Sights and Sounds of the Alberta Oil Sands

As well as helping Andriko Lozowy set up Where is Fort McMurray? on my recent trip to Wood Buffalo, I also went to make some sound recordings of the Oil Sands industrial site.

The Athabasca Oil Sands Project is a controversial energy project that surface mines the largest reservoir of bitumen (extremely heavy crude oil) in existence, located in north-eastern Alberta, Canada.

By mapping the acoustic ecologies of the Athebasca Oil Sands I aim to develop on the work of the ground-breaking 1970’s project Soundscapes of Canada whose objective was to capture disappearing sounds in response to over noise pollution. R. Murray Schafer (pioneer in the field of acoustic ecology) and his peers at the Simon Fraser University undertook an extended field recording tour of Canada. Material collected during that tour forms the basis of a series of radio compositions, each of which treats the Canadian sound environment uniquely.

This sound recording project seeks broaden the scope of the Soundscapes of Canada project by recording the acoustic ecology of an industrial noise zone – the Athebasca Oil Sands Project – a soundscape entirely unique to Canada.

I present my first unedited recordings here (in both .mp3 and .wav) in correspondence with photographs taken by Andriko…

Alberta Highway 63. Photo: Andriko Lozowy


wav: Highway 63

"Crane Lake Nature Trail" Located approximately 30km north of Fort McMurray. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Crane Lake

View of a tailings pond and Syncrude Oil Sand Mine in the distance. Photo: Andriko Lozowy


View of Syncrude tailings pond by side of road. Photo: Andriko Lozowy


Syncrude worker camp. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Worker Camp Carpark

Fort McKay Industrial Park. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Fort McKay Industrial Park

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15 Responses to Sights and Sounds of the Alberta Oil Sands

  1. Andriko says:

    Something to try – play all the recordings simultaneously.

  2. Merle says:

    Works well when played in combination! And you can still hear the cannon fire.

  3. jgrzinich says:

    Hi Merle,
    I really like the idea of this kind of survey, especially with sound. Just a few tips on the recordings…. wind protection is essential, you can help avoid this by covering the front of the recorder with a faux-fur “sock” (non-vinyl backed fur can be bought cheaply from a fabric store). Also, avoid moving around and taking photos while recording at it draws the listeners attention to the recordist rather than the environment. Trying these two things will greatly increase the “transparency” of your recordings. Looking forward to hear more.

    • Merle says:

      Hi John,

      thanks for your tips. I am relatively new to the world of sound recording so am still getting accustomed to the technology and problematics of recording outdoors in blustery environments.

      The wind noise was, in the main, produced by the huge trucks driving by which were then buffeting our car. When I next go up I will be sure to take a ‘sock’ with me!

      Thanks again, Merle

  4. Human Being says:

    Extraordinary well gathered data. I could separate various other noises from the mine especially in -View of a tailings pond and Syncrude Oil Sand Mine in the distance. Such a mixture of photography and noise is very useful even in the age of video technology. Here scenery remains standard and it is the noise modulation that makes the change. And it is good to have changing module separated out from the static.
    I am an Industrial engineer, while in factory, i like to listen to the noise, which is constantly at the peak, I and many other engineers are able to detect change in the noise as problem area which helps as problem identification technique. I personally think all manufacturing engineers should be given such a training in their engineering course, which will help not only to resolve problems in hand but also help them to take pre-emptive action as well. My guru, who trained me, taught me to listen to the noise around as music and to analyse different factors contributing to it. This for example helped me understand if the machine is smoothly operating or has gathered rust or needs over oiling. Understanding the noise is the most important skill in problem solving especially in a factory environment.
    Your work in this field is really commendable. I really hope this field of noise identification/recognition sees better light in future.
    Good Luck and best wishes.

    • Merle says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is especially interesting to hear how you have been trained to analyze noise as an industrial engineer. This is something I have to learn… Most of my recordings thus far have been taken from the road side and I hope to gain access into some of the mining facilities to further differentiate the noises produced through the process. Merle

  5. Brian Rosa says:

    This is excellent Merle, and I am really impressed by Andriko’s photos. It would be great to see some more stuff about/inspired by R. Murray Schafer, pretty interesting stuff all around.

  6. Merle says:

    UrbanTick’s take on the project:

    Sound-Based Research Field Work

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  8. Mike Zajko says:

    The work looks great and the sound is a huge plus. If you ever need an unskilled assistant let me know – I would love to check out the area. In the meantime I’ll settle for media.

  9. jethrobrice says:

    Thank you, this is fascinating.

    I noticed how much the cannon (is this to keep birds from the tailings?) is swamped by the general noise. I guess this impression may be distorted by the proximity to the road, but hearing it I wonder how a bird, arriving, would read the soundscape, and where in the restless expanse it might attempt to settle.

    Also, the sound of flapping canvas on the sides of a speeding lorry recalled the laboured beats of swan wings at take-off: escape velocity?

    Will you be going back? I look forward to hearing what other soundscapes are there.

    • Merle says:

      HI jethro,

      the cannon boom is supposed to keep the birds from landing on the tailings. After a case in April 2008 when 1600 migratory birds died after landing in a tailings pond, oil sands mine operators were required by law to have plans and resources in place that prevent migratory birds from landing in tailings lakes. Some mines have radar detection systems that automatically discharge warning shots from propane cannons to ward off flocks of birds as they approach. Others depend upon less effective deterrent measures that require human intervention in placing scarecrows and discharging cannons.

      I think the sound is distorted being so close to the road, but I did wonder too how a bird would experience the soundscape and I know that even the radar detection systems are not full proof.

      I hope to be going back sometime soon but as a non-driver in Alberta it’s a pretty hard place to get to using public transport… but I think this situation could become part of the project – how hard it is to carry out field work in Alberta unless you have access and can drive a car.


  10. Pingback: SIGHTING OIL – special issue | Experimental Geography in Practice

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