Climate change impacts on streamflow availability for the Athabasca Oil Sands
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- Leong, D.N.S. & Donner, S.D. Climatic Change (2015) 133: 651. doi:10.1007/s10584-015-1479-y
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Future bitumen production in the Athabasca Oil Sands, one of the largest remaining reserves of petroleum on the planet, is a key factor in global climate policy and politics. Climate warming in the Athabasca River Basin (ARB) has the potential to limit future streamflow availability for aquatic ecosystem needs, as well as for water withdrawals in oil sands mining operations. This study applies the land surface model IBIS and the hydrological routing algorithm THMB, with forced output from CMIP5 global climate models, to examine the response of streamflow in the ARB to climate change this century. In comparison to the small impact of water withdrawals on streamflow, climate change impacts are projected to be the primary driver of future low flow occurrences. Although winter flows are most sensitive to water withdrawals under the historical hydroclimatological regime, future climate change is projected to increase winter flows and decrease summer flows instead, with the frequency of summer low flows projected to rise by up to 85 % in the highest future emissions scenario by the end of the century. A decline in water availability due to more frequent low flows could interrupt oil sands water withdrawals and subsequent daily bitumen production for an additional 2–3 months each year by mid-century. Adaptation to climate warming in the ARB will need to recognize these changing seasonal patterns of flow in order to maintain available flows for ecological needs and water withdrawals.