Before highways, airlines and the Internet compressed vast landscapes into snapshots flashing by sealed windows, soft seats, climate-controlled interiors and video screens, earth scientists like Sidney Ells recorded the resource in unaided natural perspective as a remote fraction of northern Canada.
To do the first survey of the bitumen mine district, Ells endured a marathon by boat and on foot. Half a century later, he recorded the human side of the science in a memoir published by the federal Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, titled Reflections on the Development of the Athabasca Oil Sands.
Just to reach the expedition’s jumping-off point was a 120-kilometre trek north from Edmonton to Athabasca Landing. The easiest leg of the adventure—paddling a nine-metre scow and 6.6-metre freight canoe for 384 kilometres downstream on the Athabasca River to Fort McMurray—took nine days.
The return voyage south was a 23-day struggle. His team wrestled rope along rough riverbanks to tug the scow upstream, laden with a nine-tonne cargo of samples and equipment. The ordeal, called “tracking,” was a Canadian version of the self-abusive sled “man-hauling” Robert Scott’s fatal British-forced march to the South Pole suffered in 1911-12.
“Scow tracking south of McMurray was anything but child’s play,” Ells recalled.
“Harnessed to the heavy tracking line, men fought their way grimly along rough boulder-strewn beaches or through a tangle of overhanging brush, often ankle-deep in mud or waist-deep in water. The ceaseless torture of myriads of flies from daylight until dark and the heavy work, which only the strongest could long endure, made tracking one of the most brutal forms of labor.”
The survey’s northern base had not been soft either, Ells recalled. “In 1913 McMurray consisted of a dozen primitive log cabins, a bug-infested hovel proudly referred to as the ‘hotel,’ and during the summer months, many Indian tepees and tents. Everywhere starving train [work] dogs roamed at will, and the greatest care for the protection of food and other supplies was essential.”
In the virgin state seen by Ells, the bitumen belt was not paradise. Cars, planes, trains and electronic communications long ago ended pioneer hardship. But a realistic perspective on oilsands industrialization is available thanks to a 340-page Statistics Canada survey, The changing landscape of Canadian metropolitan areas.
Since Alberta bitumen production began in 1967, the provincial and federal energy departments report that mining and upgrading complexes disrupted 895 square kilometres of forests and muskeg swamps. But southern and central Canada did not stand still to preserve nature.
Since 1970 urban sprawl has chewed up 8,895 square kilometres of Canadian terrain, 10 times more of the countryside than oilsands excavation north of Fort McMurray. The total space taken by census metropolitan areas—inner cities, suburbs and edge communities—grew by 157 per cent to 14,546 square kilometres from 5,651.
Alberta economic growth propelled by the petroleum industry added 752 square kilometres to Edmonton and 427 to Calgary. But Toronto developers left oilsands miners in the dust by adding 1,189 square kilometres to its built-up metro area. Montreal grew by 816 square kilometres, Vancouver by 503, and Ottawa by 417.
Population growth is only one driver of urban sprawl. Personal satisfaction contributes. In places where the ideal of owning a home that feels like a castle stays affordable, Canadians think big, the national landscape survey reports.
“More than half of homes built since 2001 were over 1,500 square feet compared to a quarter of homes built before 1978. As well, 13 per cent of homes built since 2001 were over 2,500 square feet compared to five per cent of homes built before 1978,” reads the report.
Bitumen pits and plants occupy borrowed territory, Alberta Energy and Natural Resources Canada point out. The loans last for decades. But production only happens if the sponsors commit to reclaiming the disturbed areas eventually to a naturally productive condition.
Scars of urbanization run deep and seldom heal, Statistics Canada observes. Unlike Ells and his industrial heirs who had to settle for buried treasure in harsh places, city builders concentrate on the most congenial and productive land, water and climates.
The cityscape survey, part of a Statistics Canada series titled Human Activity and the Environment, spotlights consequences of urban evolution over the past half-century.
“The transformation from more natural covers to built-up landscapes, characterized by a high percentage of impervious surfaces including roadways, parking lots and roof tops, increases storm water runoff, creates urban heat islands and reduces the number and diversity of animals and native plants,” the urban landscape review says.
“While Canada’s built-up area represented only 0.1 per cent of the country’s total area in 2011, urban expansion results in the loss of prime agricultural land because numerous communities across the country were originally established on fertile agricultural land,” Statistics Canada reports.
“The expansion and intensification of built-up area also results in the loss of green space and natural land covers. These changes are normally permanent—once agricultural or natural land is used for urban purposes, it is unlikely to return to a natural state.”
The survey includes a lesson: blame for climate change cannot be laid on fossil fuel extraction and refining alone. The industry grew in response to popular demand for its products.
“Workers living in newer homes generally have to travel farther to get to work,” Statistics Canada observes. “These trends have an impact on the environment—motor vehicle use by households is responsible for more than half of household greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for one-tenth of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”
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