Mountaintop mining legacies constrain ecological, hydrological and biogeochemical recovery trajectories
Mountaintop mining, like all forms of surface mining, fundamentally alters the landscape to extract resources that lie 10-100 ms below the land surface. Despite these deep, critical zone alterations, post-mining landscapes are required by United States law to be restored to ecosystems of equal or greater value than the ones they replace. Yet, remote sensing of vegetation across more than 1000 km2 of reclaimed surface mines in WV, USA reveals little evidence that these habitats are returning to the diverse Appalachian forests that were removed by mining. Instead, even decades after reclamation, mined landscapes are dominated by shorter and sparser trees. Based on detailed field studies and literature synthesis, we suggest that part of these widespread failures in re-establishing native forest result from the fundamental changes in critical zone processes on the post-mining landscape. Former surface mines have substantially altered topography, hydrology and chemistry. In these post-mining, synthetic landscapes, water moves more slowly through piles of exploded bedrock, changing the system from one dominated by stormflow in unmined catchments, to one dominated by baseflow after mining. This slow-moving water, travelling through high surface-area debris and pyrite-rich bedrock, creates ideal conditions for highly elevated weathering in mines both old and new. These foundational changes to the critical zone set ecosystem recovery along a novel trajectory, in which the legacy of past disturbance is likely to constrain the establishment of native forest for many decades.
Ross, MRV; Nippgen, F; McGlynn, BL; Thomas, CJ; Brooks, AC; Shriver, RK; Moore, EM; Bernhardt, ES
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