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Exploitation of the Athabasca Oil Sands has expanded hugely over the last 40 years. Regional emissions of oxidised sulphur and nitrogen compounds increased rapidly over this period and similar emissions have been linked to lake acidification in other parts of North America and Europe. To determine whether lakes in the region have undergone acidification, 12 lakes within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Caribou Mountains were selected to cover chemical and spatial gradients and sediment cores were obtained for palaeolimnological analyses including radiometric dating, diatom analysis, isotopic analysis of bulk sediment 13C and 15N, and spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs). All lake sediment cores show evidence of industrial contamination based on SCPs, but there is no clear industrial signal in stable isotopes. Most lakes showed changes in diatom assemblages and sediment C:N ratios consistent with nutrient enrichment over various timescales, with potential drivers including climatic change, forest fires and anthropogenic nitrogen deposition. Only one of the 12 lakes investigated showed strong evidence of acidification with a decline in diatom-inferred pH from 6.3 to 5.6 since 1970 linked to increasing relative abundances of the acidophilous diatom species Actinella punctata, Asterionella ralfsii and Fragilariforma polygonata. Analysis of mercury (Hg) in the acidified lake showed increasing sediment fluxes over the last 20 years, a possible indication of industrial contamination. The acidified lake is the smallest of those studied with the shortest residence time, suggesting a limited capacity for neutralisation of acid inputs in catchment soils or by inlake processes.
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