Energy, Resources and the Environment

ERE matters

The Scorpion and the… Trees: Surface mining (im)practical implications

The Scorpion and the Frog. This old tale, which was first documented by the movie Mr. Arkadin by Orson Welles, reports a scorpion that wants to cross a river… and asks a frog for a ride. Embarking on a lose-lose situation, both the frog and the scorpion are doomed in the tale.

Dramatic, this fable severely resembles how humans conduct their quest for resource extraction. Surface mining, a particular type of resource extraction, is devastating. It involves strip mining, open-pit mining and mountaintop-removal mining and accounts for more than 80% of ore mined each year (Ramani, 2012). Surface mining disturbs the landscape and impacts habitat integrity, environmental flows and ecosystem functions; it raises concerns about water (Miller and Zégre, 2014), air and soil quality (Mummey et al., 2002), and often also public health. Legacies of surface mining may include loss of soil structure and fertility, altered hydrology, and long-term leaching of contaminants from tailings and end-pit lakes (Isosaari and Sillanpää, 2010; Li, 2006; Ramani, 2012).

A new study debates the possible routes to deal with the legacies of surface mining. In a first instance, the authors revisit the terms remediation, reclamation, restoration and rehabilitation (R4) and clearly distinguish them in terms of the end-goal. While remediation is a more technical term and aims at removing pollutants and avoiding human exposure to them, restoration proposes the full recovery of the original ecosystem, prior to mining. Although frequently claimed as the end-goal, restoration may often not be feasible because of a myriad of constrictions.

To find out more about how the R4 is differentiated and where surface mining will likely happen in the future, check out the full study by Dr. Lima and her co-workers here.

dr-ana-limaDr. Ana Theresa Lima is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Ecohydrology group, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo, Canada, and a Visiting Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Engineering, Universidade Federal de Espirito Santo, Vitória, Brazil. Her research interests include electrokinetics, urban soils and the impact of human activity on them, organic and inorganic pollution and possible remediation techniques, and environmental policy.


Miller, A., Zégre, N., 2014. Mountaintop removal mining and catchment hydrology. Water 6, 472–499. doi:10.3390/w6030472

Mummey, D.L., Stahl, P.D., Buyer, J.S., 2002. Soil microbiological properties 20 years after surface mine reclamation: spatial analysis of reclaimed and undisturbed sites. Soil Biol. Biochem. 34, 1717–1725. doi:10.1016/S0038-0717(02)00158-X

Isosaari, P., Sillanpää, M., 2010. Electromigration of arsenic and co-existing metals in mine tailings. Chemosphere 81, 1155–1158.

Li, M.S., 2006. Ecological restoration of mineland with particular reference to the metalliferous mine wasteland in China: A review of research and practice. Sci. Total Environ. 357, 38–53. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2005.05.003

Ramani, R. V., 2012. Surface Mining Technology: Progress and Prospects. Procedia Eng. 46, 9 – 21.

Take a deep breath… Or not!

We all know that pollution, of any kind, is not good news and that it may lead to health risks. Air pollution, such as smog, is something many large cities experience, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The World Health Organisation reports that “As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them.”  But how do these health risks impact premature mortality?

A recent study on air pollution in urban areas in India has estimated that fine particulate matter (i.e. very small airborne particles released by various sources, such as fossil fuel or organic matter burning) exposure has lead to over half a million premature deaths. Though this number was not obtained by studying who actually died from air pollution, but rather via statistical extrapolation of data obtained in less polluted areas, the study suggests that air pollution in India leads to about 3.4 life years lost.

Read the whole article by Chelsea Harvey in the Energy and Environment section of the Washington Post here.

Questions of Resource Sustainability in a World of Consumers

Image Credit: <a href=“”>Paul Saab</a>

Image Credit: Paul Saab

By Lindsey Higgins, PhD student at Stockholm University and the Bolin Centre for Climate Research


In the Wednesday morning debate “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” issues of sustainability in a consumptive world were tackled. The four panellists agreed that the goal set by the COP21 meeting in Paris of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is unrealistic. Historically, fossil fuels have been necessary for economic growth and now even more difficulties arise from the need for resources to find resources.
During the debate, concerns were raised over the conspicuous consumption of the developed world and how people are generally more interested in what happens now rather than in the future. Jorgen Randers, author and professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School, believes there is a need for short-term rewards to entice people into more sustainable solutions. He gives the example of electric cars in Norway and how the government removed taxes on their purchase to make them a more economically rewarding option.
When it comes to the minerals we now rely on, the easiest sources have been found and are either already tapped out, or are well on the way. The current challenge is how to locate and extract these resources from deeper under the Earth’s surface, since even perfect recycling of what we already have would not be able to keep up with current demands. The current question is whether it is possible to do this in a way that is socially, economically, and environmentally responsible. In his talk Monday afternoon, P. Patrick Leahy of the American Geosciences Institute introduced the idea of “resource colonialism” that is often associated with mining of resources in developing countries. Dr. Leahy is involved with the International Union of Geological Science (IUGS) “Resourcing Future Generations” initiative. This planning group aims to improve understanding of the demand, discovery, extraction, and social impacts of future global mineral needs.
According to Edmund Nickless, Chair of The IUGS New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee and former Executive Secretary of the Geological Society of London, there is a need for a social contract that ensures fair distribution of wealth. If you think you have a solution to this global issue, the IUGS currently has an open call for small funding proposals. The deadline for proposals is 31 May 2016 and more information can be found here.

Living with water: A closer look at deltas

Where the Selenga River meets the Lake Baikal.  Credit:  Galina Shinkareva  (distributed via

Where the Selenga River meets the Lake Baikal. Credit: Galina Shinkareva (distributed via

Costal deltas often host large cities due to their prime location of where rivers meet the sea. In many cases these areas have been protected from rising sea levels and flooding rivers by engineered ‘gray’ infrastructure. However, this infrastructure appears to only protect these cities on short timescales. Engineered deltas contribute to relative sea level rise, caused by shrinking land masses in these areas due to sediment loss. Thus, this gray infrastructure appears to cause long term sustainability problems for some of the largest cities in the world. In the August 7th edition of Science Temmerman and Kirwan explore green alternatives to traditional gray infrastructure that have the potential to restore natural wetlands to delta areas, increasing land area and provide flood protection. In the same issue, Tessler et al. explore the economic costs of conventional delta engineering along with the long term environmental and sustainability impacts of gray infrastructure.

Kristen MitchellDr. Kristen Mitchell is an experienced geoscientist and marine chemist with specific experience promoting educational outreach and fundraising initiatives in support of science-specific policy and research. She works with policy makers, commercials entities, and universities to educate and inform their communities of the importance of crafting sustainable solutions. She has worked with key players across the world to execute plans and deliver results related to my scientific studies and projects. For more information, you can contact her at, or follow her Tweets @dr_kmitchell.