Isotopic and Chemical Assessment of the Dynamics of Methane Sources and Microbial Cycling during Early Development of an Oil Sands Pit Lake Academic Article uri icon

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  • Water-capped tailings technology (WCTT) is a key component of the reclamation strategies in the Athabasca oil sands region (AOSR) of northeastern Alberta, Canada. The release of microbial methane from tailings emplaced within oil sands pit lakes, and its subsequent microbial oxidation, could inhibit the development of persistent oxygen concentrations within the water column, which are critical to the success of this reclamation approach. Here, we describe the results of a four-year (2015–2018) chemical and isotopic (δ13C) investigation into the dynamics of microbial methane cycling within Base Mine Lake (BML), the first full-scale pit lake commissioned in the AOSR. Overall, the water-column methane concentrations decreased over the course of the study, though this was dynamic both seasonally and annually. Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) distributions and δ13C demonstrated that dissolved methane, primarily input via fluid fine tailings (FFT) porewater advection, was oxidized by the water column microbial community at all sampling times. Modeling and under-ice observations indicated that the dissolution of methane from bubbles during ebullition, or when trapped beneath ice, was also an important source of dissolved methane. The addition of alum to BML in the fall of 2016 impacted the microbial cycling in BML, leading to decreased methane oxidation rates, the short-term dominance of a phototrophic community, and longer-term shifts in the microbial community metabolism. Overall, our results highlight a need to understand the dynamic nature of these microbial communities and the impact of perturbations on the associated biogeochemical cycling within oil sands pit lakes.


  • Slater, Greg
  • Goad, Corey A
  • Lindsay, Matthew BJ
  • Mumford, Kevin G
  • Colenbrander Nelson, Tara E
  • Brady, Allyson L
  • Jessen, Gerdhard L
  • Warren, Lesley A

publication date

  • December 3, 2021