New Estimate of Ice Sheet Runoff at Isua Site

Posted by William Colgan on April 14, 2015
Applied Glaciology, New Research

My colleague Lukas Arenson and I have a paper in the Proceedings of Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments this month, which uses the Isua site in Southwest Greenland as a case study for extreme runoff in proglacial environments (Arenson and Colgan, 2015). The recently approved Isua mine will be an open pit mine intersecting the ice sheet, with ice pit walls around about half the pit, to access what is presently a subglacial iron deposit (site overview here). Using a Monte Carlo approach, we estimate a 95 % (or two sigma) upper confidence limit of 2.8·109 L/day of ice sheet runoff potentially reaching the Isua site in July and August. While this potential inflow rate, equivalent to 44 t/s, is relatively large in the context of conventional mine water management, it is relatively small in the context of contemporary Greenland ice loss due to climate change, which is approximately 8,300 t/s when averaged over a year (Andersen et al., 2015).

Isua_meltwater_runoff_estimate

Minimum and maximum plausible supraglacial ice sheet catchments associated with the Isua site. Shading denotes mean annual meltwater runoff over the 2004 to 2013. Background image source is Landsat 8 (source: Arenson and Colgan, 2015).

To place our estimate in context, London Mining Plc, the initial developer of the Isua site, presented a pre-feasibility study water balance in which ice sheet runoff into the pit was estimated as 7.8·106 m3/year (London Mining, 2011). Assuming a 60-day melt season, this is equivalent to an average site inflow of 1.3·108 L/day. Our estimate is therefore 22 times greater than the design estimate. There are many potential sources of uncertainty when assessing ice sheet runoff, including model uncertainty and climatic variability, but by far the biggest source of uncertainty is delineating the ice sheet catchment draining to a specific portion of the ice sheet margin. Regardless of whether 108 or 109 L/day of meltwater is flowing into the Isua site, it will certainly be a challenging operating environment, and will require some very adaptive engineering to minimize site contact water!

Isua_SNC_Budget

Proponent water budget for the Isua Mine (source: London Mining, 2011).

Isua_2011 173

Oblique aerial photograph looking west from the Greenland ice sheet across the Isua site in 2011. Deeply incised supraglacial meltwater channels are visible draining towards the margin. (source: Lukas Arenson)

References

Andersen et al., 2015. Basin-scale partitioning of Greenland ice sheet mass balance components (2007–2011). Earth and Planetary Science Letters 409: 89-95.

Arenson and Colgan. 2015. Water management challenges associated with mining projects in Greenland. Proceedings of Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments. 533-543.

London Mining PLC. 2011. Isua iron ore project: Isua 15 Mtpa scoping study report.

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