Are Golf Courses Negatively Impacting the Environment?

Summer is just around the corner, and for many people that means the beginning of a new season hitting the links! I must admit that like many others, I can’t wait to get out on the golf course and play a round or two. That being said, after last season and entering the MEnv program, I began considering the potential environmental hazards associated with the construction and maintenance of golf courses. Are these beautiful emerald green courses really as green as they appear?

Many areas in North America are becoming more and more fragmented with new golf courses every year. In 2009, Florida alone had 1144 golf courses throughout the state, spanning a total area of just over 860 square kilometers [1]. Many of these courses are located in areas on shore lines or in sensitive ecological areas such as the Florida Everglades, as shown by this map of all the courses in 2009.

Not only are many of these courses situated in sensitive areas, but many of them use fertilizers and pesticides which are not only potentially harmful to ecosystems, but are also potential carcinogens for humans [2]. A 2006 study showed that U.S. golf courses used on average 112% of nitrogen and 187% of potash per acre used to fertilize corn crops [3]. In plain English this means more fertilizer was used per acre on U.S. golf courses than to grow corn. The result of this over use of fertilizers is the potential for eutrophication, adding an unintentional greenness to water bodies around golf courses, as is evident in the following image.

Furthermore, there is significant concern over the sustainability of the approximate use of 300,000 gallons a day of water for maintenance of U.S. golf courses, especially in areas of California which have sunken by more than a foot in 9 years due to aquifer demand [4]. While these concerns are well documented, there is a lack of regulation associated with golf courses. In Canada, many pesticides are banned for cosmetic use on properties, but golf courses have been exempt from the regulations [5]. It seems about time that governments do a better job to recognize the environmental concerns related to golf courses, and consider thresholds for required EIA of golf courses. British Columbia does currently have “golf resorts” built into its EIA legislation, stating that the resort must occupy an area greater than 200 hectares and possess more than 600 commercial bed units [6]. Considering an average 18 hole golf course requires 120-200 acres, the equivalent of about 50 to 80 hectares, not many new courses will require environmental impact assessments [7].

However, many golf course owners have realized the need to promote good environmental management of their courses. Alan Morton, owner of Golf Griffon Des Sources in Mirabel, Quebec, has implemented woodland corridors throughout his course to reduce habitat fragmentation as well as the use of liquid compost treatment to reduce the need for pesticides [5]. Even the great Nick Faldo, who now designs golf courses after a successful PGA career, promotes the notion that “as the world’s natural landscapes become more endangered, our most fundamental job as course designers is to create beautiful playing venues that also preserve and protect the environment” [8]. Golf courses may have the potential to cause environmental degradation, but the golf community also has an opportunity to be a leader in terms of sustainable development. As more courses are inevitably created, they should be designed in an environmentally friendly manner, so that we can keep enjoying the sport for years to come.


[1] Florida Geographic Data Library. (2009). Florida Golf Courses in 2009. Retrieved March 25th 2015, from

[2] Knopper, L., & Lean, D. (2004). Carcinogenic And Genotoxic Potential Of Turf Pesticides Commonly Used On Golf Courses. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 7(4), 267-279.

[3] Environmental Institute for Golf (2006). Golf Course Environmental Profile. Retrieved March 26th 2015, from

[4] Barton, J. (2008). How Green if Golf? Retrieved March 26th 2015, from

[5] Oosthoek, S., (2011). How Golf Courses Are Getting Greener. Retrieved March 26th 2015, from

[6] British Columbia Environmental Assessment Act Reviewable Projects Regulation(2012) Retrieved March 26th 2015, from

[7] American Society of Golf Architects. (n.d.) FAQ: How much land do I need to build a golf course? Retrieved March 27th 2015, from

[8] Nick Faldo Design. (n.d.). Sustainability. Retrieved March 27th 2015, from

A Case for Cumulative Effects Assessments in Protecting Caribou Populations

Despite being an unassailable cultural icon in Canada and enjoying a broad geographic spread, the North American caribou (Rangifer tarandus) faces many challenges to its long-term survival. Indeed, as of November, 2014, the majority of caribou subspecies have been listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act[1] and continue to exhibit declining population trends outside of natural fluctuations[2]. As can be seen in the following illustration, every subspecies aside from barren-ground caribou and certain ecotypes of woodland caribou have been given special status, yet all herds suffer from a receding historical range[2]:

Distribution and Status of Caribou Subspecies in Canada

One major factor contributing to this decline is the large-scale disturbance to high-quality caribou habitats from development projects[3][4]. Although the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is intended to minimize or avoid a project’s potential environmental impacts prior to implementation, it has not proven to be exceedingly effective in predicting or mitigating impacts on caribou populations due to its narrow, project-based approach[5]. Instead, more comprehensive practices such as cumulative effects assessments (CEAs) must be employed so the interactions between proposed activities and specialized, migratory species like caribou can be adequately understood.

Typically, a zone of influence around a project is demarcated in order to assess the spatiotemporal extent of its disturbances on caribou populations[4]. This approach, however, implicitly assumes that disturbances are isolated to a single project and neglects the interaction of effects from multiple projects and stressors in the region which combine to inflate the initial zone of influence and magnify its impacts. Properly assessing a project’s true zone of influence is essential for accurate impact predictions as caribou will often exhibit an avoidance response when encountering a zone of influence, whereby they alter their behaviour, distribution, or selection of suitable habitats[4]. Some observed avoidance responses have been so severe that caribou populations like the woodland caribou in northern Alberta have avoided high-quality habitats 1 km near oil and gas wells, equivalent to a 22-48% loss in available habitat[4]. Pictured below is an example of a suitable boreal habitat that could be abandoned by caribou if cumulative disturbances in the region are too great[6].

Caribou Entering Boreal Forest Habitat

Negative impacts on caribou populations are not always so linear either. A study by Beauchesne et al. (2014) showed that woodland caribou responded to an increase in cumulative anthropogenic disturbances by expanding their home ranges, a behaviour shift which resulted in greater energy expenditures and risk of exposure to predators[3]. These kinds of indirect effects generally occur outside the scope of an individual project yet they still interact to endanger caribou population persistence. Similarly, Frid and Dill (2002) provide a simple model that depicts how effects like disturbances and predation encounters displace caribou from preferred habitats and create a cascading response that indirectly affects population size[7].

Model of Indirect Effects on Caribou Population Size

Given the complexity of population dynamics then, the simpler project-based approach to impact prediction and evaluation should be relegated to smaller projects that do not infringe upon caribou habitats. CEA is currently the most viable tool to address the myriad of spatiotemporal factors at the landscape level, and, while often criticized for being ineffective[4], it has great potential for improvement. One suggestion to render CEAs more effective is to establish cumulative effect thresholds that are incorporated into the approval process for industrial activity occurring within caribou ranges[5]. As of yet though, no such thresholds exist within any jurisdiction in Canada[5].


[1]Environment Canada. (2014). Species at Risk Act (S.C. 2002, c.29). Ottawa, ON: Minister of Justice.

[2]Gunn, A., Russell, D., and J. Eamer. (2011). Northern caribou population trends in Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 10. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers.

[3]Beauchesne, D., Jaeger, J.A.G., and M. St-Laurent. (2014). Thresholds in the capacity of boreal caribou to cope with cumulative disturbances: Evidence from space use patterns. Biological Conservation, 172, 190-199.

[4]Johnson, C.J., and M. St-Laurent. (2011). Unifying Framework for Understanding Impacts of Human Developments on Wildlife. In D.E. Naugle (Ed.), Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America (pp. 27-54). Washington, DC: Island Press.

[5]Anderson, R.B., Dyer, S.J., Francis, S.R., and E.M. Anderson. (2002). Development of a Threshold Approach for Assessing Industrial Impacts on Woodland Caribou in the Yukon. Whitehorse, YT: Applied Ecosystem Management Ltd.

[6]Youds, M. (December 26, 2013). Mountain Caribou Face Uncertain Future [Article]. Retrieved from

[7]Frid, A., and L. Dill. (2002). Human-caused Disturbance Stimuli as a Form of Predation Risk. Conservation Ecology, 6(1): 11.

Pristine Antarctica: Threatened by science station sewage

by Sara Munčs

Antarctica has long been designated as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”[1]. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, and its’ Protocol on Environmental Protection from 1991, place strict regulations on the different types of activities that can be conducted in the Antarctic [1, 2]. All activities related to mineral resources are prohibited and directives are given on practice related to flora and fauna, marine pollution and protected areas [1]. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) have to be conducted for all activities in order to judge how they may affect the Antarctic environment and its scientific value [3]. One would think that this treaty has covered all bases in order to keep Antarctica the pristine wilderness that it is. However, recent research has brought to light that the very stations aiming to protect the Antarctic may be polluting it due to their waste management strategies [4].

McMurdo Research Station, Photograph by Norbert Wu, Science Faction/ Corbis , Retrieved from

McMurdo Research Station, Photograph by Norbert Wu, Science Faction/ Corbis [4]

Antarctica is home to about 4000 people occupying 82 research bases in the austral summer months and about 1000 people in the winter [5,6]. The Protocol on Environmental Protection accounts for waste management strategies, but while the regulations for chemical waste as well as disposal of garbage and recycling are quite strict, the standards for sewage are much lower [7]. Water treatment is mandatory for stations of 30 people or more but maceration (breaking up all solid components into small pieces) is the only treatment legally required [6, 7]. Only 37% of the permanent stations and 69% of the summer stations actually treat their waste water [6]. The largest station, the United States’ McMurdo station, has only had maceration treatment facilities since 2003 [5, 8].
The potential for pollution from sewage disposal has been recognized for a number of years. Studies have been conducted at sewage discharge points to determine the extent of damage done to the biodiverse sea floor. The following video briefly explains the research conducted by Kathy Conlan from the Canadian Museum of Nature:

The pollutants released from untreated waste water can be organic, such as human pathogens and other microorganisms [6], but can also be persistent toxic chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a flame retardant that has been detected in Antarctic environments [5]. One of the big problems in both cases is that the cold Antarctic waters allow the pollutants to remain viable for longer periods of time than in warmer temperatures [4,5,6]. Most recently a new type of flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), has been discovered in the sewage sludge released from McMurdo station, in the surrounding environment, and even in the tissue of Adélie penguins [4]. This demonstrates that the pollutants released from the waste water are bioaccumulating up the food chain [4].

Adélie Penguin, Michelle Newnan, National Geographic Your Shot

Adélie Penguin, Michelle Newnan, National Geographic Your Shot [4]

It is clear that regulations regarding the treatment of waste water need to be tightened, however EA could also have a role to play. A cumulative impacts assessment could be of great use to determine the extent of environmental degradation and the main sources of this degradation, so that waste management strategies can be rectified before one of the last pristine environments on the planet is ruined.


[1] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty” Retrieved from < > on March 15th, 2014.
[2] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “The Antarctic Treaty” Retrieved from < >  on March 15th, 2014.
[3] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “Environmental Impact Assessment” Retrieved from <> on March 15th, 2014.
[4] Holland, J.S. (March 4th, 2014) “Antarctic Research Bases Spew Toxic Wastes Into Environment” for National Geographic. Retrieved from <> on March 15th, 2014.
[5] Hale R.C. et al. (2008) “Antarctic Research Bases: Local Sources of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Flame Retardants” Environmental Science and Technology, 42: 1452–1457.
[6] Gröndahl, F., J. Sidenmark & Thomsen A. (2009) Polar Research, 28: 298–306.
[7] Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. (1991) “Annex III: Waste Disposal and Waste Management” Retrieved from <> on March 15th, 2014.
[8] NASA Quest. “Environmental Protection in the Antarctic” Retrieved from <> on March 15th, 2014.

The push for renewable energy: a role for impact assessment?

Depending on which day you’re looking at the news, or which sources you’re following, or even which sections you choose to delve into, it can be unclear where we stand in terms of renewable and clean energy. New coalfields are being developed in Australia, Ecuador’s rain forests continue to be transformed into oil fields, and fracking is becoming commonplace news. At the same time, investments in renewable energy seem to be growing and governments continue to proclaim their commitment to green technologies and sustainable energy policies. So the question remains: why are we not further along in our push for ‘green growth?’

United States President Barack Obama discussing his commitments to changing the US’s energy policy at a June 2013 speech at Georgetown.

Christina Figuere’s, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), stated in early January that investment in clean technology needs to grow to $1 trillion a year within the next 10 to 15 years, signifying a tripling over current investments ($300 billion/yr). In mid-January, in line with this imperative, Ceres Investor Network organized a meeting of the world’s chief financial interests to discuss the needed increase in renewable investments [1]. This is a prime example of how more and more we are putting our environmental future at the mercy of business; placing faith in their ability to see that our current trajectory is unsustainable and not viable economically. It is increasingly common to frame decisions regarding unsustainable energy in terms of investor motivations rather than social and environmental imperatives [2].

All this leads me to question what role government can have in promoting renewable energy. As much as our world has opened up and globalization has entrenched the role of the private sector and economic interests, the role of the state should not be discounted. For one, it is governments that meet at international organizations to enter into agreements about policies for energy and climate. In 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that almost 80% of the world’s energy could be supplied through renewable sources (bioenergy, solar, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, and wind energy) by 2050, pushing us towards stabilizing the climate, pending “consistent climate and energy policy support” [3]. The main hiccup towards moving in this regard is not an issue of resource availability but rather the proper economic and political policies supporting their development.

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030. (Source:, provided by BNEF)

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030.
(Source:, provided by BNEF)

Increased emphasis on natural gas and oil in the form of fracking, oil sands, and heavy-crude are proof to many that we are moving into what Hampshire College Professor Michael T. Klare [4] names “The Third Carbon Age: The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.” Klare bases a number of his findings on a November 2012 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that states that our energy demands led to government subsidies for fossil fuels totalling $523 billion in 2011 [5]. Coal alone has met the need of almost half of the rising energy demands in the past 10 years. Similarly to the IPPC report, the IEA report states that actually realizing energy efficiency is not related to unprecedented technological discoveries, but rather on “taking actions to remove the barriers obstructing the implementation of energy efficiency measures that are economically viable” [5]. The key is to change the incentives in decision-making processes. As a student of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), I believe that impact assessment can play a pivotal role in the process towards shaping energy policy decisions. The incorporation of energy efficiency priorities and overall sustainability into impact assessment is absolutely integral to our ability to move towards sustainable energy.

World’s total energy use projected through 2013 – more and more energy will be accounted for by renewable energy sources.
(Source:, provided by BNEF)

The pressure to include sustainability thought processes within EIA has been the subject of much research. Pope, et al. [6] discuss the importance of performing an ‘assessment for sustainability,’ in order to actually determine whether a plan is sustainable. Its purpose is simple: to unambiguously answer the closed-question of whether or not a policy or plan is sustainable. The guidelines for a sustainability assessment should be created in a top-down manner: determining what it means to be sustainable, and then identifying principles that represent this objective. The authors find that when sustainability assessment is incorporated within EIA, it tends to be through bringing in the thinking of economics, environment and society, and then attempting to reduce negative effects to all three. This results in an inherent competition and the acceptance that that trade-offs are necessary. However, since this is at a project level, the overall goal of sustainability at the level of society is never addressed. At this point a project has already been decided on and you are dealing with tweaking the details of a potentially inherently unsustainable project.

Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) are used to assess the impacts of plans and policies in order to guide decision-making processes. If countries are serious about making changes to their environmental policies and promoting the development of sustainable energy, an SEA is an important tool that could be used to give an all-encompassing picture of the status of energy resources nationally. This information would in turn be used to inform project choice and implementation, as well as the EIA process of projects. As Hugé et al state [7], “the appeal of impact assessments lies in their systematic, stepwise approach and in their contribution to generate ‘order out of chaos,’” (p. 6247). I particularly like this notion of EIA, and think that it encompasses the principle that we must lay everything out on the table in order to make clear guidelines on environmental policy. While it is true that investment from the private sector is immensely important in the move towards sustainable development, SEA is an important tool to help countries put in place policies that will act as a catalyst for this change.



[1] Goldenberg, S. 2013, Jan 14. “Why We Need to Triple Clean Energy Investment.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan 2013. Retrieved from:

[2] McDonnell, T. 2013, Apr. 22. “Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from:

[3] IPCC. 2011. PRESS RELEASE: Potential of Renewable Energy Outlined in Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from:

[4] Klare, M. T. 2013, Aug. 8. “The Third Carbon Age.” The Nation. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from:

[5] IEA. 2012. World Energy Outlook 2012: Executive Summary. Retrieved from:

[6] Pope, J., Annandale, D., Morrison-Saunders, A. 2004. Conceptualising sustainability Assessment. EIA Review. 24: 595-616.

[7] Hugé, J., Waas, T., Eggermont, G., Verbruggen, A. 2011. Impact assessment for a sustainable energy future—Reflections and practical experiences. Energy Policy. 39: 6243-6253.

Cumulative Environmental Effects and the British Columbia Mining Boom

Mining is an extractive industry that can cause considerable negative environmental effects, and is therefore often subject to the process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) in order to minimize those impacts while encouraging social and economic benefits.  These economic benefits can clearly be seen in British Columbia, where over the past 8 years, the mining industry’s revenues have doubled to $9.9 billion [1]. The mining boom occurring in BC brings with it lots of jobs, subsurface exploration, profit, but also environmental damage. See figure 1 below for some statistics on mining in BC.

An overview of the mining industry in British Columbia. Source:

Figure 1. An overview of the mining industry in British Columbia. Source:

The recent mining boom is courtesy of both an increasing worldwide demand for metals [2], as well as the construction of the Northwest Transmission Line (NTL) [1]. The NTL is a 344 km long transmission line that will carry electricity northwards, starting near Terrace and ending near Bob Quinn Lake in northern British Columbia [1]. The video below gives a fly-by of the NTL in all its glory.

An overview of the Northwest Transmission Line. Source:

That creative use of Google Earth certainly makes the NTL seem like an impressive project, except for the fact that BC Hydro will be using taxpayers money to build it when it will be used by industry. Looking at the map below of the NTL, we can see the locations of the numerous potential mines in northwest BC. Eight of these mines will be in operation by 2015 [2].

Map of the area covered by the Northwest Transmission Line. Source:

Figure 2. Map of the area surrounding the Northwest Transmission Line. Source:

A major issue when multiple projects take place in the same geographical location is that of cumulative environmental effects.

Cumulative environmental effects are defined as “changes to the environment caused by an action in combination with other past, present, and future actions” [3].

Mining can have considerable negative effects including leachate from waste rock and tailing ponds, to the blasting of solid rock [4]. Water quality often suffers as a result of these releases of chemicals. In addition to these effects, one must also consider those of the accompanying infrastructure such as access roads and transmission lines. Under the BC Environmental Assessment Act (BCEAA), there is no requirement for cumulative effects assessments [5]. This is a major deficiency of the BCEAA. When examined separately, these mines may be mitigated to a sufficient degree, but when you consider all the potential impacts from all the potential mines, the environmental degradation could be insurmountable. The BC Environmental Assessment Office is being flooded with applications from this area [6] and will be under a lot of pressure from both industry and individuals seeking a new “gold rush”.

Major reforms to the EIA system in BC are required in order to minimize impacts on the environment, while providing opportunities for the population of BC, including First Nations communities. The creation of legislative requirements for cumulative environmental effects is just one step that needs to be taken to improve the EIA process in BC.

For more information on the mining boom in British Columbia and the impacts it can cause, have a look at CTV News’ series the big dig.


[1] Watson, E. (2012). “B.C. mining boom triggers new gold rush.” Retrieved from <> on January 21st, 2013.

[2] Findlay, A. (2011). “Critics claim mineral exploration in B.C. needs more accountability.” Retrieved from <> on January 20th, 2013.

[3] Noble, B. (2010). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: Guide to Principles and Practice (2nd edition). Toronto: Oxford University Press.

[4] Environment Canada. (2012), “Mining.” Retrieved from <> on January 20th, 2013.

[5] Booth, A., and N. Skelton. (2011). “Industry and government perspectives on First Nations’ participation in the British Columbia environmental assessment process.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review 31: 216-225.

[6] Pollon, C. (2012). “Reinvent Environmental Assessment in BC, Say Critics.” Retrieved from <> on January 19th, 2013.

CEAA 2012’s Impact on the Assessment of Cumulative Environmental Effects

The importance of cumulative effects has been recognized since the 1970s, starting with its incorporation in the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)’s first EIA-regulated regulation. The consideration of cumulative effects continued to increase in environmental impact assessment (EIA) practices in North America (Canter & Ross, 2010), and finally, cumulative effects analysis (CEA) became mandatory in Canada in 1995 for all EIAs carried out under the old Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) (Noble, 2010, p. 196).

Cumulative impacts of development projects on the environment are important to consider because of the large volume of development projects that are omnipresent throughout the developed and developing world. Cumulative impacts can be defined as “effects of an additive, interactive, synergistic, or irregular (surprise) nature, caused by individually minor but collectively significant actions that accumulate over space and time” (Noble 2010, p197).

While CEA is typically applied to assess project impacts on a regional spatial scale, such as a watershed (Noble, 2010), it is obvious that, due to the interconnectedness and interdependent nature of our environment, impacts of humans activity can be much more far-reaching. For example, although presented from an emotional perspective, the following video depicts how far-reaching the impacts of our actions can be:

(Midway Atoll, film by Chris Jordan,

This is the story of an island called Midway Atoll, located in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Asia and North America. As remote as can possibly be, we can see that there seems to be no place on earth that is free of human influence. If this can happen to this extent, it is fairly obvious that taking cumulative impacts into account, even just at the regional scale, within EIAs is an absolute necessity.

This being said, it is of great concern that the new act, CEAA 2012 (enacted in July of 2012), has changed Canadian EIA practices such that less projects will be subjected to an EIA, and that EIAs will likely be relegated to the provinces in order to “eliminate redundancy” and to increase process efficiency (Ecojustice, May 2012). As a result, the consideration and incorporation of cumulative impacts on decision-making is hindered in several ways:

1. Cumulative effects of a projects will likely not be assessed if an EIA is carried out under a provincial EIA legislation that does not require a CEA, such as is the case for the province of British Columbia (Ecojustice, May 2012);

2. If less projects undergo any type of EIA (which is very likely under CEAA 2012), identification of potential adverse environmental impacts, and identification and implementation of mitigation measures and monitoring will be highly unlikely, which will expectedly result in significant environmental impacts; and

3. It will be much more difficult to assess cumulative impacts of certain projects simply due to a lack of information and documentation for other projects that did not undergo EIAs.


Canter, L. & Ross, B. (2010) State of Practice of Cumulative Effects Assessment and Management: the good, the bad, the ugly. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 28(4): 261-268.

Ecojustice (May 2012). Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (Legal Backgrounder). Retrieved from

Noble, B.F. (2010). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: Guide to Principles and Practice (2nd edition). Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Mapping Cumulative Effects: GIS for CEA

Cumulative effects assessment (CEA) is typically a part of most project-based EIA frameworks and applications and refers to the consideration of the accumulation of human-induced changes on the environment over space and time (Noble, 2010). CEA accounts for additive effects of several development projects, including past, present and future projects, as well as impact interactions over time, and secondary or indirect effects. Examples include time lags, cross boundary, fragmentation, and compounding effects from multiple sources or pathways (Blaser et al., 2004).

Geographic Information systems (GIS) are systems of computer hardware and software for storing, transforming, managing, analyzing and displaying spatial information (Treweek, 1999). The use of GIS in EIA involves determining the location of human and environmental variables and understanding the relationships between them. GIS allows environmental information to be added and updated over time and space making it dynamic and ideal for evaluating planning options for development (Atkinson and Canter, 2011).

As GIS is becoming increasingly functional and popular, its use for environmental resource analysis has increased three-fold in the last three decades (Li et al., 2011). Since CEA usually deals with complex multifaceted systems, the ability of GIS to store, manipulate, analyze, and display sets of geographical data makes it well-suited to this task (Warner and Diab, 2002). Furthermore, GIS is conducive to the typically larger geographic scale of CEA studies which require regional analysis. Useful applications for CEA include the ability to establish baseline conditions and study boundaries for regional assessment, measuring change over time, identifying locations that are impacted by multiple actions and ones most heavily affected, forecasting future conditions, and calculating additive effects (Blaser, 2004).

GIS is particularly useful for the assessment of cumulative ecological effects because it facilitates the mapping and modelling of ecological impacts conveyed over large geographical scales using remotely sensed data (Treweek, 1999). By quantifying the spatial attributes of habitat distribution and organization, ecologists can describe declines or recoveries of habitat types in a study area and recognize when thresholds of habitat loss and fragmentation are exceeded, thereby demonstrating resource vulnerability (Treweek, 1999; Atkinson and Canter, 2011).

In spite of the many positive aspects, there are some limitations of using GIS for impact assessment. In addition to the typical disadvantages of high time, cost, and skill requirements, it can be difficult to address indirect effects (Blaser et al., 2004) and the magnitude of cumulative effects from multiple past, present, and future actions. Other potential problems may arise from data errors resulting from entering data at different scales, compatibility issues between different data forms and systems, and a lack of quality assurance and control on data sets used (Atkinson and Canter, 2011). Despite these potential setbacks, GIS shows much promise and will surely become increasingly valuable and even essential for cumulative effects assessment.

An example of a GIS-based model for assessing cumulative effects in Canada is a predictive modeling approach focusing on cultural and historical sites in the tar sands region of Alberta (Clarke and Lowell, 2002). Nine layers of environmental and human variables were combined to identify zones for potential cumulative effects on these sites based on existing and approved mining development projects. Another example comes from Popplewell et al. (2003) who developed a GIS-based model founded on landscape metrics derived from a satellite image classification of landcover to quantify the structure of grizzly bear habitats within bear management units in west-central Alberta. A combination of effects caused by human and natural disturbances was used to analyze differences in bear habitat.


Atkinson, SF and LW Canter 2011. Assessing the cumulative effects of projects using geographic information systems. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31, 457-464.

Blaser, B, Liu, H, McDermott, D, Nuszdorfer, F, Phan, NT, Vanchindorj, U, Johnson, L and J Wyckoff 2004. GIS-Based Cumulative Effects Assessment. Colorado Department of Transportation Research Branch. University of Colorado, Denver, 39p.

Clarke, G and S Lowell 2002. Historical resources cumulative effects management through predictive modeling. In Kennedy, AJ (ed). Cumulative Environmental Effects Management: Tools and Approaches. Alberta Society of Professional Biologists, p. 279–95.

Li, R, Bettinger, P, Danskin, S and R Hayashi 2005. A historical perspective on the use of GIS and remote sensing in natural resource management, as viewed through papers published in North American Forestry Journals from 1976 to 2005. Cartographica, 42, 165–79.

Noble, BF 2010. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Don Mills, Canada: Oxford University Press.

Poppelwell, C, Franklin, SE, Stenhouse, G and M Hall-Beyer 2003. Using landscape structure to classify grizzly bear density in Alberta Yellowhead Ecosystem bear management units. Ursus, 14(1), 27-34.

Treweek, J. 1999. Ecological Impact Assessment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science Ltd.

Warner, LL and RD Diab 2002. Use of geographic information systems in an environmental impact assessment of an overhead power line. Impact Assessment Project Appraisal, 20, 39–47.