Mining and the Environment
Although mining provides people with many needed resources, the environmental costs can be high. Surface mining clears the landscape of trees and soil, and nearby streams and lakes are inundated with sediment. Pollutants from the mined rock, such as heavy metals, enter the sediment and water system. Acids flow from some mine sites, changing the composition of nearby waterways (Figure left).
U.S. law has changed in recent decades so that a mine region must be restored to its natural state, a process called reclamation. This is not true of older mines. Pits may be refilled or reshaped and vegetation planted. Pits may be allowed to fill with water and become lakes or may be turned into landfills. Underground mines may be sealed off or left open as homes for bats.
- Surface mining clears the land, completely destroying the ecosystems that were found there.
- Mining releases pollutants, which affect the immediate area and may travel downstream or downwind to cause problems elsewhere.
- Reclamation occurs when people attempt to return the mined land to its original state.
Farmers have forced off their lands during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s when the rains stopped and the topsoil blew off these former grasslands. A wind storm blew huge amounts of soil into the air in Texas on April 14, 1935. This scene was repeated throughout the central United States.
Causes of Soil Erosion
The agents of soil erosion are the same as the agents of all types of erosion: water, wind, ice, or gravity. Running water is the leading cause of soil erosion because water is abundant and has a lot of power. The wind is also a leading cause of soil erosion because wind can pick up soil and blow it far away. Activities that remove vegetation, disturb the ground, or allow the ground to dry are activities that increase erosion. What are some human activities that increase the likelihood that soil will be eroded?
Agriculture is probably the most significant activity that accelerates soil erosion because of the amount of land that is farmed and how much farming practices disturb the ground (Figure below). Farmers remove native vegetation and then plow the land to plant new seeds. Because most crops grow only in spring and summer, the land lies fallow during the winter. Of course, winter is also the stormy season in many locations, so wind and rain are available to wash soil away. Tractor tires make deep grooves, which are natural pathways for water. Fine soil is blown away by the wind.