A spatial evaluation of historic iron mining impacts on current impaired waters in Lake Superior’s Mesabi Range

John Baeten, Michigan Technological University
Nancy Langston, Michigan Technological University

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2017. Publisher's version of record: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-017-0948-0


This paper examines the water quality legacies of historic and current iron mining in the Mesabi Range, the most productive iron range in the history of North America, producing more than 42% of the world’s iron ore in the 1950s. Between 1893 and 2016, 3.5 × 109 t of iron ore were shipped from the Mesabi Range to steel plants throughout the world. We map historic sites and quantities of iron mining, ore processing, water use, and tailings deposition within subwatershed boundaries. We then map the locations of impaired lakes within HUC-12 subwatershed boundaries within the Mesabi Range, using government datasets created for US federal Clean Water Act reporting. Comparing watersheds with and without historic mining activity, watersheds with historic mining activity currently contain a greater percentage of impaired lakes than control watersheds within the same range. These results suggest that historic iron ore mining and processing in the Mesabi Range affected water quality on a landscape scale, and these legacies persist long after the mines have closed. This paper outlines a novel spatial approach that land managers and policy makers can apply to other landscapes to assess the effects of past mining activity on watershed health.