Satellite Photos Illustrate Dramatic Expansion of Canadian Tar Sands

Extraction of Alberta’s energy-intensive tar sands has expanded steadily in recent years, with about 232 square miles now exposed by mining operations at the Athabasca River site. Tar sands production is expected to double over the next decade, which could mean the destruction of 740,000 acres of boreal forest and a 30% increase in carbon emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector.

New satellite images show the dramatic expansion that has taken place from 2001 through 2011. (Photos by Robert Simmon, NASA/Landsat/USGS.)

So what’s the actual impact on the ground? Here’s what happens when you turn a carbon sink like the Boreal Forest into a carbon-spewing pit of tar sands. (Photos from VisionShare and Co-op Financial Services via Flickr. Note: These are not the same patch of land.)

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30 Responses to Satellite Photos Illustrate Dramatic Expansion of Canadian Tar Sands

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Incredible what appears on the “overview” look and what humans have done in alteration of the earth environment, large scale irreversible environmental destruction.


    NASA Eart Observatory – >>> Image of the Day

  2. prokaryotes says:

    And while at it you want to watch

    Earth – Time Lapse Flyover from Space (NASA, International Space Station)

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    “Sound Beats Print … Pictures Beat Sound”

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Tar sands are the dregs of the world’s oil supply and we are sucking then up like there is no tomorrow. Doubling in just ten years, that is so scary.

    More proof that we are in societies end game. No sense of transitioning, just gobble it all up until everything is gone.

    As climate change realy bites, that is the land we will need to farm, the water we will need to drink.

  5. Don McLean says:

    At 232 square miles, the tar sands exploitation now covers an area almost exactly equal to Toronto – Canada’s largest city which Wikipedia lists at 243 square miles. However, 740,000 acres equals over 1100 square miles, so if that’s the expansion planned, it’s a lot more than 30 percent.

  6. Whenever I see pictures of the tar sands or of mountain top removal I immediately think of rape and cancer. To begin with, intact nature is raped and then the areas affected grow like cancer until it’s just one big wasteland.

  7. John Tucker says:

    How terrible. What beautiful country it was.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    OT, SkepticalScience has an important new post:

    Key points: we can listen to skeptics respectfully, and address their fears — fear of government overreach, control, and taxes; and fear of being wrong, looking foolish, or realizing that their actions are immoral.

    Tough job.

  9. John Tucker says:

    That one site is has more uninhabitable land than all of the Fukushima disaster. Its wiped clean too. Probably double the area, and it will take about as long or longer at remediation too. (and its greatly increased carbon output and slowed sequestration.)

    I imagine its/its water resources are contaminated as well

    Yet no one would know had the satellite photo of total desolation not been noticed.

  10. John Tucker says:

    Sorry as the Fukushima exclusion zone was a splotchy 12 mile semi circle this is greater than 3-4 times that area at least. And while that is reverting to its natural state this has been transformed into the moon. Contaminates at the Alberta site will last forever.

    What gets me is no one even really cared when this was occurring. The controversy was about sucking out the oil and transporting it at even a higher rate.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    OT also. I have just read Jim Garrison, “Surrendering 2011: Rendition and Methane” – Huff Post under ‘climate change’.

    He discusses the passing of the new USA National Defence Authorization Act which allows any citizen to be arrested without charge and held without trial; describes it as “totalitarian democracy”.

    That’s one way to prepare for the social consequences of a wrecked climate! ME

  12. Alex W says:

    “the destruction of 740,000 acres of boreal forest” – According to some, the extracted fossil fuel is worth this much destruction. Imagine if this land was used instead for solar energy. Sure, some think the necessary land clearing for solar is also quite bad. In a less bio-diverse region than arboreal forests, like the US desert SW, the impact on the climate and wildlife would be far less severe.

    So what does “destroying” 740,000 acres for PV in the US SW get you?

    740,000 acres @ ~10 acres/MW of PV = 74,000 MW of capacity
    Best US SW sunlight = 2,372 kWh/m2-yr
    Annual output per watt of capacity: 2,372 kWh/m2-yr/1,000 W = 2.37 kWh/W-yr (With 20% losses at grid = 1.89 kWh/W-yr)
    1.89 kWh/W-yr * 74,000 MW of capacity =
    139860000000 kWh/yr or 139.9 billion kWh/yr

    Answer: about 10% of US Residential Electricity Consumption (1,363 billion kWh in 2009)

    So with relatively less impactful land “destruction” and significantly less CO2 and other harmful pollutants, we would get a sizeable amount of energy. Let’s be fair and consider the energy from Alberta’s minable tar sands:

    Of the total 169.3 billion barrels of proven reserves, about 20% is considered recoverable by surface mining methods = 33.86 billion barrels – This is below an area of 34,644,480 acres. Let’s only consider the output from the more immediate 740,000 acres to be used.

    Average of 2010 (857k bbl/d) & 2020 (3.5 million bbl/d) daily production = 2.18 million bbl/d * 365 = 795 million barrels per year @1,700 kWh per barrel of oil = 1,352 billion kWh/yr

    Thus, the 740,000 acre area of Alberta tar sands mining would produce 10x more energy in a year (if we used oil for electricity) than the equivalent area for solar energy in the US SW. With fuel from the sun, however, the PV system would produce energy for at least 30 years to 40 years.

    Take your pick…

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    These before and after pictures are of just one mine. When these numbers are used about the foot print of the mines. I’m betting that the surrounding foot print isn’t counted. And if one looks at the first set, on the left, you see the housing and human support area crash as well , it may not be a mine, but the forest retreats.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    OT –
    It was ice night on PBS. David H. Koch has renamed his Nova foundation. It’s now the David H. Koch “Science Education Foundation”.
    I had never seen the Nova “Extreme Ice” program. I did know about the “Extreme Ice Survey”, but boy what a guy James Balog is.

    James Balog has given multimedia presentations to hundreds of audiences large and small, including high-profile presentations at the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change; two U.S. Congressional briefing; the 2009 COP-15 United Nations Climate Change Congress in Copenhagen; the National Security Agency; the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver; the California Academy of Sciences; as well as corporate presentations for Apple, The North Face, Samsung, and Qualcomm. Click here to watch James Balog’s talk at TEDGlobal 2009.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The approval of the NDAA was Obama at his duplicitous and slippery worst. He first swore to veto this abomination (he has vetoed fewer bills than any other President in over 100 years)then flip-flopped, as expected, and signed it anyway. It is so broad in its language that it will allow anyone to be banged up Guantanamo-style and get the treatment awaiting Julian Assange. The rulers were always certain to greet popular resistance to immiseration and ecological disaster with brute force, and here it is. Anyone who thinks that the political process will deliver sane and humane policy or that appealing to the Bosses’ ‘better nature’ will get us anywhere is living in cloud-cuckoo land.It will be simplicity itself for a future Obama or Bush to declare environmental protest to be ‘terrorism’ that threatens the Holy Market, and up the usual suspects will be rounded.

  16. These “Climate Change Indicators” from NASA augment the discussion about why the need to reduce fossil fuels is such an imperative, with these great interactive illustrations and graphs that indicate where the planet stands with the rising global climate, retreating ice sheets, the rise in CO2 levels, and sea level rises.

  17. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I think they already have a spot prepared for you and me, Mate.

    Never mind; the act is utterly unconstitutional, against everything the United States claims to hold dear. But, how do you launch a Supreme Court appeal when chained to a wall and held incommunicado?

  18. Nick says:

    640 acres per square miles puts the tar sand’s 232 square miles at about 150,000 acres.
    A doubling of that in ten years implies 300,000 acres, not 740,000.

  19. Rick says:

    Hope you will clarify figures. Current affected 232 sq mi, expected to double, thus to 464 sq mi, which equals a little under 300,000 ac, not 740,000 ac. Which is it?

    Also, the lower left photo, forested lowland oxbows, does not appear to be boreal forest. Where is the photo location?

  20. Stephen Lacey says:

    Nick and Rick —
    Thanks for the comment. It’s production that is expected to double, not land mass. Poor clarity on my part. I’ve added “production” to clarify. Sorry for the confusion.

  21. Stephen Lacey says:

    Also, the photo is of Oxbow lakes in northern Alberta boreal forest.

  22. xpatriate says:

    The ecological disaster taking place in northern Alberta in “mining” the tar sands is undeniable and catastrophic. Distorting figures and pictures to prove the point only detracts and distracts. There is plenty of real evidence to draw on please use that instead.

  23. Belgrave says:

    What’s the point when a majority of the Supreme Court Justices have been bought and paid for?

  24. Stephen Lacey says:

    There is nothing here that is distorted. The “doubling” figure was for production, not land area. And the photos, which compare an untouched piece of boreal forest with a mined area, are clearly labeled as not being the same piece of forest land. It is a visual cue for the reader and is labeled that way.

  25. Thank you for this article. I was already appalled that Canada backed out of Kyoto (even though Kyoto is a joke by any standard) the obvious reason is to mine those damn’ tar sands. Net energy gain is not even high (net $$$ gain is, sadly). The amount of water used to extract the oil is insane (5:1 I believe), that is, After the soil has been skinned alive.

    Apart from writing and sharing and photographing and being disgusted – what could we do to stop this? Does Canada have a “democracy” or just politicians lobbied to be representatives – of corporate profit?

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Oh, Canada is a corporate kakistocracy, one of the most flagrant and extreme-‘so far’ as Homer Simpson observed.

  27. brooke says:

    Obama has NOT signed the NDAA as of yet.

  28. MorinMoss says:

    It’s my fear that we’ll look back at this era of the SCOTUS not as the Roberts Court but the Corporate Court

  29. Solomon says:

    I don’t agree with the pipe line being built, but let me at least say this arguement of not doing partly because you’re destroying 740,000 acres of the boreal forest will not hold.

    The boreal forest is 1.3 billion acres….740,000 acres is just a drop in the bucket come people this cannot be a reason not build it, there’s many better reasons.