Hydrology, Ecology and Disturbance in the Western Boreal Forest

Integrated research about the complex hydrology in the western forests and wetlands of Canada (both boreal and montane) is being conducted by an interdisciplinary group of 7 scientists from the University of Waterloo, University of Alberta and McMaster University. Research areas include hydrology, hydrogeology, meteorology, water resources engineering, forest hydrology, ecology, and biogeochemistry. Basic research into the hydrologic function of boreal forests and their surrounding wetlands will provide forestry companies with improved tools to limit hydrologic impacts of forest harvest activities, and will guide oil sands companies in their efforts to reclaim mining sites to functional ecosystems. (A more detailed summary is provided below).

The current research program is being conducted at research sites near Utikuma Lake, Lac La Biche and Fort McMurray in the boreal forest of Alberta. Financial support from forestry and oil and gas companies and NSERC are in place. Related projects are addressing the hydrology and hydrogeology of reclaimed oil sands sites.

The research program is actively soliciting graduate students at both the master’s (Masters of Science (MSc)) and doctoral levels to undertake a variety of field research and computer modelling projects starting over the next 4 years. General descriptions of proposed projects are below.



Road removalThis position will begin in 2016 to examine the ecohydrological effect of road removal and/or winter road construction on a wetland, and assess the success of restoration approaches. A rich fen system in Fort McMurray, Alberta region with a road constructed for well pad access is being decommissioned and are being used to test restoration approaches to returning the wetland to its original ecohydrological functioning. The objectives of this project are to study  the vegetation response and hydrologic conditions, and the resultant greenhouse gas exchange to the removal of the road material using several restoration approaches. Another component involves looking at the impacts and response of the peat physical properties before and after road construction and removal. This research will require the student to bridge ecological and hydrological research working in a team of hydrologists and wetland ecologists.


This position will begin in 2016 and study the influence of aspen stand age on carbon function recovery. This research will compare aspen stands of similar ages of above ground biomass but of different stand/root maturities by examining recently planted stands and recently harvested mature stands. The student will address changes in hydrological, nutrient and carbon cycling, as well as upland and peatland connectivities, and be involved in the development of lump modelling and determining functional responses to land use changes. Certain aspects of this research direction could be partitioned into MSc projects as well.


This position will begin in 2016 and build on
ongoing research on natural variability in CO2 exchange within natural  peatlands along a gradient in ground ice conditions (seasonal ice to discontinuous permafrost) by examining and modelling changes in peatland water and nutrient cycling as a function of ground thermal processes.The objectives of this project are to examine/model the influence of ground ice conditions on the microclimate and hydrologic pathways, and therefore plant and microbial activity in peatlands. This will provide a more useful tool to landuse managers in this region of the Boreal Forest, where hydrologic connections between peatlands and forests are of the utmost importance.

This position will begin in 2016 and will monitor biogeochemical cycling in aspen forests of various ages. Microclimatic effects, soil/root hydraulic processes and canopy throughfall and stemflow are all expected to interact and influence biogeochemical cycling within the rooting zone of Western Boreal Plain forests. The degree of this interaction will largely be influenced by the age of the stand (clone) system – as with aspen the age/size of the above ground biomass is not necessarily indicative of the state of the clone root system. This research will integrate and use previous data from other undergraduate and graduate student work at sites in the Utikuma Lake and Fort McMurray regions of Northern Alberta.


DSC_0159Wildfire represents the largest natural disturbance in Canada’s WBF and is predicted to increase in both severity and area burned in the future. Assessing and mitigating the impact of wildfire in the WBF is challenging due to the combination of large spatial heterogeneity of deep glacial deposits with a sub-humid climate. This results in dynamic and complex surface and groundwater interactions and potentially a large range in sensitivity of aquatic systems to local and regional disturbance. This study takes advantage of the recent Utikuma Complex forest fire (SWF-060, ~90,000 ha) that burned through the Utikuma Region Study Area (URSA), May 2011. At URSA, regional hydrogeological and local scale studies have been conducted, beginning in 1999, on forest-wetland-aquatic hydro-chemical linkages located on a variety of landforms and in landscape positions representative of the WBF. Paired temporal (pre-, post-burned) and spatial (reference, burned) comparisons will be conducted to examine how short-term evapotranspiration and carbon exchange responds in the years immediately following the wildfire disturbance along interacting landscape gradients. The longer-term goal of the research will be to test and develop regional conceptual and numerical models predicting how heterogeneity in glacial surgical deposits and landscape position influencing the scale of groundwater – surface water interactions, and influence the resilience and resistance of forest-wetland-aquatic ecosystems to large scale wildfire disturbance.

This position will begin in 2016 and build on ongoing (pre-fire) research on natural variability in CO2 exchange within natural peatlands by examining, and modelling, changes in peatland water and carbon exchange as a result of fire. The objectives of this project are to model the response of atmospheric CO2 and evapotranspiration fluxes in four peatlands to fire in order to understand how the removal of canopy structure and ground cover alters the microclimate and hydrologic pathways, and therefore plant and microbial activity. This will provide a more useful tool to land use managers in this region of the Boreal Forest, where hydrologic connections between wetlands and forests are of the utmost importance.