Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding Accuracy in Oiled Avian Mortality

Liz Staples
ENVS 1020

Finding Accuracy in Oiled
Avian Mortality

“A new study says birds are likely dying in oilsands tailing ponds at least 30 times the rate suggested by industry and government.” (Bob Weber, Toronto Star 2010)

These words captivated readers of the Toronto Star recently as journalist Bob Weber reported the results from a newly published paper titled Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailings Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada. Written by respected ecologist, Kevin Timoney along with Robert Ronconi, the scientific paper was published in the Wilson’s Journal of Anthology and highlights the inconsistency in mortality rates of oiled birds (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Using three types of data, Timoney was able to develop what he believes to be a more accurate annual average for bird deaths in the study area then that received by industry and government. His findings were brought to the attention of the public through various sources that incorporated relatively accurate but narrow information, including the article titled, Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study, as found in the Toronto Star. So the question arises, is the general public receiving enough viable information to truly come to an accurate opinionated conclusion?

Method of study and obtaining final results
Through the words of journalist Bob Weber, one will receive reasonably valid information on the study performed by Kevin Timoney and Robert Ronconi. The measures taken by Timoney, to obtain the final results reported, were accurately presented within the article. To come to his conclusion, Timoney analysed three types of data: previous results of studies involving bird deaths at tailings ponds, landing, oiling, and mortality rates, as well as mortality rates reported by government- industry (Weber 2010). However this is the extent of the information received by the reader involving Timoneys method of study, and conclusion of results. Upon obtaining the scientific paper, detailed and relevant information that was neglected in the article is available regarding the method of study that lead to Timoneys final results.

Results from previous studies and surveys of dead birds at these tailing ponds were taken and adjusted accordingly to suffice for the increase in land area of the ponds. The lowest observed mortality of 7.2 birds/km2 (low estimate taken in 1985) and the highest mortality of 41.7 birds/ km2 (high estimate taken from 1980-1985), were used to formulate a range of 863 to 5,029 annual mortalities in the 120.6 km2 (2008)study area (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Results from these years appear to still be relevant today as techniques of discouraging bird landings, such as propane cannons and scarecrows, have not changed or been enhanced (Timoney and Ronconi 2010).

Landing, oiling and mortality rates were obtained from observing a 3.5 km2 as well as a 0.5 km2 area of tailing ponds and rates of landing/ hr and oiled birds/ day collated with mortality percentages were expanded to fit the study area (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Approximately 125, 513 to 397, 408 birds may land during a month of spring migration and an estimated 0.23% of the birds that land will be oiled. Timoney then concluded that 80% to 90% of oiled birds will die, however there is no calculated percentage stating oiled bird mortality (Timoney and Ronconi 2010).

The results that Timoney had collected were then compared to the claims made by both industry and government reporting that annual mortality was in range from 59 (low) to 65 (high) birds/year, with an additional 18 to 29 birds/ year for unknown causes (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Besides obvious variations in these numbers to the ones calculated by Timoney, variations were found between the numbers reported by government and industry. This realization allowed Timoney to conclude that monitoring by industry is inconsistent and therefore the government should incorporate alternative ways in which these figures can be found.

The readers of the article found in the Toronto Star were not made fully aware of the methods used to obtain Timoneys final results. Through estimations and calculations in which results from the 1980s were used, and studied but unverified percentages were included, Timoney came to a conclusion that may be more accurate then previously thought, but just how accurate are his figures? The article in the Toronto Star gives readers the impression of indisputable fact, proof even; however while reading the scientific data we realize that this is an unsuitable conclusion.

Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. One of the three mines (Suncor, Syncrude, Shell Albain) that Timoney obtained information from. His studies incorporated 120km2 of tailing ponds which include the ponds pictured above.

Final results and experimental error
While Timoney reports various accounts of data his final results indicate an annual mortality rate in the range of 458 to 5, 029 birds, proving how difficult it is to conclude in an actual figure (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Readers of the Toronto Star are subject to few of the figures presented in Timoneys study; only securing the incorrect industry reported rate of 65 birds/ year and the 14 year median of 1, 973 birds/ year (Weber 2010). The article also shed light on the some of the experimental error or misleading information that Timoney mentions himself. It mentions that the study did not account for birds that landed at night or sank under the oil and never resurfaced. (Weber, 2010) However in his study Timoney goes even further to say that there were no observations from November through to early April (bodies of water are frozen, tailing ponds are not), and that the estimations made included assumptions that the values used for regions of the ponds held true throughout the 120km2 of study area (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). Timoney also brings to the table that there is a need for improved data in all regions of this issue. Not only does industry need to be more accurate in their reported rates, as the article focuses on, but also in such things as numbers, extreme weather events and even continued migration for oiled birds (Timoney and Ronconi 2010). While Weber seems quite content on destroying public faith in the government-industry reporting of oiled avian mortality rates, Timoney addresses not only this but many other relative issues.

The purpose of an article that one can find in such a place as a newspaper is to present accurate information in a way that is friendly and appealing to the general public. An easy read, with quick facts to keep readers updated with the happenings of the world around them. The article titled Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study, written by Bob Weber sheds light on the important issue highlighted in a recent study performed by Kevin Timoney and Robert Ronconi. It presents accurate information on the study in a reader friendly way. However before forming an opinion it is important that the reader looks closer at the published scientific journal titled Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailings Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada, and truly understands all the underlying issues. It is necessary for us to remember that an article can only tell us so much, it is up to us do delve further before forming an accurate opinionated conclusion.

Timoney, Kevin and Ronconi, Robert. “Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen tailing Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada.” Wilson Journal of Ornithology 122(2010): 569-576) Web. 20. Sept 2010.

Weber, Bob. “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study.” Toronto Star. 7 Sept 2010. Web 17 Sept 2010.

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