Lidar (light detection and ranging) and benthic invertebrate investigations: Migrating tailings threaten Buffalo Reef in Lake Superior

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Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences; Great Lakes Research Center; Department of Biological Sciences; Michigan Tech Research Institute; Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering


The low turbidity of northern Great Lakes waters allows lidar sufficient penetration to greatly aid environmental studies of coastal environments. On the Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior, Big Traverse Bay provides an excellent example of mine tailings spreading from an old coastal release site. Between 1901 and 1932, two stamp mills (Mohawk and Wolverine) discharged 22.7 million metric tonnes of tailings (stamp sands) off the town of Gay. Along beaches, migrating stamp sands have dammed stream outlets, encroached upon wetlands, and contaminated recreational beaches. The tailings are now threatening benthic environments and critical commercial fish breeding grounds. Buffalo Reef is important for commercial and recreational lake trout and lake whitefish production (32% of the commercial catch in Keweenaw Bay, 22% of southern Lake Superior). Aerial photographs and five lidar over-flights emphasize: 1) the enormous amounts of stamp sands moving along the shoreline, and 2) large amounts migrating underwater across the bay towards Buffalo Reef. Differences between 2008 and 2016 lidar over-flights are used to quantify underwater stamp sand movement. For years, tailings have accumulated in an ancient riverbed cut (“trough”) just north of Buffalo Reef. Stamp sand overflow out of the “trough” is now moving into Buffalo Reef cobble fields, where fish drop eggs. Ponar sediment studies quantify % stamp sand in sand mixtures around Buffalo Reef, copper concentrations, and quantify impacts on benthic invertebrate taxa. Our study emphasizes that when large amounts of mine tailings are discharged into coastal environments, temporal and spatial impacts are progressive, threatening benthic organisms and fish.

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© 2019 Published by Elsevier B.V. on behalf of International Association for Great Lakes Research. Publisher's version of record:

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