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Growth of the Alberta tar sands from 1984 to 2011

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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NASA has posted a series of satellite photos documenting the expansion of the Athabasca tar sands. The Athabasca pits cover over 54,000 square miles in Alberta with an estimated reserve of 1.75 trillion barrels of oil – good enough for third in the world behind Saudi Arabia (1) and Venezuela (2).

Production increases noticeably from the mid-1980s to present day:

Visible in the pictures are the tailing ponds holding contaminated water and material from the extraction process, along with surface stripping.

So, in light of the near-certain death of the Keystone XL pipeline, will Canada’s tar sand production continue to grow in the coming years? Or do environmental stewardship and carbon consciousness counter the global demand for cheap energy?

All photos courtesy of the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Update: A few of us have been discussing these pictures on Twitter. Apparently NASA’s Earth Observatory site has satellite images for every year between 1984 and 2011, along with a scale to put the distances in perspective. Check them out to see the year-to-year progression. Thanks, Matthew.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 12:18 pm 12/28/2011

    I bet Canada is really proud of that beautiful landscape. Perfect place to take a vacation or to land NASA’s lunar ship, or to have a mud wrestling match. Boy! The possibilities are endless.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ChazInMT 1:03 pm 12/28/2011

    Yeah, It’s a Disaster!!! Gimme a break. The Earth is so huge, here’s what I want you to do, go to Google Earth and without entering the town this is near, try to find this site. If you can locate this “Destroyed Area” within 10 minutes, than I guess we’ll call it a problem. Fact is, you can’t, this is just a speck of wilderness in an ocean of forest.

    Freak out over nothing like a good “Freak out over anything Econazi” you bunch of “I don’t want any kind of oil production but I want $2 a gallon gasoline for my car and want to fly for $200 roundtrip anywhere” hypocrites.

    Lead by example and sell all your cars, live of the grid, and spend your life being 100% self sufficient. If you decide that in fact you want to be part of modern society, then quit complaining about some of the not so optimum results.

    Link to this
  3. 3. skeptech 1:42 pm 12/28/2011

    Without development there is no progress, no inventions, no inovations, no new science, no evolution of human civilization. Our future is among the stars if we can ever get off this planet and provide for ourselves in space. Until that time there needs to be extraction and utilization of earths resources. Once we can utilize the resources in space and on other planets then we can fully protect this planet.

    Every environmentalist should be a passionate supporter of space exploration and colonization. It will be the only way to fully protect this planet and rely on its resources.

    Link to this
  4. 4. MissoulaEric 2:49 pm 12/28/2011

    ChazInMT, I called your bluff. Here’s a 1500-mile-wide view of western Canada centered on Edmonton:,+AB,+Canada&hl=en&ll=54.521081,-106.171875&spn=13.599319,42.714844&sll=56.46249,-106.479492&sspn=12.950812,42.714844&vpsrc=6&hnear=Edmonton,+Division+No.+11,+Alberta,+Canada&t=h&z=5 It’s easy to see.

    The tar sands development area is definitely more than a “speck”. I’m not saying the environmental costs necessarily exceed the economic benefits, but those costs are certainly non-trivial, even in the vast Canadian wilderness. (Of course, the global climate effects are much more significant than the local deforestation).

    Link to this
  5. 5. yoshyusmc 4:33 pm 12/28/2011

    MissoulaEric, Even with your link I can’t find it, if I started in Google earth and tried to find it without your link narrowing it down I would be unable to find it.

    It is as big as some of the natural sand bars I misidentified in the northern part of your link.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Lochsloy 11:14 pm 12/28/2011

    yoshyusmc: It took me about 20 seconds to find it using the same method as you did. Of course, I have the advantage (or disadvantage) of living in Alberta and know the general area to look at (easily seen when zooming out to see B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba and the NWT).

    Link to this
  7. 7. Carlyle 11:23 pm 12/28/2011

    In a more rational world, nuclear co-generation would be used to extract the oil from the tar sands. This would, from memory, tripple the amount of oil recovered from the tar sand using waste heat from the nuclear power station & reducing the cost of the electricity generated to well below any existing base load method.

    Link to this
  8. 8. wednesday 7 mcgowan 8:50 am 12/29/2011

    Im also from Alberta and I would say the XL pipeline project has had a bit of a hic-up mostly political posturing in all likelyhood it will go through. But I assure that these massive oil companies will find a way to get the oil to market. They have already stated that if the Xl pipeline doesn’t go through they will just build a pipeline through BC and ship the oil to China

    As for the enviromental cost, we do need to mitigate it but as a species we have no other fuel source that could viably power our civalization.

    But have hope, because Many of the greatest minds on earth are working on the problem. It’s important to remember that humans only left Africa around 50,000 years ago and look at what we have built. We Will beat this.

    Link to this
  9. 9. markdaugela 2:34 pm 12/29/2011

    Although I am very pro oilsands development, this is misleading 1) – the majority of tailings ponds aren’t even shown. Several mega projects are excluded from the view and really misrepresent the real boom. 2) For thousands of centuries, the oilsands were eroding from the banks and falling into the Athabasca River – many sites remain that are easily visible from the naked eye (and nose) from a ground perspective. Does anyone know of water samples upstream and downstream that show an accurate amount of change? The pictures don’t show groundwater flow?

    Link to this
  10. 10. Momus 3:46 pm 12/30/2011

    > ” Or do environmental stewardship and carbon consciousness counter the global demand for cheap energy?”

    Childish. Only recessions/depressions counter global demand for energy. More efficient use helps of course.

    But environmentalist are often (most of the time?!!) myopic.
    They save a a little bit in one place but energy _must_ come
    from somewhere. So they create bigger problems elsewhere…

    Good intentions, terrible results.

    Link to this
  11. 11. emm_one 5:11 pm 12/31/2011

    Most of that area isn’t even forest. It’s tundra. Wasteland.

    Link to this

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