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Where on Google Earth #265

After correctly but illegally identifying Ole's hellish Afar Triangle in WoGE #264 over at And The Water Seems Inviting, I hereby give you number 265 in this long-running geoscience quiz game started by Clastic Detritus

Where on Google Earth is the best use of a computer and some spare time since SETI@home. If you are new to the game, it is easy to play. The winner is the first person to examine the picture below, find the location (name, link, or lat-long), and give a brief explanation of its geological interest. Please post your answer in the comments below. And thanks to the Schott Rule, which I am invoking, newbies have a slight edge: previous winners must wait one hour for each previous win before playing.

So: where and what on Google earth is this? [Posted at 1303 GMT]

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Reader Comments (6)

56°24'32"N 110°56'37"W Just SE of Anzac, Alberta, Canada.

It's a mine of some sort. My search was for coal mines. But, I wanted to post in before I lost that chance instead of waiting to figure out what exactly it is. I'm not having much luck yet.

I played and won a WOGE about a year ago and decided to check things out again. I came back on the last WOGE and never expected to win one again so quickly. My connection to this is that I'm an earthquake hobbyist. I have no formal geophysics training, but it's fun stuff!!!


February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Hmmmm...seems I figured it out fairly quickly after all.

According to Wikipedia this is the location of the Long Lake Oil Sands Project, mining the Athabasca Oil Sands. These oil sands aka tar sands cover about 54,000 square miles making it the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world. They contain around 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, about equivalent to the entire worlds total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

Ok, Canada. Get to work. You guys could put the Middle East of business with that much oil!!!! But obviously it's not as easy to extract. However, as world crude prices continue to rise (currently about $90/barrel) these deposits will become more economical.

Looking at the image it was obviously some sort of processing plant. Based on the terrain it looked like Alaska and spent much time looking there. After a while I decided maybe Canada. I took a look at main page here and saw the work that Matt and his partner do, so focused on searching for Canadian coal mines. After scouring Nova Scotia first I then started scanning Alberta. Once in that state it took little time to find the location.


February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

@Brian: Great job, you're spot on. This is indeed part of the plant at Nexen's Long Lake project in the Athabasca oil sands play of northeastern Alberta.

The extraction method here is worth commenting on. This isn't mining but what's called in-situ production. THis is the type of development required for about 80-90% of the oil sands, because it's too deep to mine with current methods and technology (that is, more than about 100 m deep). The in-situ method used here is Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage, which involves drilling two parallel horizontal wells, one about 5 m above the other. Steam is injected into the lower well, and produced from the upper one. You can see arrays of well-heads on the right-hand side of the image. There are a lot of them! The main problem with bitumen is that it is so bio-degraded (semi-digested by microbes) that it is now a solid; it has to be melted with heat before it will flow.

The fact that steam is required to melt the bitumen is the main problem, environmentally, with this type of production. Natural gas is burned to make the steam, and about 1000 cubic feet of gas are required for each barrel of bitumen produced. You can see the steam generators right in the centre of the image. Making the thermal process as efficient as possible is the most important improvement needed here.

Most of the bitumen is in the Early Cretaceous McMurray Formation, which here lies unconformably on Devonian limestones. The McMurray was deposited in a broad, shallow, probably macrotidal, low salinity estuary. Much of the reservoir characterization work that geologists and geophysicists do is concerned with describing how mudstones are distributed in the system. Mudstones inhibit the penetration of the steam, so we need to know where they are.

I liked this image because it shows the half-complete site, with the image on the left dating from 2006 and the one on the right from 2008. This highlights the very rapid development going on in the oil sands. This obviously brings environmental, social and economic challenges of its own.

The other reason I liked this view is because in the very top left and lower right corners you can see the cut-lines in the forest. The ones in the top left are in a skewed grid pattern. These are lines for reflection seismic acquisition, in this case part of a large, high-resolution 3D seismic program. The seismic data is used for mapping the bitumen deposit, and also for monitoring the progress of the steam in the reservoir.

I was originally thinking of posting an image of one of the open-cast mines, which you will find about 80 km or so to the north-west of this location. The mines are fascinating to look at, and it's the mines that everyone thinks of when they hear of the oil sands. But they aren't hard to find and I thought it would be too easy.

So: WoGE 266 is all yours! Please post here when it's up.

February 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

And Bravo! My husband thought some fast-built Chinese location, I'd worked out something to do with stuff from the ground, but I was on the wrong continent.

Looking forward to the next one.

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterReynardo (Gillian)

I had not heard of this in situ process before, although it sounds very similar to how some oil is extracted. Isn't it funny, we expend energy to extract energy. It's all an effort to get out more than you put in. Also, I would think this process would be more environmentally friendly than an open mine since you aren't ripping up the land so much - unless that is being offset (or more so) by the natural gas burning required to make the steam. But I find that an easier problem to deal with than what amounts to small scale terraforming.

Anyway, I do have a location picked, but I do not have a blog. Would you or someone be willing to host it for me? If I start winning I'll have to set one up, of course, if for no other reason than to play WOGE.

My email is "skywise" at "skywise711" dot com.


February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

WoGE #266 is now up here

February 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

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