What’s the impact of your smartphone? Mapping the distribution and environmental impact of mines around the world

How many different materials go into making your smartphone? According to the American Chemical Society, at least 64 different types of chemicals constitute your smartphone. Many of these materials, particularly the heavy earth metals, are extracted from the Earth through mining operations. Mining has been a part of human society for several thousand years now - from the shallow mines of earlier centuries to the more extractive ones created in the last hundred years. The challenge of mining and other extractive industries is that they are essential to many of our needs today - coal for energy, silicon for solar panels and heavy earths for electronics being among the well known ones. At the same time, they cause significant damage to local environments through the disturbance to the land caused by establishing the mine itself, to environmental impacts on water, land and ecosystems from mining operations. 

So far, it’s been difficult to map the spatial extent and environmental impact of mines across the globe. This is partly because data have been limited in many countries and partly because the technology to identify these mines using other data sources such as satellite imagery have not been developed yet.

Researchers from China and Australia who have been working on this problem for several years have recently developed and published a global dataset of mining operations using remote sensing data. In their work, they used existing databases of mining operations as their baseline and then created image recognition algorithms that could identify particular features of mining operations such as waste ponds, tailings and so on. They used these features to draw polygons of the mining operations and then overlaid them with existing forest cover, vegetation and water maps to track the environmental impacts of the operations on the local environment. All data for the image recognition algorithms was derived from Google Earth Pro - a relatively inexpensive data source that is of high enough resolution to be able to easily identify the necessary features.

As seen in Figure 1 below from the research paper, the dataset comprised mine area polygons from 135 countries and regions, though these areas are highly clustered. Most of the mine polygons (approximately  79% ) were located within 13 countries: China, USA, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Ukraine, Ghana, Canada, India, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and Chile. Correspondingly, 122 countries and regions have ~21% of the total mine area polygons, with fewer than 625 polygons each (<1%). Major mining nations can broadly be divided into high mineral demand countries (e.g., China, India, and USA) and high mineral export countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, South Africa, and Russia).

However, the mine sizes were widely different - indicating the differences between commercial operations and small-scale informal operations. While the environmental footprint of the different sizes varies, some factors that helped mitigate the impact include environmental practices in large, commercial operations such as mine waste site selection, comprehensive management, and post-mining rehabilitation works. Informal mines typically did not have these practices and could have a larger impact on the environment - however, because of the size of these operations, it was more difficult to identify all of them and categorize their impacts.

While there is still a lot more research to be done in this sector, this is the first time a combined global database and atlas of mining operations has been developed. As sustainability and minimizing the sourcing of materials from environmentally problematic areas becomes a key focus for corporations around the world, having data sources like this will help professionals better manage requirements and meet their sustainability goals.

Figure 1: A Larger open pit operations (Escondida mine, copper porphyry deposit, Chile, 24°16’15 S, 69°4’14 W); B Formal/artisanal placer gold mining, Ankobra River, Ghana, where all mining sites are along the riversides or in the riverbed, forming a dendritic configuration (5°43’ N, 2°6’ W). C Coal mine sites and gangue heaps in Donetsk, Ukraine (48°12’ N, 38°39’ E); D Coal mine areas surrounding Samarinda in East Kalimantan, Indonesia (0°29’48 S 117°08’10 E). Imagery credit: Esri, Maxar, and Earthstar Geographics.

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