Quantifying Forest and Coastal Disturbance from Industrial Mining Using Satellite Time Series Analysis Under Very Cloudy Conditions
Abstract:The open-pit Grasberg mine, located in the highlands of Western Papua, Indonesia, and operated by PT Freeport Indonesia (PT-FI), is among the world’s largest in terms of copper and gold production. Over the last 27 years, PT-FI has used the Ajkwa River to transport an estimated 1.3 billion tons of tailings from the mine into the so-called Ajkwa Deposition Area (ADA). The ADA is the product of aggradation and lateral expansion of the Ajkwa River into the surrounding lowland rainforest and mangroves, which include species important to the livelihoods of indigenous Papuans. Mine tailings that do not settle in the ADA disperse into the Arafura Sea where they increase levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and associated concentrations of dissolved copper. Despite the mine’s large-scale operations, ecological impact of mine tailings deposition on the forest and estuarial ecosystems have received minimal formal study. While ground-based inquiries are nearly impossible due to access restrictions, assessment via satellite remote sensing is promising but hindered by extreme cloud cover.
In this study, we characterize ridgeline-to-coast environmental impacts along the Ajkwa River, from the Grasberg mine to the Arafura Sea between 1987 and 2014. We use “all available” Landsat TM and ETM+ images collected over this time period to both track pixel-level vegetation disturbance and monitor changes in coastal SPM levels. Existing temporal segmentation algorithms are unable to assess both acute and protracted trajectories of vegetation change due to pervasive cloud cover. In response, we employ robust, piecewise linear regression on noisy vegetation index (NDVI) data in a manner that is relatively insensitive to atmospheric contamination. Using this disturbance detection technique we constructed land cover histories for every pixel, based on 199 image dates, to differentiate processes of vegetation decline, disturbance, and regrowth. Using annual reports from PT-FI, we show that the changing extent and spatial patterns of riparian vegetation disturbance directly correlate with yearly tailings production rates. While the rate of vegetation disturbance decreased after 1998, SPM levels along the Arafura coast increased, suggesting the failure of PT-FI to fully confine tailings to the ADA.