Lithium mining may possibly be placing some flamingos in Chile at possibility

Flamingos may possibly be a form of canary in the coal mine when it comes to warning of a concealed price tag of green technologies. Lithium mining seems to be a major risk to the legendary pink birds that rely on ecologically fragile salt flats bordering the substantial Andes Mountains. Mining of the metal and climate adjust with each other are creating the decline of two flamingo species located only on Andean plateaus, researchers report March 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Modern society B.

Lithium, applied in light-weight, rechargeable batteries for electric powered vehicles, smartphones and other goods, is anticipated to enjoy a big position in helping struggle local climate adjust. Within just the future ten years or so, world need for the metal is believed to quadruple (SN: 5/7/19). The new finding highlights that the quest for lithium is not without the need of drawbacks, fitting into a rising body of investigation revealing lithium mining’s adverse impacts on ecosystems.

One particular of the world’s richest deposits of lithium spans areas of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, an space from time to time referred to as the “lithium triangle.” The region is also house to the Atacama Desert plateau, a single of the driest areas on Earth, and hosts a series of shallow, salt flat lake ecosystems that depend on the constrained h2o provide. These ecologically delicate “salares” nourish cyanobacteria and diatom algae, which in turn are eaten by a few sorts of flamingos, half of the world’s flamingo species. 

This fragile ecosystem is now in an existential conflict mainly because lithium refinement ponds and other industrial mining processes use a substantial amount of money of drinking water — an approximated 400,000 liters for each ton of lithium, says Nathan Senner, a population ecologist at the College of South Carolina in Columbia. 

And there is only so much water to go all-around. “This is literally the driest desert in the world,” Senner suggests. “Much of that [mining] h2o has to appear from groundwater.”

Senner — with ecologist Jorge Gutiérrez of the College of Extremadura in Spain and bird ecologist Juan Navedo of the Austral College of Chile in Valdivia and other people — collected above 30 years’ well worth of flamingo surveys. The scientists also examined satellite imagery monitoring drinking water surface space variations in 5 salt flats in the Chilean part of the lithium triangle. And the staff tracked cyanobacteria ranges utilizing satellite details, alongside with climatic things that could impact the salt flats’ h2o concentrations, these kinds of as precipitation and temperature. 

Senner and his colleagues identified that due to the fact 1984, the five salares have just about every shrunk by at the very least 30 per cent in area spot, partially due to greater evaporation, which is motivated by climatic things like wind, humidity and temperature.  The team also uncovered that there’s a terrific deal of variability in h2o amount amongst many years. And people fluctuations surface to strongly dictate the amount of flamingos in a provided calendar year by pinpointing the availability of the birds’ food.

Flamingo counts “can change by virtually 1000’s of persons across just a pair of many years,” Senner claims.

The very long-term drying trend from weather modify, which might cut down overall availability of food for flamingos, is being exacerbated by ever-thirsty lithium mining, the crew suggests. And it’s leaving a mark on two of the flamingo species: the Andean (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and the James’ (P. jamesi) flamingos, whose populations declined 12 per cent and 10 % about 11 several years, respectively, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama. This is a reduction of hundreds of birds.

The team ties this drop specifically to lithium mining. As the mining ponds grew in the Salar, close by James’ and Andean flamingo populations dwindled in limited correlation. H2o reduction from new mining exercise might be a important offender. Concerning 1986 and 2018, the groundwater pumping for lithium manufacturing elevated from zero to 1.8 cubic meters for each next. Simultaneously, the Salar dropped about five football fields’ worth of area region every single year.

In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, briny groundwater is pumped into ponds on the floor, leaving powering lithium salts just after evaporating. The enlargement of lithium mining and affiliated ponds (the dim blue rectangles) in the Salar in current decades can be noticed in satellite imagery. Pull the slider to the suitable for a check out of the Salar in 1993, and still left for 2015.

Both equally: USGS

While the declines did not arise more than the total region, the conclusions are in particular about for these two species due to the fact they really don’t reside anyplace else in the earth. “They are solely wedded to these saline lakes,” Senner says. 

Flamingo declines and salar drying could have reverberating results on individuals far too since the well known, flamingo-based ecotourism in the area would likely go through, the crew says.

“Science-centered conservation administration pointers could possibly however allow for potential preservation of some important hypersaline techniques in the region,” claims Mattia Saccò, an ecologist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, who was not included with the investigation. 

As the require for lithium is established to rise for use in systems like electric powered cars, the menace to the flamingos may perhaps only improve.

“It’s a actual conundrum due to the fact definitely no one is likely to argue that local climate alter is not this monster that we have to have to contend with,” Senner says. Still, as this study indicates, the technologies that could help humankind beat local weather transform might have their possess suite of adverse ecological results. Remaining knowledgeable of those implications is going to be important to weighing the prices and rewards of this kind of answers, Senner suggests.

Discovering methods to reduce all those ecological prices could be a single helpful way ahead, he claims, specially by making lithium mining extra water economical or enhancing the capability to recycle lithium from utilised batteries.