Laura Neary


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A new lake classification scheme for the Peace-Athabasca Delta (Canada) characterizes hydrological processes that cause lake-level variation
Laura Neary, Casey R. Remmer, Jadine Krist, Brent B. Wolfe, Roland I. Hall
Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, Volume 38

The Peace-Athabasca Delta, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in northeastern Alberta, is protected within Wood Buffalo National Park and contributes to its UNESCO World Heritage status yet is threatened by climate change and upstream energy projects. Recent drawdown of the delta’s abundant shallow lakes and rivers has deteriorated vital habitat for wildlife and impaired navigation routes. Here, we report continuous measurements at ~50 lakes during open-water seasons of 2018 and 2019 to improve understanding of hydrological processes causing lake-level variation. Analyses reveal four patterns of lake-level variation attributable to influential hydrological processes, which provide the basis for a new lake classification scheme: 1) ‘Drawdown’ (≥15 cm decline) by evaporation and/or outflow after ice-jam floods, 2) ‘Stable’ lake levels (<15 cm change) sustained by rainfall, 3) ‘Gradual Rise’ by inundation from the open-drainage network, and 4) ‘Rapid Rise’ by input of river floodwater. River flooding during the open-water season is an under-recognized recharge mechanism yet occurred extensively in the Athabasca sector and appears to be a common occurrence based on the Athabasca River hydrometric record. Lake-level loggers show strong ability to track shifts in hydrological processes, and can be integrated with other methods to decipher their causes and ecological consequences across water-rich landscapes. • Concerns over lake drying in the Peace-Athabasca Delta motivated this study. • Depth loggers captured lake-level responses to flooding, rainfall and evaporation. • Four patterns comprise a new classification scheme for lakes in the PAD. • Timing, magnitude and extent of open-water flooding was quantified. • Open-water season river flooding identified as an important recharge mechanism.


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Evaluating temporal patterns of metals concentrations in floodplain lakes of the Athabasca Delta (Canada) relative to pre-industrial baselines
Mitchell L. Kay, Johan A. Wiklund, Casey R. Remmer, Tanner J. Owca, Wynona H. Klemt, Laura Neary, Kathleen C. Brown, Erin MacDonald, K.P.B. Thomson, Jasmina M. Vucic, Katherine Wesenberg, Roland I. Hall, Brent B. Wolfe
Science of The Total Environment, Volume 704

• Lack of pre-industrial baseline data hampers assessment of oil sands river pollution. • We analyzed metals concentrations in cores of Athabasca Delta floodplain lakes. • No enrichment was detected for metals associated with oil sands development. • Results inform decision on World Heritage status of Wood Buffalo National Park. • A framework has been established for ongoing aquatic ecosystem monitoring. Sediment quality monitoring is widely used to quantify extent of river pollution, but requires knowledge of pre-disturbance conditions in the potentially altered landscape. This has long been identified as a critical aspect to develop for addressing concerns of river pollution in the Alberta Oil Sands Region. Here, we use analyses of sediment cores from eight floodplain lakes spanning a 67 river-km transect across the Athabasca Delta to define pre-1920 (pre-industrial) baseline concentrations for vanadium and five primary pollutants. We then evaluate if sediment metals concentrations have become enriched above baseline since onset of oil sands development and other industrial activities. Results demonstrate no enrichment of metals concentrations (except zinc at one lake) and absence of consistent temporal increases above pre-industrial baselines. Thus, natural processes continue to dominate metal deposition in floodplain lakes of the Athabasca Delta -- an important finding to inform stewardship decisions. The pre-1920 metals concentrations baselines offer a useful tool for ongoing sediment monitoring in aquatic ecosystems of the Athabasca Delta.

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Multi-year isoscapes of lake water balances across a dynamic northern freshwater delta
Casey R. Remmer, Laura Neary, Mitchell L. Kay, Brent B. Wolfe, Roland I. Hall
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 15, Issue 10

Abstract Sustainable approaches capable of tracking status, trends and drivers of lake water balances in complex, remote landscapes are needed to inform ecosystem stewardship and water-security actions. At the Peace-Athabasca Delta (Alberta, Canada), a globally recognized freshwater floodplain landscape, concerns about water-level drawdown and multiple potential stressors have prompted need to improve knowledge of lake water balances and establish a lake monitoring program. Yet, the delta’s remoteness and dynamic nature present challenges to these goals. Here we use over 1000 measurements of water isotope composition at ∼60 lakes and 9 river sites during the spring, summer and fall of five consecutive years (2015–2019) to elucidate patterns in lake water balance over time and space, the influential roles of evaporation and river floodwaters, and relations with meteorological conditions and river water levels. Calculation of evaporation-to-inflow ratios using a coupled-isotope tracer approach, displayed via generalized additive models and geospatial ‘isoscapes’, reveal strongly varying lake water balances. Results identify distinct areas vulnerable to lake-level drawdown, given the likelihood of continued decline in ice-jam flood frequency, longer ice-free season duration and reduced snowmelt runoff. Results also demarcate areas of the delta where lakes are more resilient to factors that cause drawdown. The former defines the Peace sector, which is influenced by floodwaters from the Peace River during episodic ice-jam flood events, whereas the latter describes portions of the active floodplain environment of the Athabasca sector which receives more frequent contributions of Athabasca River floodwaters during both spring ice-jam and open-water seasons. Efficiency of water isotope tracers to capture the marked temporal and spatial heterogeneity in lake water balances during this 5 year time span, and their diagnostic responses to key hydrological processes, serves as a foundation for ongoing lake monitoring, an approach readily transferable to other remote and dynamic lake-rich landscapes.


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Delineating extent and magnitude of river flooding to lakes across a northern delta using water isotope tracers
Casey R. Remmer, Tanner J. Owca, Laura Neary, Johan A. Wiklund, Mitchell L. Kay, Brent B. Wolfe, Roland I. Hall
Hydrological Processes, Volume 34, Issue 2

Hydrological monitoring in complex, dynamic northern floodplain landscapes is challenging, but increasingly important as a consequence of multiple stressors. The Peace‐Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta, Canada, is a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance reliant on episodic river ice‐jam flood events to recharge abundant perched lakes and wetlands. Improved and systematic monitoring of landscape‐scale hydrological connectivity among freshwater ecosystems (rivers, channels, wetlands, and lakes) is needed to guide stewardship decisions in the face of climate change and upstream industrial development. Here, we use water isotope compositions, supplemented by measurements of specific conductivity and field observations, from 68 lakes and 9 river sites in May 2018 to delineate the extent and magnitude of spring ice‐jam induced flooding along the Peace and Athabasca rivers. Lake‐specific estimates of input water isotope composition (δI) were modelled after accounting for influence of evaporative isotopic enrichment. Then, using the distinct isotopic signature of input water sources, we develop a set of binary mixing models and estimate the proportion of input to flooded lakes attributable to river floodwater and precipitation (snow or rain). This approach allowed identification of areas and magnitude of flooding that were not captured by other methods, including direct observations from flyovers, and to demarcate flow pathways in the delta. We demonstrate water isotope tracers as an efficient and effective monitoring tool for delineating spatial extent and magnitude of an important hydrological process and elucidating connectivity in the Peace‐Athabasca Delta, an approach that can be readily adopted at other floodplain landscapes.

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Bi-directional hydrological changes in perched basins of the Athabasca Delta (Canada) in recent decades caused by natural processes
Mitchell L. Kay, Johan A. Wiklund, Casey R. Remmer, Laura Neary, Kathleen C. Brown, Abhishek Ghosh, Erin MacDonald, K.P.B. Thomson, Jasmina M. Vucic, Katherine Wesenberg, Roland I. Hall, Brent B. Wolfe
Environmental Research Communications, Volume 1, Issue 8

[1] Previous studies of river hydrometric records and Indigenous Knowledge holders claim that flood-induced recharge of ecologically important perched basins decreased across the Peace-Athabasca Delta after 1968 due mainly to hydroelectric regulation of Peace River flow. Natural deltaic processes and climate are acknowledged as additional, lesser contributors, but are challenging to evaluate. We use sediment records spanning ∼115 years from nine perched basins across the Athabasca Delta to test if unidirectional drying coincides with river regulation. Results show bi-directional hydrological changes since the early 1980s, not 1968, to reduced flooding in areas east of the Embarras River confluence with Cree/Mamawi creeks and increased flooding northward along the Cree/Mamawi distributary. The timing and pattern pinpoint the 1982 Embarras Breakthrough, a natural avulsion that diverted flow northward and away from the Athabasca Delta terminus, as the principal cause. The results demonstrate the need to factor natural deltaic processes into impending decisions on the delta’s UNESCO World Heritage status and implementation of a federal Action Plan to mitigate widespread drying.