In early October I travelled to the USA to present my work on the ecohydrology of mine site restoration at the 5th World Conference on Ecological Restoration in Madison, Wisconsin. Yet despite being the primary purpose of my trip, the Conference was just one part of a greater invaluable experience, involving forging connections with experts in the field of unsaturated soils and mine restoration design, discovering opportunities to bolster and build on my own research goals and witnessing restoration in action in environments worlds apart from our own.
Restorationist enjoying a post-Conference drink from a glass boot
The Society of Ecological Restoration's (SER) 5th World Conference was different to other conferences I have been to in many ways; ranging from the outdoors Welcome Reception overlooking the Capitol Building and Lake Monona, to Contra-dancing at the Gala Dinner and an adaptation of Monty Python’s “Lumber Jack” to “I’m a Restorationist” at the closing plenary session.
As is normal post-conference proceedings, each day Conference participants could be found sitting around tables at pubs in downtown Madison sampling cheeses and micro-brews, sometimes from a boot.
This is not to say that the whole conference was made up of frivolity. I flitted between numerous sessions and symposiums, trying to be as sponge-like as possible, and learn as much as I could about Mine Restoration in other parts of the world. I heard speakers from mines in Canada to the Congo, Australia to the Andes. I also greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet and learn from esteemed Australian restoration scientists old and new, John Ludwig and Luis Merino-Martin
On a conference field trip I visited the Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area to have a look at the real application of restoration techniques. The main restoration techniques looked at were prescribed fire and logging in order to return the area from neglected, overgrown oak and pine forests to pine and oak barrens native to the area pre-agriculture and urbanisation. The impact of a recent tornado on the landscape was also observed (as were the marvellous fall colours that captured my heart – reflected in the number of times I tried to capture them with my camera!)
Autumn colours at Quincy Bluff
After the conference I went to visit experts in my field of research. These scientists are based in Canada but work on projects around the world. I first visited Saskatoon and Professor Lee Barbour who has worked extensively with the hydrology of mine waste materials. I spoke at the University of Saskatchewan to people from the University, the Saskatoon Geotechnical Group, O’Kane Consultants and Golder and Associates. My audience included the pioneer researcher into Unsaturated Soils, Professor Del Fredlund.
After my presentation I returned with Professor Fredlund to the Golder and Associates where I was introduced to more of their employees and given a tour of their unsaturated soils laboratory. Their soils lab is set up to test the unsaturated hydraulic properties of soils. As pictured above their work ranges from heap leach experiments to the development of Soil Water Characteristic Curves that illustrate the water retention properties of a soil.
Apparatus to measure the soil moisture conditions under heap leach methods of resource extraction. Aim is to use the least amount of acid or cyanide to extract the greatest volume of ore without contaminating the environment.
It was here that Professor Fredlund recommended I submit a paper for presentation at UNSAT2014 in Sydney next year as he believes work like mine is missing from these forums. In celebration, that night I polished off a piece of scrumptious Saskatoon Pie (which also assisted in facing the now-dreaded task of packing).
Saskatoon pie made from local Saskatoon berries
My next talk was given at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. After my presentation, my host Aileen Cash introduced me to her research project and lab work. It is possible that the waste-rock Aileen is working with from a Canadian hard-rock mine has a similar particle size distribution and thus are comparable to my materials. This is exciting as it means that we may be able to collaborate in the future and share data or information as well as co-author a paper! An international perspective on my research!
Aileen’s similarly coarse waste-rock material.
Whilst still in Edmonton I was invited to visit the oil sands mining in Fort McMurray with Professor Ward Wilson. The oil sands mining area is massive! There are tailings dams that are over 18km long! Mining has also been going on for a long time in this area with Alberta Oil Sands being the third largest suppliers of oil in the world. Saying that, there is also a long history of restoration extending back to the 1960’s. Of course there have been stories of failures and success, but from what I could see, they are doing a pretty good job restoring pine forest.
Observing the scale of oil sands mining area was not the purpose of our trip however. We were there to witness and assist in the maiden voyage of a marvellous robot that engineers from the University of Alberta designed and built.
The 'Intrigue Rover'
Unlike in the NT, in northern Alberta they have problems with having too much water and not enough evaporation leading to difficulties in tailings consolidation. Often the tailings ponds look dry, with their cracked appearance, but the soil doesn’t have much strength and if humans were to try and walk on it to take samples they would sink several metres and, well, I think you can see how this would be problematic! So using the robot I dubbed the “Intrigue Rover” (due to its similarity in purpose to the Mars Curiosity Rover) researchers can drill and collect soil samples at depth todetermine the strength of the deposited materials so that these area’s too may be restored to their previous ecosystem, or something similar. They even let me drive …on the sand.
Behind the wheel (or remote) at last!
The next thing I was to drive was a hire car, a new Toyota Camry. I hit the #16 Yellowhead Highway to Jasper, my gateway to the Rockies.
The next 4 days were a whirlwind of adventure with well over a thousand kilometres travelled and photos taken. I walked along canyons carved from icy cold water, froze taking time-lapse photos at Lake Louise, walked on top of the Athabasca Glacier, took in the marvellous vista’s around Banff from a gondola and made what was possibly the most pitiful snowman ever from the scarce snow cover at the base of the towering peaks that make up the Rockies.
It was with reluctance that I left the Rockies to head back to sweltering Darwin. But as I watched sunset over that epic mountain range from the plane window, I reflected on what I had learnt, and how important it is for restoration to advance and improve, so that we can protect and restore once-pristine areas to be enjoyed once again by future generations and support native flora and fauna. An invaluable experience and a reminder to take only photographs and leave only footprints.
Standing on top of a frozen river called the Athabasca Glacier. It is about 250m deep at this point.
The majestic Lake Louise