The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

A few weeks ago, we looked at a photo essay on Mir Mine, a nearly mile-wide mine in Eastern Siberia that's one of the largest man-made holes on Earth's surface. It made us wonder: Where the largest hole ever made by humans? As it turns out, it's right here in the United States.

The land where Bingham Canyon Mine sits was settled by Mormon 166 years ago, but it didn't emerge as a powerhouse producer until the turn of the 20th century. Today, the mine is 2.5 miles wide and more than half a mile deep. It's so big, it can be seen from the naked eye aboard the ISS.

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: Stefan Georgi/CC.

It also plays a major role in the economy of Utah—not to mention the US—by producing billions in revenue in a good year. Its big product? Copper. Which explains both its size and age: Bingham grew up alongside our modern appetite for copper.

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: Bingham seen from the ISS. NASA.

We tend to think of rare earth metals when we think of mining and technology. But copper is the stuff our modern world is built on: Bingham boomed along with the emergence of electricity in American homes, it boomed with the automobile, and it boomed with the circuit board. It's inextricably linked to the American economy, and increasingly, the global one—and it's in the midst of a major transformation.

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: Gord McKenna/CC.

Last year, Bingham became the site of the largest landslide that's ever taken place in North America (outside of volcanos). But because Rio Tinto, the company that owns the mine, keeps an incredibly close watch on the pit—including using an interferometric radar system to monitor stability—the extraordinary events of April 23, 2013, were predicated long in advance. There was even time to issue a press release. Here's NASA's imagery of the slide:

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

That night, a landslide shook the area around the mine so hard, it registered as a 5.1 earthquake. Upwards of 70 million cubic meters thundered down into the open pit, creating a huge swath of debris and rock that cascaded down the mine's neat, striated walls. No one was hurt, remarkably—except for Rio Tinto, the mine's owner, which reported that the "rock avalanche" would cut production by 100,000 tons.

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer.

A copper mine like Bingham, which produces multiple billions of dollars worth of product every year, has an outsized affect on the economy. And since Bingham's main export is copper, a metal closely tied to technology, agriculture, and infrastructure, a change in its price can be felt even at the consumer level. In an excellent post about the landslide last year, Tim Heffernan explained the fallout:

In short, the events of a few seconds on an April evening in 2013 are beginning to move through the economy, and will reverberate for at least a decade. And who will feel the vibrations, if they know what to feel for? Everyone who uses electricity, telecommunicates, gets their water from a tap, or eats food raised by Big Agriculture. Wires, pipes, and fertilizer: that's what copper is used for.

Last summer, Heffernan published a longer piece on Bingham focusing on the increasingly difficult chore of mining the copper that so many gadgets and systems in our lives depend on.

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: Stefan Georgi/CC.

You see, long before the landslide, Rio Tinto knew the end was nigh for Bingham as an open-pit mine. It was simply getting too expensive and laborious to keep it profitable. So the company is creating an underground ore mine below it; a mine so huge, Heffernan describes it vividly as being able to "swallow midtown Manhattan from 33rd Street to 57th Street; 500 feet of empty air would hang above the spire of the Empire State Building."

The Biggest Man-Made Hole on Earth

Image: Clément Cousin/CC.

The global economy's hunger for copper is now so vast, Rio Tinto is planning to go even further to keep Bingham open. The new, underground mine won't add to the pit's record-breaking width and depth, but it's somehow even more uncanny to imagine mining continuing unabated, just below its surface. Check out Heffernan's incredible story on the process here, it's well worth a read. In the meantime, if you thought that Siberean hole was huge, rest assured that it's got nothing on what mankind can make.

Lead image: Hylix Tseng/CC.