See The Devastated Landscape Of The Alberta Tar Sands From 1,000 Feet Above

Alex MacLean documents the global and local impacts of tar sands development from above. Here, a skimming tailing pond at the Suncor Mining Site in Alberta, Canada.

Surface oil on a tailing pond, Alberta, Canada.

Checkerboard clearing of the overburden, Syncrude Aurora North Mine Site, Alberta, CA

Athabasca River running in to Lake Athabasca, Northern Alberta, Canada. 2014.

Patches of boreal forest intertwined with snow-covered muskeg, Alberta, Canada

Forest removal for exploratory well pad, Shell Jackpine Mining Site, North of Fort McMurray, CA

Seismic lines and well pad, Shell Jackpine Mining Site, Alberta

Hot waste filling tailing pond, Suncor Mining Site, Alberta, CA

Excavating bitumen at the Syncrude Mildred Lake mining site. Giant tires line traffic circle.

Rising steam and smoke at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrade refinery.

Piles of uncovered petrolum coke, a byproduct of upgrading tar sands oil to synthetic crude.

Earthen Wall to Tailing Pond, Alberta, Canada, 2014

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See The Devastated Landscape Of The Alberta Tar Sands From 1,000 Feet Above

Hidden in plain sight, the Alberta tar sands fields are an industrial expanse where forests once stood. These aerial images capture the scenes of destruction.

Driving down a certain stretch of a highway next to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, you can’t see the huge crude oil fields you’re passing; a border of trees deliberately blocks the view. There's no glimpse of the scarred, murky land where forests once stood, even though the clear-cut area stretches as far as the horizon.

Even when you round a certain bend and see some of the view, it’s hard to grasp the scale: This is a place where trucks are literally the size of houses, storage tanks are the size of football fields, and machines for processing the oil are the size of small office buildings. When the oil fields are fully developed, they'll cover an area the size of the state of Florida.

Photographer Alex MacLean visited Alberta this April to take a series of photos from the air, aiming to help educate the public on both the global and local impacts of tar sands development. The project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. While environmental groups have made the tar sands more well known over the last few years thanks to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, not everyone knows what the fields look like, especially from this perspective.

"From the aerial view, you can see it at scale," MacLean says. "We really had to get up off the ground to see how extensive it is and where it’s happening. Hopefully the pictures, with captions, will expose why this fuel is so carbon intensive and how the extraction process is polluting both the water and air."

MacLean has been photographing the world from above for decades, beginning as an architecture student. "In graduate school I started learning to fly—I thought it was a good way to do site analysis and see architecture in context," he says. "But I was also interested in regional planning and connecting the dots at a larger scale."

Over the years, Maclean has photographed everything from farmland to the hidden outdoor spaces on the roofs of New York City. His work takes an environmental approach. In suburbs and cities, he looks at how density and land use make neighborhoods car-dependent or walkable. In strip mines, he's used aerial photography to show exactly how pollution is leaking into nearby rivers.

"I really hope to be able to show and explain some of these issues that might be harder to comprehend," he says. "If you have a visual image in your head, it can illustrate and frame a concept."

[Photos by Alex Maclean]

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  • I am disgusted by this article Fast Company prides itself on presenting "World changing ideas and innovation" yet this post completely disregards the innovative reclaimation technologies and green initiatives that are ongoing in Alberta. The purpose of this article is to employ the same sensationalist propaganda used by the anti-Keystone environmental movement. "Tar sands" is actually the incorrect terminology: oil sands (as you refer to this as "crude oil reserve"). I would hope the next article I read here is more fact-based instead of pandering to the environment movement's sensationalists.

  • Justin Nelson

    661,000 - total area of Alberta 170,000 - total area of Florida

    If you are a big enough fool to actually believe that the tarsands are going to cover 1/4 of Alberta I truly weep for you. It's funny the article mentions taking it into perspective since its the perspective in the photos that's been manipulated by the photographer.

  • The tar sands are in place over 141,200 square kilometers, the third largest proven crude oil reserve in the world. The area shown in these photographs is obviously only a tiny fraction of that, but 66% of the total area (92,000 square kilometers) has already been leased for extraction (see The majority will be developed with steam-assisted gravity drainage rather than surface mining, however.

  • And that's the critical difference. SAGD doesn't disturb the land like surface mining does. Also, the surface mining is comparable to the many many coal mines across the world. Why the undue focus on oil sands?

  • 2000-4000 lbs of our Boreal Forest bed "moved" for each and every barrel of bitumen oil. Tailings ponds leeching millions of litres of toxic waste into the Athabaska daily? Multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidies, less than 1% reclamation for 1.6% GDP? While other countries prove the social, economic and ecological benefits of clean alternatives, our, er... "The Harper" govt. drives us all over a antiquated oil oligarch cliff. Canada used to be progressive, now it seems we are merely a resource country for dinosaur men. Will we ever be allowed to join the 21st century?

  • I am an aerial photographer like Alex MacLean, and like Alex I take photos from a gas guzzling highly polluting small aircraft. I wanted to make a few comments regarding this article. First of all, non of my clients are open pin miners so my vested interest comes only from being an Albertan. Also I will be the first to admit there are environmental issues producing oil from the oil sands as there are with any other form of oil recovery.

    My objection is using photos of open pit mining for shock value, not to mention words like scarred land and devastation. It is too easy and it is not fair. I could fly over any city in the US and photograph only the oil refineries and the landfills and tell you what terrible places they are. A naturally occurring forest fire can destroy more trees in a few days than an oil company but in both instances, trees grow back.

    to be continued...

  • Howie Olson

    When a forest fire rips through something, that area recovers in better health than before. I have a feeling the same can not be said about tar sands, the two are not anywhere near the same phenomenon and should not be compared.

  • I have walked in the areas where the oil sands are located. There are places where the bitumen (tar!) literally oozes up and stains the ground and leaches into the swamps. If an oil company were to leave behind the kind of mess that occurs naturally up there they would be tarred and pun intended. Funny thing is, once the mined areas are reclaimed they are likely to be better than what had previously existed. I notice you don't show any photos of reclaimed areas. I would be happy to provide you with some if Alex neglected to take any.

    I'm not sure what Alex hoped to accomplish with his photos or who he aims to influence. Yes it is good to make companies adhere to the strongest possible environmental regulations but until we stop using oil and gas ourselves, we are all hypocrites to some degree.

  • Jay Toups

    Well said, Rick Boden. From what I've seen and read there aren't many reclaimed areas in Alberta, but as you note, "until we stop using oil and gas ourselves, we are all hypocrites to some degree."

    Indeed. There's such a compelling need to think bigger about energy and carbon wastes, beyond the hydrocarbon-soaked realm of "cradle-grave" economics. The grave is clearly winning. Mankind is running out of excuses, but we will never run out of carbon building blocks to profitably and responsibly produce the world's cleanest, strongest ALCOHOL fuel.

  • I would love to see your photos of reclaimed areas. I recently photographed and walked the "reclaimed" mines of Appalachia, and they are pretty pathetic. What was once a mountain there is now a sort of hilly plateau, whose soil is basically crushed rock on which nothing but some weedy ground cover they lay down, grows. Oh, and what once were creeks and streams around now manufactured channels of rock - like you might see in a culvert. The original conception of reclamation in Appalachia (and the US in general) was to restore the land to what it was. Which then became "approximately" what it was. And what I have seen is a long way from approximate.

  • eric.kasap

    Reclamation is only just beginning? Tar sands extraction started in 1969, with only a tiny fraction (~ 1%) of that being reclaimed.

    This is a guaranteed reclamation scenario: Once the tarsands are no longer profitable, the companies will shut their doors and walk away. If cleanup is ever done (unlikely), it will be at the taxpayers' expense.. Guaranteed.