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A numerical framework for modelling sediment and chemical constituents transport in the Lower Athabasca River

  • Sediments, Sec 1 • Sediment Quality and Impact Assessment • Research Article
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The transport of fine sediments and associated chemical constituents originating from potential anthropogenic and natural sources is becoming an issue of increasing importance in the Lower Athabasca River (LAR) ecosystem in northern Alberta, Canada. This study aims to (1) establish an integrated numerical modelling framework to investigate the transport of fine cohesive sediments and associated chemical constituents during both ice-covered and open-water periods and (2) apply the modelling framework to investigate the state and temporal/spatial variation in sediment and selected chemical constituents within the LAR.

Materials and methods

One-dimensional hydrodynamic and transport models, combined with a river ice model, are used to predict the flow characteristics, transport of sediments and a selection of three metals and three polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) within a ∼200 km reach of the LAR, both in open-water and ice-covered conditions. The models are validated using available field measurements and are applied to investigate the state and variation of sediment and chemicals for a baseline period as well as to assess the effect of various hypothetical pollution scenarios.

Results and discussion

The model simulations successfully reproduce the hydrodynamics and sediment transport patterns as well as the state and variation of selected metal and PAH constituents. The results generally show that the concentration of chemical constituents in the bed sediment is the major factor in determining the state and variation of their concentration in the water column, and the high-flow season is the critical period for the transport of sediment and chemicals in the system. The scenario simulation results indicate that increases in the concentrations of chemical constituents in tributary streams have to be orders of magnitude higher to have a noticeable effect on their corresponding water column concentration in the LAR. Those effects are also found to be higher only within the immediate vicinity of the tributary confluences and gradually diminish with distance downstream of the confluences.


The numerical modelling framework developed in this study provides a tool for investigation and understanding of the state and temporal/spatial variation of sediment and associated chemical constituents within cold region rivers such as the LAR. By conducting additional scenario-based studies (such as future climate and chemicals loading), the models can be used to identify possible future states of sediment and water quality constituents in the LAR ecosystem.

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The financial support for this study was provided by the Government of Alberta and Environment Canada Joint Oil-Sands Monitoring Program (JOSMP). The authors would like to thank Drs. Fred Wrona, Anil Gupta, Spyros Beltaos, Patricia Chambers and Malcolm Conly for their comments and support at the different stages of this project. The authors acknowledge Dr. Hyung-Il Eum for his help in providing the Athabasca River hydrological modelling data, Tom Carter and Jennifer Pesklevits for collecting and processing the GeoSwath data, Dr. Fay Hicks for providing some of the Lower Athabasca River cross-sectional data and Martin Jasek for his comments and helps with the CRISSP1D model. The authors would also like to thank Dr. Roderick Hazewinkel from Alberta Environment and Parks for facilitating access to the LiDAR data used in preparing the bathymetry for the Athabasca River and its flood plains.

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Correspondence to Ahmad Shakibaeinia.

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Responsible editor: Kimberley N. Irvine

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Shakibaeinia, A., Dibike, Y.B., Kashyap, S. et al. A numerical framework for modelling sediment and chemical constituents transport in the Lower Athabasca River. J Soils Sediments 17, 1140–1159 (2017).

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