Investigating the use of fallout and geogenic radionuclides as potential tracing properties to quantify the sources of suspended sediment in a mining catchment in New Caledonia, South Pacific

  • Virginie SellierEmail author
  • Oldrich Navratil
  • J. Patrick Laceby
  • Michel Allenbach
  • Irène Lefèvre
  • Olivier Evrard
Sediments, Sec 3 • Hillslope and River Basin Sediment Dynamics • Research Article



New Caledonia, a French island located in the south-west Pacific Ocean, has vast nickel resources. Open-cast mining has strongly increased soil erosion and the subsequent downstream transfer of sediments in river systems resulting in fundamental morphological changes (e.g., hyper-sedimentation, over-burden). Understanding the sediment source contributions from mining activities is therefore important to guide the implementation of effective management measures.

Materials and methods

A pilot sediment tracing study was conducted in the Thio River (400 km2) catchment draining the island’s first mine. Sediment deposited during the February 25, 2015, and April 10, 2017, flood events was collected with a tributary tracing design, including main stem (n = 19) and tributary (n = 24) samples. The tributaries were classified into two source types: sub-catchments draining mining sites and sub-catchments devoid of mining activities. Three sets of potential tracing parameters (i.e., fallout radionuclides, geogenic radionuclides, and elemental geochemistry) were examined for their potential to model the contributions of sediment from mining versus non-mining tributaries to sediment collected on the Thio River.

Results and discussion

The very low fallout radionuclide activities (137Cs and 210Pbxs) found in the source and sediment samples demonstrate that most material transiting the river network is derived from subsoil sources. Geogenic radionuclides and elemental geochemistry were therefore utilized in the tributary tracing approach. Accordingly, U and K were selected as the optimal tracers of the two main lithological regions supplying sediment to the main stem of the Thio River. Model results demonstrated that tributaries with mining activity dominated the sediment supply to the Thio River with mean sediment contributions of 68% (SD 28%) for the 2015 flood and 86% (SD 7%) for the 2017 event.


Geogenic radionuclides and elemental geochemistry were more effective at discriminating between tributaries with and without mines than fallout radionuclides. The similarity of the model results from tracing with geogenic radionuclides and elemental geochemistry illustrates their potential to investigate sediment source contributions in similar catchments across the South Pacific Islands affected by mining activities.


Cesium-137 Nickel mining Sediment source fingerprinting Soil erosion X-ray fluorescence 


Funding information

This work was supported by the National Technical Research Center (CNRT) “Nickel and its environment,” Noumea, New Caledonia (n°10PS2013-CNRT.UNC/IMMILA). Virginie Sellier received a PhD fellowship from the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA, Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives).

Supplementary material

11368_2019_2447_MOESM1_ESM.docx (263 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 263 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE), UMR 8212 (CEA/CNRS/UVSQ-IPSL)Université Paris-SaclayGif-sur-YvetteFrance
  2. 2.Laboratoire Environnement-Ville-Société (EVS), UMR 5600/IRGUniversité Lumière Lyon 2LyonFrance
  3. 3.Environmental Monitoring and Science Division (EMSD)Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP)CalgaryCanada
  4. 4.LIVE-EA 4243Université de Nouvelle-CalédonieNouméaFrance
  5. 5.LABEXCorailFrance

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