Demand for Electric Cars Is Threatening Chile's Flamingos

Demand for Electric Cars Is Threatening Chile's Flamingos

Flamingos living in the Atacama Desert's salt flats have seen their numbers decline thanks to water-intensive lithium mining.

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A flamingo wanders in a brine pond in the Atacama.
A flamingo wanders in a brine pond in the Atacama.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

The gorgeous pink flamingos that inhabit one of Chile’s most unique habitats are declining—and demand for electric cars may be partly to blame.

In recent years, populations of the birds living in the salt flats of the Atacama Desert have been on the decline, as global demand for lithium drains the region’s water supply. Here’s how lithium mining is putting these birds at risk.

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The Atacama Is a Goldmine for Lithium

The Atacama Is a Goldmine for Lithium

The salt flats, with the foothills of the Andes visible in the background.
The salt flats, with the foothills of the Andes visible in the background.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

The Atacama sits at the center of what’s known as the Lithium Triangle, an area with rich lithium deposits that spans across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. The region is home to an estimated 58% of the world’s lithium resources, much of it contained in the multiple salt flats and lakes in the area. And in this rich region, the Atacama is a goldmine: just one particularly briny basin in the Atacama holds almost 30% of global lithium concentration.

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Lithium Demand Skyrocketing

Lithium Demand Skyrocketing

Flamingos on the salt flats.
Flamingos on the salt flats.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

In recent years, demand for lithium has skyrocketed as the clean energy transition gets underway. Some estimates suggest that global demand for lithium could triple over the next five years, which would seriously stress the world’s current supply capabilities. Electric vehicles are particularly lithium-intensive, and as governments and companies ramp up EV production, demand for lithium is also increasing. Lithium mining has come under fire in multiple areas of the world for its environmental impacts as well as labor issues and impacts on Indigenous communities. In the Atacama, locals have protested over mining’s impact on water supplies.

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Flamingos Need Water

Flamingos Need Water

Two flamingos scuffle.
Two flamingos scuffle.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

In a study published in March in the Proceedings of the Royal Societies B journal, researchers found that the decline in at least two flamingo species in areas of the Atacama is linked to areas where water is becoming scarcer due to lithium mining. Flamingos need water to reproduce and eat, and that water is being taken away by lithium mines: lithium in the Atacama is harvested by evaporating saltwater to separate out the mineral. In Salar de Atacama, an estimated 450 gallons (1,700 liters) of saltwater is pumped out of the ground each second for mining.

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Declines Linked to Mining

Declines Linked to Mining

Flamingos fly over the brine lake.
Flamingos fly over the brine lake.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Water levels in other areas of the desert have fluctuated due to climate shifts and drought. But the study looked at 30 years of data on flamingo populations and found that in other areas of the desert unaffected by lithium mining, flamingo populations have stayed relatively stable. Meanwhile, two of the three types of flamingos in the region of the Atacama where lithium mining is most concentrated saw their numbers decline by 10-12% over a recent 10-year period. During that same period, water levels in winter declined by around 40%.

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Populations Were Unchanged Elsewhere

Populations Were Unchanged Elsewhere

Two species near the areas where lithium mining is most popular have seen their numbers decline betweeo 10 and 12%.
Two species near the areas where lithium mining is most popular have seen their numbers decline betweeo 10 and 12%.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

“You can explain the effects specifically from lithium extraction,” Cristina Dorador, co-author of the study, told Reuters in March.

There’s a bit of a silver lining in the study: Flamingo populations did not decline in other areas of the desert, the research showed, and birds who usually nest and feed in Salar de Atacama could just travel to other regions. Still, the researchers emphasized the need to know more about how lithium is impacting the flamingos to help mitigate the effects.

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Flamingos Crucial to Economy and Ecosystems

Flamingos Crucial to Economy and Ecosystems

Flamingos scuffle.
Flamingos scuffle.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Flamingos are a key part of life and the economy in the Atacama. The flocks of birds are a big draw for tourists, while flamingo eggs are eaten by Indigenous people living around the flats. Flamingos eat plankton and other small organisms that live in the water on the flats, which helps keep harmful bacterial blooms from forming.

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Numbers Have ‘Tumble[d] Quite Rapidly’

Numbers Have ‘Tumble[d] Quite Rapidly’

Flamingos are crucial to the local economy and ecosystems.
Flamingos are crucial to the local economy and ecosystems.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

“It’s not like they all die at once, but if you’re not reproducing all of a sudden, even things that live as long as flamingos start to die,” Dorador told Reuters. “And that’s where numbers really start to tumble quite rapidly.”

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