Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Diamond Mines, Northwest Territories, Canada

The frozen tundra of northern Canada might not be the first place you’d look for a diamond mine. Diamonds are created under intense heat and pressure, yet here they are being mined in a cold, icy region.

These mines are located about 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Yellowknife and just 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. The tundra here consists of boulder fields, wetlands, and over 8,000 lakes with interconnecting streams. The lakes are visible in the images as the numerous dark shapes.

The two diamond mines visible in these images are Ekati and Diavik, both located in Northwest Territories, Canada. Ekati is in the northern part of the images. Diavik is in the southern portion and extends into the lake in the series of images.

Most of the year, these mines are accessible only by air. An ice road is open for about 10 weeks of the year during winter. No other roads reach the mines.

Map of the featured area.

Ekati is Canada’s first diamond mine. Diamond ore bodies are called kimberlite pipes. These carrot-shaped pipes are the roots of ancient small volcanoes. Diamond-bearing kimberlite was discovered at Ekati in 1991.

Construction of the mine started in 1997 and it officially opened in October 1998. By 2011, the Ekati mine had produced 50 million carats of diamonds.

Ekati is the name the Tlicho people gave this area. It means “fat lake,” a reference to white quartz in the rock on the shore of Lac de Gras. The quartz looks like marbled caribou fat. Lac de Gras is the large lake south of the mines.

You can see the mining operations expanding in this series of images. The Ekati mine includes open-pit mines in different locations. In the lower right is the Misery pit. It’s connected to the main base of operations by a road, visible as the curving pink or white line.

Ekati has its own airport that’s used year-round. That’s how employees get there. The runway is visible as a straight line just south of where the first open pits begin appearing.

The company that runs the Ekati mine, Dominion Diamond Ekati Corporation, monitors the air, water, and wildlife in the area. They are already planning ahead for the eventual closure of the mine and land reclamation but expect to continue mining diamonds through 2019.

Production in the Diavik Mine began in January 2003. By 2013, Diavik had produced 84 million carats.

In this time series, you will notice something different about the mine pits of Diavik. The diamond ore is under the lake, so the pits were built in the lake. To protect the water of Lac de Gras, a dike was built before digging the pit.

Construction is a challenge in this remote location with a short construction season. The dikes had to be completed when the lake was not frozen—only about a 4-month period. The first dike was made watertight in 2002 and was pumped dry 3 months later. Silty water was cleaned before being sent back to the lake. A smaller dike was completed in 2006. The dikes allow safe mining in the open pits.

In September 2012, Diavik transitioned from an open-pit mine to an underground mine. More engineering and construction feats were needed for this change. Ventilation systems, pump stations, 12 miles of tunnels, vertical tunnels for ventilation and water removal, and other rooms make the underground mining possible. Diavik is expected to operate through 2023.

Diavik has a private airstrip of its own. The 1,600-meter (1-mile) long runway can accommodate Boeing 737s. It’s visible in the images as the straight line north of the mining operations.

The world’s longest ice road connects Yellowknife to three diamond mines: Ekati, Diavik, and Snap Lake. Of the 475 kilometers (300 miles) of ice road, 86 percent of it is across frozen lakes.

The ice road is the only overland supply route for the mines. Each winter, a year’s worth of fuel, construction material, heavy mining equipment, and explosives are trucked to the mines. The road provides the most cost-effective method for transporting these supplies.

Open only 8–10 weeks of the year, the ice road is open from mid-January to March. It has to be rebuilt each year. Work on the road starts soon after Christmas. When the ice is 1 meter (42 inches) thick, it can support a truck fully loaded with over 40 metric tons (44 tons) of fuel.

Full trucks traveling north have a strict speed limit of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) per hour. Empty trucks heading south can use the express lane and go up to 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) per hour. The number of trucks the road handles per year varies. Just over 6,000 truckloads were driven north during the 2013 season.

This place is so far north it’s too dark for satellite imaging in the middle of winter. Early summer, late summer, and late winter images are shown for comparison. There is still some ice on the lake in the July images. In the April images, the straight dark lines across the ice are the temporary roads.


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