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Systematic mapping of research knowledge

This task aims to comprehensively and systematically collate all research knowledge (including published academic and grey literature) that aims to study the impacts of metal mining and its mitigation measures in Arctic and boreal regions. The task involves using rigorous and internationally accepted methods for summarising large bodies of research; systematic mapping. The output will be an interactive and searchable database of all relevant research along with a detailed report explaining the methods and results. The systematic mapping will highlight research gaps needing more studies, and topics where there are enough studies to allow complex full synthesis of the study finding.

The systematic map has been published in Environmental Evidence. Follow this link to read the full, peer-reviewed research paper.


We searched multiple bibliographic databases, online search engines and organisational websites for relevant research literature using a tested search strategy. We also collected evidence from stakeholders identified in the wider 3MK project. We screened articles at three distinct stages (title, abstract, and full text) according to a predetermined set of inclusion criteria, with consistency checks between reviewers at each level. We then extracted data relating to causal linkages between actions or impacts and measured outcomes, along with descriptive information about the articles and studies and entered data into an interactive systematic map database. We have visualised this database in an interactive evidence atlas and identify knowledge gaps and clusters using heat maps.

Read more about our methods in this detailed, a priori protocol document, published in the journal Environmental Evidence.

What were the findings?

Click on the subheadings below to explore each topic:

Following assessment of more than 44,000 research records, we identified a total of 585 relevant articles that focused on the impacts of mining and it's mitigation measures in Arctic and boreal regions. You can see the flow of information through our review process in the flow diagram to the right.

These articles contained a total of 902 independent measured outcomes (impacts).

The evidence atlas below provides an interactive interface to explore the articles and their outcomes across geographical space. Click and hold to drag the map, double click or use the zoom controls to zoom in and out, and click on a point to examine each article's descriptive information. Clusters of numbers represent multiple articles from a similar region. Zoom in or click on the cluster to separate them.

There was a steady increase in research over time, starting from 1973.

The interactive plot below shows the distribution of articles across countries.

Most articles in the map used a ‘control-impacts’ study design (n = 396), with a substantial number employing correlative designs (n = 142). Only 5 articles examined just the impact/affected site with no real study design.

Related to this, the most common comparator was a reference site/population (n = 254).

The most commonly reported study setting was collection from the field and analysis in the laboratory (n = 358), followed by social science (n = 102) and laboratory experiments (n = 86).

Similarly, the context of the included articles’ studies was predominantly in situ (n = 459), with a smaller number using ex situ methods (n = 118) and very few employing mesocosms (n = 8).

A total of 177 unique mines (click to download a CSV file describing the unique mines) were reported across the 585 articles. They were distributed across countries as follows: Canada (n = 96 articles); Russia (n = 28); Sweden (n = 18); USA (n = 13); Finland (n = 9); Norway (n = 9); Greenland (n = 4); Iceland (n = 0).

The metals mined are shown in the figure to the right. Copper was the most commonly reported metal (n = 208), followed by gold (n = 162) and zinc (n = 141). The metals extracted were not stated in 32 articles. Some articles stated only the principle metal mined, whilst others reported all metals encountered and extracted - the data are therefore representative of the articles and may not reflect precisely the state of metals mined across the Arctic and boreal regions.

The most commonly reported mine type was open pit (n = 218), with less than half this number underground (n = 80) and surface (n = 72), and only 22 articles focused on placer mines.

The most commonly studied extraction stage was operation (n = 276 articles), followed by abandonment (n = 164), postclosure (n = 114), and remediation (n = 60). Prospecting, exploration, construction, expansion and decommissioning/closure were studied far less frequently (n = 1 to 7).

The most commonly co-reported stages (stages that occurred in the same article) were post-closure and remediation (n = 21), followed by operation and abandonment (n = 17). Articles more commonly reported multiple stages following resource extraction activities (decommissioning/closure, post-closure, remediation and abandonment), than earlier stages. No articles reported more than three stages together.

The majority of evidence focuses on operation of mines in Canada. Operation was the most commonly reported stage in Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the USA. In Greenland and Norway post-closure was most frequent. In Russia, the majority of articles focused on operation, with very few on post-closure or remediation relative to Canada and Sweden.

Across all articles, the most commonly reported outcome category was metal concentration (n = 357), followed by water quality (n = 104) and species biomass or distribution (n = 102). The least frequently reported outcome was hydrological flow or landscape change (n = 16).

The most commonly reported system was biodiversity (n = 352), followed by water (n = 310), societies (n = 178), and soil/geology (n = 52), with air the least common (n = 10). Within biodiversity, the most common component was fauna (n = 214), followed by flora (n = 125) and ecosystems (n =13). Within water, surface, sediment and groundwater were approximately equal (n = 114, 104, and 87 respectively), with ice rather infrequent (n = 5). For societies, health and wellbeing was most common (n = 106), followed by economic (n = 46), service and infrastructure (n = 12), landscapes (n = 8) and culture and history (n = 6). Soil surface was the only component reported for soil/geology articles (n = 52). Within air, atmosphere was most common (n = 9) and climate reported rarely (n = 1). The most commonly reported factors were individual fauna species (n = 116), water sediment quality (n = 104) and surface water quality (n = 104).

Click on a bubble in the visualisation to open a new window showing a table of studies.

What are the conclusions?


Implications for research
Our systematic map database and visualisations of the evidence in heat maps allow readers to gauge gaps and clusters, but here we suggest some areas of the evidence base that are sufficient in number to perhaps be suitable for synthesis in full systematic reviews. This list is based on frequently studied higher level categories (the top 3 affected components and factors). This list is indicative only and should not be taken as a priority list of topics for systematic review.

  • 1 On mine operation (n = 428)
  • -1.1 Health/safety (n = 59)
  • -1.2 Air quality (n = 45)
  • -1.3 Fauna individual species (n = 45)
  • 2 On post-closure activities (n = 176)
  • -2.1 Fauna individual species (n=27)
  • -2.2 Surface water quality (n = 22)
  • -2.3 Water sediment quality (n = 20)
  • 3 On abandonment (n = 167)
  • -3.1 Fauna individual species (n = 47)
  • -3.2 Surface water quality (n = 40)
  • -3.3 Water sediment quality (n = 39)
  • 4 Articles focusing on groundwater quality mitigation measures (n = 60)

Based on our analysis of the evidence base, we also suggest the following topics where there appear to be evidence gaps that warrant further primary research:

  • 1 Studies on earlier stages of resource extraction prior to operation - from prospecting to construction
  • 2 Research on the effectiveness of mitigation measures (including ‘how’ things function)
  • 3 Research employing quasi-experimental (e.g. BACI) and experimental (e.g. randomised control trials) designs for stronger evidence of causality
  • 4 Migration and demography
  • 5 Cumulative impacts and multiple pressures, including effects related to a changing climate
  • 6 Impacts on local and Indigenous communities, especially social, cultural, and health-related

Implications for policy/management
This systematic map demonstrates that there is a large body of evidence on the impacts of metal mining in Arctic and boreal regions. Many topics within the map constitute potential areas for further synthesis or primary research on the impacts of particular types of mining on certain outcomes (described in Implications for Research, above). Relevant funders and decision-makers should ensure they are aware of these gaps and clusters, and commission further research as necessary, making the most of the available evidence. Where large bodies of evidence exist (e.g. operation of mines in Canada), research commissioners should consider whether funding and resources are best placed filling gaps than providing more research on a well-studied topic. Given the inherent connection between mineral development and the Indigenous rightsholders of the north it is also important to ensure that research and synthesis activities are done in ways that involve them and respect their sovereignty, knowledge systems, and cultures.

With efforts to move away from fossil fuels, demand for minerals to support “green” energy technologies is expected to increase. In many parts of the Arctic, these expectations have led to increasing prospecting for minerals and a push for opening new mines. However, mining is often met by protests, especially when new mines or expanded mining activities come into conflict with other land uses and with efforts to protect ecologically valuable nature. Furthermore, the process for assessing the impacts of mining have been criticised, with calls for more holistic assessment processes that include meaningful engagement by rightsholders and stakeholders and the whole mining industry is facing increasing distrust. An essential aspect of transparent assessment processes is access to relevant scientific information on all aspects on the implications of mining, and the mapping provided in this paper shows that information on many aspects is limited, especially impacts related to social wellbeing and the interactions between social and environmental factors. Such studies will require approaches that take the whole social-ecological-technological system into account, while filling such more holistically-oriented studies with details on specific aspects will require the types of research reviewed in this paper. In addition to identifying critical knowledge gaps, the mapping and potential updates of the map thus serve as an important resource for more holistic environmental and social impact assessment that will be essential for 1) protecting the environment, 2) ensuring that the local social consequences of mining are indeed positive also in the longer term, and 3) helping ensure that the mining permit processes do not stall in drawn-out conflicts due to limited (or contested) knowledge about potential impacts. Better assessment processes will not solve conflict over land use but would at least make decisions about acceptable risks and opportunities more transparent.

Whilst it is expected that most mitigation measures will address the construction and operations phases of a mining project, since this is typically what an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment focuses on, the gaps identified in this systematic map point not only to research gaps but problems with the EIA process itself. For example, EIA legislation is rarely applied to the exploration and development phases of mining, which we found evidence of impacts for. This highlights that there should probably be some legal requirement for analysis and addressing these risks in impact assessments in the future. Policy-makers should be aware that the social impacts from mining in particular begin early on in a project’s lifetime. There is a clear need for more research, and more mitigation, to address these issues.

It is also interesting we found no research examining the EIA process itself, including its effectiveness, and no explicit examination of the proposed mitigation measures from EIAs. Monitoring and evaluation of impact assessments are large gaps in mining legislation and research, and this should be addressed with a clear demand for impact assessment evaluation from decision-makers.