, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 231–244 | Cite as

A spatial evaluation of historic iron mining impacts on current impaired waters in Lake Superior’s Mesabi Range

  • John Baeten
  • Nancy Langston
  • Don Lafreniere


This paper examines the water quality legacies of historic and current iron mining in the Mesabi Range, the most productive iron range in the history of North America, producing more than 42% of the world’s iron ore in the 1950s. Between 1893 and 2016, 3.5 × 109 t of iron ore were shipped from the Mesabi Range to steel plants throughout the world. We map historic sites and quantities of iron mining, ore processing, water use, and tailings deposition within subwatershed boundaries. We then map the locations of impaired lakes within HUC-12 subwatershed boundaries within the Mesabi Range, using government datasets created for US federal Clean Water Act reporting. Comparing watersheds with and without historic mining activity, watersheds with historic mining activity currently contain a greater percentage of impaired lakes than control watersheds within the same range. These results suggest that historic iron ore mining and processing in the Mesabi Range affected water quality on a landscape scale, and these legacies persist long after the mines have closed. This paper outlines a novel spatial approach that land managers and policy makers can apply to other landscapes to assess the effects of past mining activity on watershed health.


Environmental history Geospatial analysis Historical geographic information systems (HGIS) Historical mining Iron mining 



This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant #R56645, Toxic Mobilizations in Iron Mining Contamination). The authors thank Kelley Christensen at Michigan Tech for helpful feedback and support. We thank the anonymous reviewers who provided invaluable feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript. We also thank the MPCA for providing watershed datasets to the public.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social SciencesMTUHoughtonUSA

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