The enigmatic ecological impacts of mineral exploration activities.
Global environmental change (i.e. biodiversity loss, land clearing and climate) is extensively altering most natural ecosystems worldwide. But as mining operations cover a relatively modest proportion of Earth’s total surface area, they are often overlooked as significant catalysts of disturbance. However, with at least a third of mining occurring in pristine environments, often targeting geologically unique formations, located in edaphically specialised ecosystems, and in fragile habitats where ecological management is difficult - there is increased urgency to find ways in which we can better understand, and hence reduce, the ecological impacts of mining activities.
The evaluation of the ecological impacts of mining operations usually focuses on the obvious impacts associated with the high intensity disturbances (e.g. pits, tailings stores, haul roads and other infrastructure). The spatial scale of ecological sampling and monitoring rarely considers the broad mosaic of exploration infrastructure. This is problematic as this focus inadvertently establishes an unconsidered category of ‘enigmatic’ impacts that are associated with “low impact” and “small scale” exploration. For example, noise and light pollution, the impacts of small-scale fragmentation on genetic connectivity and the introduction of disease and invasive species through various pathways during anthropogenic development. These impacts may be profound, pervasive, diverse and interlinked, and have been best defined as impacts readily overlooked due to their cumulative, offsite, secondary and cryptic nature. So, although impact evaluations and environmental assessments usually intend to account for the full range of ecological impacts, these overt human disturbances likely have covert ecological impacts.
This research aims to yield recommendations, information and understanding that can be used to alleviate these impacts, improve ecological restoration planning outcomes, and preserve the industry’s social and environmental license to operate. It will adopt an inter-disciplinary approach to investigate two overarching research questions in the context of Banded Ironstone Formations (BIF) ranges in Western Australia’s (WA) Midwest:
- How significant is exploration activity as a type of disturbance on BIFs?
- How does exploration activity affect key community dynamics i.e. composition and structure?
Strategic assessment and bio monitoring that considers all mining impacts – even the enigmatic ones - could provide improved environmental outcomes. This research will contribute to understanding the feasibility of assessing mining’s enigmatic ecological impacts. It should also demonstrate the benefit for future research and management to adopt novel methods (e.g. DNA metabarcoding) to assess enigmatic impacts from mining in different biomes, landforms and species.