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Demand for lithium comes at a cost to flamingos

Lithium is a non-renewable resource in high demand to support the transition to a low carbon economy. It’s most commonly used to power the world’s electric vehicles, a promising technology to reduce global emissions.

Most of the world’s lithium is mined in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, an area known as ‘The Lithium Triangle,” which is coincidentally, home to three species of flamingos. 

A new study has found that lithium mining and climate changes in the Andes Mountains could be negatively affecting the region’s flamingo population.  

The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, considered the effects that lithium mining and climate change are having on the lakes in the Chilean Andes where flamingos flock for feeding and breeding. 

“Given how rapidly our demand for lithium is growing, there is a great need to understand what negative effects its production might be having on biodiversity and especially those species, like flamingos, that are important to local economies,” explained study co-author Dr. Nathan Senner, a population biologist at the University of South Carolina.

The “lithium triangle” is home to two species of flamingos who only breed in this region exclusively. Flamingos are also an important foundation of the region’s ecotourism industry. 

The study looked at five lakes in the Chilean Andes, part of the Lithium Triangle, where Chile’s lithium mining is largely focused. 

The researchers analyzed 30 years of flamingo counts collected by citizen scientists and biologists from the Chilean government. Remote sensing data was also used to identify changes in water levels and food availability within each lake. This allowed the experts to evaluate the climatic factors influencing water and flamingo food availability, as well as how water and food influenced flamingo abundance. 

The study revealed that lakes across the regions are starting to shrink, largely due to climate change. The impacts of a shrinking lake directly impact breeding flamingos. When a lake’s water levels are low, food levels decrease, leaving less opportunity for breeding flamingos. 

The results show that in Salar de Atacama, a lake directly affected by mining, the two species of flamingos that breed only in these mountains have already lost 10 to 12 percent of their populations. Overall, however, the flamingo population has not yet declined. 

The stability of the local flamingo population is likely due to the opportunity for the birds to migrate to different lakes with better conditions. The researchers are concerned that this may not last, as the demand for lithium mining is growing at an exponential rate.  

In order to meet demand for electric vehicles, cell phones, and electronic storage devices, lithium mining in Chile is projected to triple by 2026 relative to 2018 levels.

“The problem is that, in the Salar de Atacama, in addition to the changes caused by climate change across the region, lithium mining is reducing water levels and increasing disturbances for flamingos,” explained Dr. Jorge Gutiérrez, an ecologist at the Universidad de Extremadura who led the study. “This means years with sufficient water for flamingos to breed occur less frequently and fewer flamingos are now present, Study co-author Dr. Cristina Dorador said that the flamingo declines in the Salar de Atacama may soon spread to the rest of the region.“Given that two of these flamingo species breed nowhere else in the world, this could lead to dramatic declines across their entire range and severely hurt the local ecotourism industry that relies on flamingos.”

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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