Mines in Kyrgyzstan Exacerbate Glacier Advance

Kyrgyz Horse walking on the ice of the Glacier, Lenin Peak climbing, Kyrgyzstan. (Courtesy of Twiga, Flickr)
Kyrgyz horse walking on glacier ice, Lenin Peak , Kyrgyzstan. (Courtesy of Twiga, Flickr)

Mines in Kyrgyzstan contribute to increased glacier advance, according to a new study from Durham University. Over 15 years, the Kumtor gold mine dumped debris in layers as much as 180 meters thick on parts of glaciers. For comparison, 180 meters is about twice the height from the base of the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty sites to the top of its torch.

Researchers looked at glaciers covered by debris from landslides and debris from mines to better understand the impact of glacial processes in the Central Asian country. They found that two glaciers, the Lysii Cirque Glacier and the Davidov Glacier near the Kumtor mine, advanced by 1.2 and 3.2 kilometers, respectively. Most of this movement can be attributed to internal deformation of the ice from the pressure of the added material, rather than to increased sliding at the base of the glacier, where the ice is in contact with the bedrock.

“We used high-resolution satellite imagery to map the terminus advance of two glaciers and to map the evolving distribution of mining spoil on the surface of these glaciers,” the authors wrote. “We find not only that glacier ice can have a significant impact upon mining activities, but more importantly, that mining operations can drive significant changes in glacier behavior.”

Between 1997 and 2012, the mines dumped more than 775 million tons of rock and ice waste on the surrounding landscape. Under the heavy load of debris, glacial ice became deformed, enhancing ice flow.

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials. (Courtesy of Ryskeldi Satke)
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials. (Courtesy of Ryskeldi Satke)

The new study isn’t the first time the Kumtor mine has been associated with environmental damage. The mining project has been criticized by local communities for contaminating ground and surface water in addition to other negative environmental impacts. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development involved with the project has denied these claims.

“Understanding the impact of debris upon glaciers is important not only for gaining insight into past and present glacial response to landslides but also in assessing and mitigating the glaciological, environmental, and infrastructural consequences of mining in glacierized terrain,” the authors wrote.

“Increasingly, large-scale mining operations are being developed in glacierized areas, either as glaciers retreat or through and beneath glaciers whilst they are in situ,” they added. “The loss of ice and rock glaciers as a result of mine excavation is a central environmental concern surrounding these developments.”

Mining companies in Chile have also dumped waste on glaciers, the article reports, and firms in Canada and Greenland are planning to do so as well. These risks to glaciers may become more frequent, if regulations to protect against them. are not established and enforced.

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