42. Oil Sands (1888)

Oil Sands

Oil sands consist of grains of sand coated with a thin layer of water, which in turn is coated with bitumen and, in some cases, clay. Bitumen is highly viscous, meaning that it is like syrup in its consistency and, as a result, flows sluggishly, if at all. It cannot be recovered unless first heated. 

Alberta contains extensive areas with very thick oil-sands deposits, largely concentrated in three regions: Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River. First Nations peoples had long used the bitumen mixed with tree-gum to coat and waterproof their canoes.

The first European to take note of the oil sands was the fur trader Peter Pond in 1778. In 1875 and 1882, the Survey was exploring in oil sands territory. Robert Bell, who later became acting director of the Survey (1901-1906), led the 1882 expedition. In a prescient pronouncement in 1888, he stated: “The evidence… points to the existence in the Athabasca and Mackenzie valleys of the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world.” Bell was not exaggerating, as we now know that the Athabasca Oil Sands are the world’s largest source of petroleum.

Category: Science Advances

Decade: 1880s

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