Glacier Mining: Geotechnical and Social Exceptionalism

Posted by William Colgan on November 07, 2014
Applied Glaciology, Climate Change, Glaciers and Society

When the glaciology lexicon was in its infancy, Carl Benson described glaciers as “monomineralic metamorphic rocks” in his pioneering work with the US Army Engineers1. Given the lower density and strength of ice than coal, it may seem like glacier ice is an easy overburden to remove for open pit mining. Experience, however, has demonstrated that there are exceptional geotechnical challenges associated with removing glacier ice overburden. These challenges stem from geometry, hydrology and phase, all of which change far more rapidly in glaciers than hard rock2. The apparent surge of a waste rock pile at the Kumtor Mine, in Kyrgyzstan, highlights the exceptional geotechnical challenges confronting Centerra Gold in maintaining the world’s largest open ice pit mine.

With glaciers serving as a highly visible indicator of climate change, glacier mining projects often face exceptional social challenges in comparison to conventional hard rock mining projects. The Pascua Lama Mine, which spans the Chile-Argentina border, highlights how glacier preservation is a global movement that adapts to local issues. Glaciers therefore serve as the basis for a “glocal”, or globalized local, social movement3. Barrick Founder Peter Munk has commented on the social challenges confronting Pascua Lama: “It’s not enough to have money, it’s not enough to have reserves, it’s not enough to have great mining people. Today, the single most critical factor in growing a mining company is a social consensus – a license to mine.”4

The combination of long term increases in resource demand, retreating glaciers due to climate change, and improved mining technology and prospecting techniques, are making the exploitation of pro- and sub-glacial mineral deposits more feasible. This means a more widespread confrontation of the geotechnical and social exceptionalism of glacier mining in the coming decades!

Kumtor_1975_2013

Glacier and waste rock extent between 1975 and 2013 in the vicinity of Kumtor Mine (from Landsat archive).

PascuaLama

Glaciers in the vicinity of the Pascua Lama Mine on the Chile-Argentina border (from WikiCommons).

1Benson, C. 1962. Stratigraphic studies in the snow and firn of the Greenland ice sheet. Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Esatablishment. US Army. Research Report 70.

2Colgan, W. and L. Arenson. 2013. Open-Pit Glacier Ice Excavation: Brief Review.
Journal of Cold Regions Engineering. 27: doi:10.1061/(ASCE)CR.1943-5495.0000057.

3Urkidi, L. 2010. A glocal environmental movement against gold mining: Pascua–Lama in Chile. Ecological Economics. 70: 219-227.

4Smith, C. 2014. Sustainability Challenges: When Good Intentions Backfire. NSEAD Knowledge

Additional Landsat images of Kumtor here.

Tags: , , ,

1 Comment to Glacier Mining: Geotechnical and Social Exceptionalism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *