Justine Karst

Justine Karst

Department of Renewable Resources
University of Alberta

Chair title

NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Terrestrial Restoration Ecology

Chair program

Industrial Research Chairs program


Associate Chairholder since 2016


The NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Terrestrial Restoration Ecology will build and apply knowledge on the belowground ecology of boreal forests to establish self-sustaining forests on reclaimed lands. Oil sands mining is followed by reclamation, and a large portion of reclaimed lands will be revegetated to become forests. Reclamation strategies vary, owing in part to differences in the geological materials available to construct new landforms.

Oil sands that do not meet criteria for processing, yet contain some petroleum hydrocarbons, are referred to as “lean” oil sands, and are sometimes used to reconstruct landforms after mining. As a result, lean oil sands can be buried in the rooting zone of forest vegetation. In this region of boreal forest, oil sands outcrops also occur naturally, and forests have developed on these deposits over thousands of years following glaciation. There are concerns that placement of lean oil sands in new landforms may act as a barrier to roots, with subsequent effects on the aboveground functioning of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants on sites reclaimed using this material.

Relying predominantly on field studies, research under the Chair will investigate root growth in a range of soils of undisturbed boreal forests, including those established on naturally occurring oil sands outcrops, and in reclaimed areas. As microbes are critical in water and nutrient uptake by roots, the role they play in facilitating tree establishment on oil sands will also be included in these investigations. In conjunction with this research, molecular markers will be used to identify species of roots, allowing researchers to link above- and belowground functioning of forests.

Overall, this research will provide industry with critical knowledge on successful reclamation practices and potential constraints to establishing boreal forests on reconstructed landforms. Finding the balance between using natural resources today while maintaining capacity for future generations affects all Canadians. Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a collaboration of oil sands producers, is uniquely poised to develop and share strategies across the energy sector to improve environmental performance in the oil sands.

Justine Karst is a restoration ecologist who studies belowground ecology to provide knowledge important to the restoration of degraded ecosystems. Her research focuses on belowground interactions among plants, microbes and their environment, toward understanding their ecology.


  • Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)

Contact information

Department of Renewable Resources
University of Alberta

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