Planet Data Enables Scientists to Build Predictive Models of the Impacts of Mine Tailings Dam Breaches

Image above: Planet image taken August 22, 2022 of the Merriespruit gold mine in South Africa — site of the historical 1994 tailings dam breach referenced for study’s predictive models. © 2022, Planet Labs PBC. All Rights Reserved.

Mine tailings dams are contained bodies of water mixed with waste products from mining operations. If irresponsibly managed, these dams can fail, releasing a tailings flow which can cause a multitude of negative impacts to surrounding communities. Some impacts can include landslides or contaminated water resources. In fact, over the last 100 years, about 2,800 people have died as a result of tailings flows. As a consequence, researchers, managers, and governments look to prevent such disasters and take steps in emergency preparedness and planning regarding tailings dams. One way to prepare is by generating predictive models to observe the likely downstream impacts of breached tailings dams. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Golder Associates Ltd, Klohn Crippen Berger, Red Earth Engineering, University of Waterloo, and Queen’s University, are exploring the creation of such models to identify opportunities to adapt and advance modeling methods for accurate simulations of tailings dam breaches. Using Planet satellite images, including our Basemaps, this research team was able to model maximum flow depth and velocity of historical tailings dam failures, helping to build the predictive capabilities of their models. They also leveraged our satellite data to identify surrounding sites of impact, such as urban dwellings and nature reserves. Through their analysis, the researchers determined that their models were capable of bulk behavior of tailings flows, but noted that more case study back analyses would be necessary as each model was very sensitive to different input parameters for each scenario. They conclude with the assessment that with further research, they could enhance their understanding of these sensitivities and impacts.

The full study can be found in Science of the Total Environment.