2019 – The Role of InSAR for Tailings Dam Safety Assessments

Jessica Morgan, Davide Colombo, Giacomo Falorni

The importance of building and maintaining safe, resilient tailings dams has become increasingly apparent with the rise in catastrophic failures in recent years. According to the World Mine Tailings Failures (WMTF) data base, 11 major failures have occurred over the past decade, often with devastating impacts to nearby communities in terms of loss of life and impact to the environment. With the occurrence of these types of events only expected to increase in coming years, there has been a corresponding increase in global calls to action to develop monitoring systems to better predict and wherever possible, prevent these failures from occurring.

With up to an estimated 20,000 tailings dams around the world, the development and implementation of a worldwide monitoring protocol is a daunting task, particularly as many of these structures are remote and difficult to access. This is where a technology like InSAR can make an immediate impact. InSAR is a remote sensing technique that uses radar satellite imagery to measure ground movement with up to millimetric precision. Radar systems are active, meaning they collect information from reflections of the radar signal off the ground and therefore do not require the installation of any equipment. As satellite images cover areas that extend thousands of square kilometres, they can provide information not only on the stability of dams, but also entire regions. Global archives already exist due to the Sentinel constellation of satellites, which provide coverage since 2014 over most parts of the world.

In an ideal world, tailings dams are safe and constructed to provide permanent containment of mining by- products. However, experience has shown that they can fail, often with dire consequences, especially if these failures occur without warning. The development of an internationally accepted standard for tailings dam monitoring is imperative to ensure the safety and resiliency of these structures is continuously tracked. This paper explores the role InSAR can play in the development of a global protocol for tailings dam monitoring.

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