Mining Lithium for Electric Vehicle Batteries May Threaten Flamingos, a Study Finds

A lake in Chile has seen decreases in two flamingo populations over the last 11 years, which researchers link to lithium mining

Three flamingos in water with mountains in the background
Flamingos in the Atacama region of Chile jimfeng via Getty Images

Lithium is a key material to help power phones, laptops and electric vehicles. The demand for it has increased by about 8.9 percent annually, per the Harvard International Review, and will likely continue rising as electric vehicles take over the roads as an attempt to curb carbon emissions and reduce the effects of climate change. 

But the combination of lithium mining and climate change seems to have negative consequences on flamingos in South America, a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds. 

A team of researchers examined five saline lakes in South America’s “Lithium Triangle,” an area covering parts of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, where more than 75 percent of the world’s lithium is found, per the Harvard International Review. This region is also where three of the world’s six species of flamingo live.

The researchers found that a lake in Chile, the Salar de Atacama, has already lost 10 percent of its James’ flamingos and 12 percent of its Andean flamingos in 11 years. Andean flamingos are considered “vulnerable,” while James’ flamingos are “near-threatened,” per the study. 

“These results suggest continued increases in lithium mining and declines in surface water could soon have dramatic effects on flamingo abundance across their range,” the authors write in the study. “Efforts to slow the expansion of mining and the impacts of climate change are, therefore, urgently needed to benefit local biodiversity and the local human economy that depends on it.”

Lithium mining requires a high volume of water—about 400,000 gallons per ton of lithium, per the study. Excluding polar areas, the Atacama desert in Chile is the driest in the world, meaning that mining water has to come from the ground. As groundwater is depleted, lakes where flamingos live become uninhabitable to the organisms that flamingos eat, causing the birds to leave or starve, writes Vox’s Benji Jones.

Flamingos are key species in the lakes’ ecosystems because they help regulate tropic processes, per the study. They’re also important for tourism in the area. 

“When the flamingo is gone, you will have fewer tourists, and this could impact livelihoods in a deep way,” Datu Buyung Agusdinata, a professor at Arizona State University who was not involved with the study, tells Vox.

The study illustrates the tension between green technologies intended to slow the effects of climate change—like electric vehicles—and the environmental impacts of creating those technologies. 

“It’s a real conundrum because obviously no one is going to argue that climate change is not this monster that we need to contend with,” Senner tells Science News

But flamingo numbers haven’t dropped overall, only in the Salar de Atacama, where lithium mining is focused. This change may be because the birds can move around to different lakes to find better conditions, which might not be possible as mining continues to expand, according to a statement

“Science-based conservation management guidelines might still allow future preservation of some key hypersaline systems in the region,” Mattia Saccò, an ecologist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, who was not involved with the research, tells Science News.

Still, lithium mining is growing rapidly. Per the study, Chile announced it will “open a tender for the additional exploration and production of 400,000 tons of metallic lithium outside the Salar de Atacama.” The Salar de Uyuni, a flamingo breeding area in Bolivia, is seeing increased mining too, per the study. 

“It’s impossible to stop mining,” study co-author and microbiologist Cristina Dorador Ortiz tells Vox. “But we need to do it better.”