Incorporating rock in surface covers improves the establishment of native pioneer vegetation on alkaline mine tailings
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Background and aims: Rates of tailings production and deposition around the world have increased markedly in recent decades, and have grown asynchronously with safe and environmentally suitable solutions for their storage. Tailings are often produced in regions harbouring biodiverse native plant communities adapted to old, highly-weathered soils. The highly-altered edaphic conditions of tailings compared with natural soils in these areas will likely select against many locally endemic plant species, making phytostabilisation, rehabilitation or ecological restoration of these landforms challenging.
Methods: We established four substrate cover composition treatments on a dry-stacked magnetite tailings storage facility in semi-arid Western Australia, representative of standard industry practices for rehabilitating or restoring post-mining landforms in the region. Plots were seeded with a selection of locally native plant species and monitored for five years to determine whether different substrate cover treatments yielded different edaphic conditions (soil moisture, substrate surface temperature and substrate chemistry) and influenced soil development and the success of native vegetation establishment.
Results: No vegetation established from seeds on unamended tailings with no surface cover, and substrate chemistry changed minimally over five years. In contrast, rock-containing surface covers allowed establishment of up to 11 native plant species from broadcast seeds at densities of ca. 1.5 seedlings m−2, and up to 3.5 seedlings m−2 of five native pioneer chenopods from capture of wind-dispersed seeds from surrounding undisturbed native vegetation. Greater vegetation establishment in rock-containing surface covers resulted from increased heterogeneity (e.g., lower maximum soil temperature, greater water capture and retention, surface microtopography facilitating seed capture and retention, more niches for seed germination). Soil development and bio-weathering occurred most rapidly under the canopy of native pioneer plants on rock-containing surface covers, particularly increases in organic carbon, total nitrogen, and organo-bound aluminium and iron.
Conclusions: Seed germination and seedling survival on tailings were limited by extreme thermal and hydrological conditions and a highly-altered biogeochemical environment. The design of surface cover layers appears crucial to achieving closure outcomes on tailings landforms, and designs should prioritise increasing surface heterogeneity through the incorporation of rock or other structure-improving amendments to assist the establishment of pioneer vegetation.
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