Articles | Volume 18, issue 13
Research article
13 Jul 2018
Research article |  | 13 Jul 2018

Estimates of exceedances of critical loads for acidifying deposition in Alberta and Saskatchewan

Paul A. Makar, Ayodeji Akingunola, Julian Aherne, Amanda S. Cole, Yayne-abeba Aklilu, Junhua Zhang, Isaac Wong, Katherine Hayden, Shao-Meng Li, Jane Kirk, Ken Scott, Michael D. Moran, Alain Robichaud, Hazel Cathcart, Pegah Baratzedah, Balbir Pabla, Philip Cheung, Qiong Zheng, and Dean S. Jeffries

Abstract. Estimates of potential harmful effects on ecosystems in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan due to acidifying deposition were calculated, using a 1-year simulation of a high-resolution implementation of the Global Environmental Multiscale-Modelling Air-quality and Chemistry (GEM-MACH) model, and estimates of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem critical loads. The model simulation was evaluated against two different sources of deposition data: total deposition in precipitation and total deposition to snowpack in the vicinity of the Athabasca oil sands. The model captured much of the variability of observed ions in wet deposition in precipitation (observed versus model sulfur, nitrogen and base cation R2 values of 0.90, 0.76 and 0.72, respectively), while being biased high for sulfur deposition, and low for nitrogen and base cations (slopes 2.2, 0.89 and 0.40, respectively). Aircraft-based estimates of fugitive dust emissions, shown to be a factor of 10 higher than reported to national emissions inventories (Zhang et al., 2018), were used to estimate the impact of increased levels of fugitive dust on model results. Model comparisons to open snowpack observations were shown to be biased high, but in reasonable agreement for sulfur deposition when observations were corrected to account for throughfall in needleleaf forests. The model–observation relationships for precipitation deposition data, along with the expected effects of increased (unreported) base cation emissions, were used to provide a simple observation-based correction to model deposition fields. Base cation deposition was estimated using published observations of base cation fractions in surface-collected particles (Wang et al., 2015).

Both original and observation-corrected model estimates of sulfur, nitrogen, and base cation deposition were used in conjunction with critical load data created using the NEG-ECP (2001) and CLRTAP (2017) methods for calculating critical loads, using variations on the Simple Mass Balance model for terrestrial ecosystems, and the Steady State Water Chemistry and First-order Acidity Balance models for aquatic ecosystems. Potential ecosystem damage was predicted within each of the regions represented by the ecosystem critical load datasets used here, using a combination of 2011 and 2013 emissions inventories. The spatial extent of the regions in exceedance of critical loads varied between 1  ×  104 and 3.3  ×  105 km2, for the more conservative observation-corrected estimates of deposition, with the variation dependent on the ecosystem and critical load calculation methodology. The larger estimates (for aquatic ecosystems) represent a substantial fraction of the area of the provinces examined.

Base cation deposition was shown to be sufficiently high in the region to have a neutralizing effect on acidifying deposition, and the use of the aircraft and precipitation observation-based corrections to base cation deposition resulted in reasonable agreement with snowpack data collected in the oil sands area. However, critical load exceedances calculated using both observations and observation-corrected deposition suggest that the neutralization effect is limited in spatial extent, decreasing rapidly with distance from emissions sources, due to the rapid deposition of emitted primary dust particles as a function of their size. We strongly recommend the use of observation-based correction of model-simulated deposition in estimating critical load exceedances, in future work.

Short summary
Complex computer model output was compared to and fused with observation data, to estimate potential damage due to acidifying precipitation for ecosystems in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Estimated deposition was compared to the maximum no-damage ecosystem capacity for sulfur and/or nitrogen uptake; these critical loads were exceeded, for areas between 10 000 and 330 000 square kilometres, depending on ecosystem type: ecosystem damage will occur at 2013 emission levels.
Final-revised paper