media outlets is any indication. Earlier this year, The Nature of Things posted an update on its website about a recent study that backs up the research presented in the documentary “Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands,” first aired on CBC in 2011 and again this March. Just this month a lengthy profile of Fort McMurray titled “Big Mac” was posted at The Walrus and popped up repeatedly in Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds. This book, however, takes us far deeper. “A vast uncontrolled experiment is being performed upon an exceedingly complex ecosystem,” writes Timoney. “What is known, and even what can be known about the system, may be insufficient to provide answers.”

Those looking for sensationalism, or expecting bleakness, won’t find any here. This book is an attempt to reach out to all sides and improve the quality of the conversation. It’s important to understand Timoney’s agenda:

The purpose of the book is to inform readers about the physical and biological processes that make the delta dynamic; the diversity and beauty of the delta’s many changing landforms and communities; the history of natural changes and human effects upon the delta; its rich human history; and the impending threats to the delta’s future. The book documents the importance of the delta and identifies the threats to its future so that government regulators and the public can focus their efforts where they will do the most good. The book is designed to stimulate continued scientific study and provide a synthesis of knowledge that might improve both understanding and management of the delta and the region.

Aimed at “a diverse audience that includes environmentally concerned people interested in natural and human history; biologists; Parks Canada and government personnel involved in ecosystem management, environmental health, and policy; naturalists and engineers in nongovernmental organizations and industry; government regulators and management boards; and present and future students, professors, researchers and teachers,” this book will surely be an important resource, especially for researchers. Throughout, Timoney identifies numerous unanswered questions and points directly at what requires further study and why. It soon becomes clear that even what one might consider to be the basics has yet to be properly explored: “Given the growing industrial activities upstream of the delta, study of the delta’s food web is needed not only because the delta is an internationally significant ecosystem, but also because local people still rely upon the delta and Lake Athabasca for much of their protein.” Here’s another eye-opener: “The total pollutant load added to the Athabasca River upstream of the delta is not known. What is known is cause for concern.” For the general reader like me, it’s a wake-up call that sounds all too familiar. There’s so much that is not known, and yet industry barrels right ahead.

The Peace-Athabasca Delta, “a wetland complex the size of Prince Edward Island,” needs a diverse audience to engage quickly and thoughtfully with the future in mind. “Most major deltas in the world, such as the Nile and the Mississippi Deltas, have been strongly modified by human activities. In contrast, the Peace-Athabasca Delta is relatively undisturbed and healthy and serves as a haven of intact landscape for migratory and resident biota.” Stated early on, this is a call to attention.

The book requires of the reader a considerable investment of time and a willingness to learn and reflect. After introducing us to the delta’s physical and biological system, its physical environment, landforms and natural history, and the processes of change, Timoney sets out the extensive and sometimes dodgy record of human activity in the delta. For example, in 1972, excavation of a cutoff channel to prevent an avulsion of the Athabasca River mainstream and keep commercial barge traffic on course, a decision made with “little ecological knowledge” and “no public discussion or debate over what to do,” is but one of many examples of the human impact and, as Timoney explains in the course of the text, “may be the largest impact humans have caused in the delta’s history. At the very least, the avulsion prevention has set the delta onto a new and unnatural evolutionary trajectory for the foreseeable future.”

He explains how “human activities that are rapidly increasing around it are fragmenting the surrounding landscape from the south and the west in the form of seismic lines, wells, pipelines, mines, roads, facilities, cutblocks, and agricultural fields.” While it comes as no surprise to learn that “The provincial government has committed much of northeastern Alberta to multiple overlapping tenures in the form of forestry leases and permits for the extraction of bitumen, minerals, petroleum, and natural gas,” and that there is “insufficient baseline environmental data to track changes in Athabasca River water quality and environmental health associated with bitumen development,” the lack of data along with the historical record becomes increasingly unsettling as the book goes on. The major spills make the headlines. “Minor spills occur regularly. A freedom of information request to Alberta Environment revealed 6,857 bitumen industry-related environmental incidents (releases to air, water, soil, etc.) from the lower Athabasca region between 1996 and 2008,” the examples he provides giving a frightening look at how government and industry define “minor.”

Many birders and others interested in the endangered whooping crane are aware that “the delta is the most important waterfowl staging area in Canada (Butterworth et al. 2002),” but again the problem of data. Consider the implications of this: “Because the bitumen sands industrial area lies within a convergence zone of all four North American waterfowl flyways, the danger to migratory birds is ever present. The total number of migratory birds passing through the lower Athabasca River valley has not been determined, but millions of birds must pass en route to and from the Mackenzie River valley, the arctic coast, and tundra breeding grounds (Butterworth et al. 2002; Thomas 2002).” And this: “In addition to outright habitat loss, degradation of habitat quality can also impact wildlife. Landscape fragmentation, increased access, and industrial noise affect bird density and abundance in boreal Alberta (Bayne et al. 2008).”

The book contains a wealth of intriguing facts that are easily visualized and memorable. In the discussion of seiches, those “transient changes in water level in shallow basins driven by persistent strong winds from a single direction,” one learns that “For Lake Athabasca, it takes about seven hours for water to slosh back and forth and back again (Card 1973a).” One learns that during the ice-jam flood of May 1974, “an estimated 2,874 bison drowned.” Well-chosen aerial images on the facing page help us understand how this can happen.

The human history of the delta is equally intriguing and treated with the same care. This from a section on missionaries: “One Bishop Reeve stopped in the midst of a sermon to grab his gun and bring down a goose flying low overhead; his family was nearly without food at the time.”

Sometimes it’s downright haunting. In a brief overview of the beliefs of the Chipewyan, a “people of the subarctic forest and tundra,” in a section titled “Ways of life prior to European contact,” about halfway through the book, comes a sentence that seems to point ahead to the “uncertain future” of the delta and all involved: 

The souls of the dead traveled in a stone boat towards a beautiful island. Only the good reached the island in safety; the stone boat of the evil soul sank before reaching the island, and the soul struggled in the water forever.

The influx of outsiders has brought great change in a short period of time. “By around 1960, hunter-trappers had become wage earners, often as part-time labourers (McCormack 1984). The economic dualism that took hold after World War II did not create true development but, merely, economic growth that benefitted outside owners or management and contributed to the regional underdevelopment, impoverishment, and weakening of the social fabric (McCormack 1984).” Change driven by outsiders seems to be accelerating ever more.

In a section titled “Lessons Learned,” Timoney reminds us that “The delta resists simple explanations.” So does the book itself, which is described as “a synthesis of what is known about the delta, an environmental history, a reference book, and a field guide,” but looks much like a university textbook. At 608 pages, its large format, over 450 figures, including maps, illustrations, graphs, charts, photographs, aerial photographs, notes, bibliography, appendices and index, not to mention the wall map tucked in an attached envelope at the back, looks daunting at first, but it’s brilliantly thought-out, highly readable and beautifully designed.  

“Sediment and water are the lifeblood of a delta,” writes Timoney. Understanding why is our responsibility because, in the long run, what happens there, what ends up there, has great implications for us all. Throughout the book, Timoney takes the long view: “Although it is understandable to view the delta at the time scale of our human experiences, those time scales limit our ability to understand such a dynamic system.” Dealing in facts, and free of any alienating rhetoric, the details in the book accumulate like sediment, culminating in a reading experience that is new, complex and potentially life-changing.


theresa said...

This is a very thoughtful review, Brenda. Thank you for it.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Thanks, Theresa!