Athabasca Oil Sands 1984—2011



Buried under Canada’s boreal forest is one of the world’s largest reserves of oil. Bitumen—a very thick and heavy form of oil (also called asphalt)—coats grains of sand and other minerals in a deposit that covers about 142,200 square kilometers (54,900 square miles) of northwest Alberta. According to a 2003 estimate, Alberta has the capacity to produce 174.5 billion barrels of oil.

Perhaps nowhere is growth easier to see than at the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. It is the world’s largest oil sands deposit, with a capacity to produce 174.5 billion barrels of oil—2.5 million barrels of oil per day for 186 years. Where oil sands are close to the surface, they are extracted in large open pit mines. Taken by the Landsat satellites, these natural-color images show the expansion of the mines between 1984 and 2011. Year-by-year images are available in the Earth Observatory’s World of Change series.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon using Landsat data from the USGS Global Visualization Viewer. Caption by Holli Riebeek.