Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Chuquicamata Mine, Chile

The Atacama Desert of northern Chile has minimal vegetation. But it has ample mineral wealth: large amounts of copper, gold, silver, and other industrial metals. This includes the world’s largest open pit copper mine and the second deepest open pit—the Chuquicamata Mine.

In operation since 1910, the largest open pit at the mine measures 1 kilometer deep, 3 kilometers wide, and 5 kilometers long. New York City’s Central Park could fit inside it.

Evidence shows that copper has been extracted in the region for centuries. Indigenous people worked the copper deposits in pre-Hispanic times to make weapons and tools. The mine now produces 650,000 metric tons of copper annually.

Map of the featured area.

As part of the mining, huge amounts of material are dug up and removed. The ore is crushed within the pit, and conveyors bring the ore to the mill.

New pits open up as the time series of Landsat images progresses. Landsat shows not only the expansion of the mining pits but also the extent of the material piled up alongside the pits.

The shifting shape of gray and blue on the right is the Talabre tailings impoundment. The Talabre is a natural depression, and the tailings, the materials left over after the ore is extracted, are dumped into several basins. The basins are separated with dikes, and the impoundment is bordered by dams, all made with dry tailings.

An underground mining operation is now underway. Testing indicates that 2.3 billion tons of copper ore lie below the open pit. The underground mining is scheduled to begin operations in 2020.

The town of Chuquicamata was established as a mining camp when mining operations opened. After much mining and open pit expansion, the town ended up being too close to the mining operations. Dust from the mine and gases from the nearby smelting plant caused the mining company to relocate the entire town.

Besides the health and safety concerns, the company was running out of convenient places to pile up mine waste. To extract 1 kilogram of copper, 100 kilograms of rock has to be removed from the ground. That waste material has to go somewhere. So now, the site of the former town is beginning to be buried in mine waste.

Most of the town has not yet been buried and stands as a ghost town. Residents were moved to Calama, a city about 15 kilometers away. Codelco, the government company that owns the mine, built over 5,000 homes—one for each family. Residents began moving in 2004, and by September 2007, Chuquicamata was officially abandoned.

The Landsat images show the location of the former town and the piles of mine waste encroaching on its north side. An image from Europe's Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite zooms in closer with finer resolution to show the location of the town in more detail.

As expected in the Atacama Desert, Landsat doesn’t detect much vegetation—only some green along the Río Loa and next to the city of Calama. Calama has seen a rising population because of the influx of mine workers. The images show this visible urban area expansion. Notice the airport expansion that took place between the 2010 and 2016 images.

Population of Calama

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