Incidently Shifting the Continental Divide

The Google aerial above shows the Tyrone open-pit copper mine, located  in the  undulating topography of the Burro Mountains of southern New Mexico, near Silver City.  The mine is one of the many massive, yet largely unseen landscapes of monumental earth moving.  Open pit mines like Tyrone are our irreversible earth works for future generations; infrastructural byproducts enabled by abstracted regimes of agglomerated capital and economies of scale.   Open pit mines are the largest human derived earthforms we’ve created; a human geology whose form is ironically incidental, yet pragmatic, precisely engineered,  and fairly oblivious to context.

A sense of scale:  this is the small stockpile visible on the right side of the mine in the aerial above

Tailings to the north of the pit in the process of being reclaimed.

I studied and traveled through this landscape in 2006 as part of a research study called Navigating Bigness: Redefining Corporate Landscape; a study which formulated an alternative corporate annual report for the company that owned this mine and a dispersed network of others like it around the globe.  The reporting inverted the values of corporate reports, foregrounding the landscape effects of production (which is typically concealed), rather than the profit data.  The field work also served to test the theory of the modular similarity of corporate networks at operations of this scale.

The mines were indeed remarkably similar in form and structure, even if there are hundreds or thousands of miles between them.  And because of that standardization there were many poignant instances when the modular programs of production interfaced with (or ran over) the local context…

The USGS map of Tyrone shows the topography of the open pit surrounded by stock piles and tailings, the entire operation being approximately 6 miles across.

Detail of Tyrone

Within the map there is a dashed darker brown line starting at the lower left corner and exiting at the upper right.  The line seems to be an approximated sketch rather than anything definitive as the path it originally took is completely altered by the new landscape…incidentally, for over 7 miles.

Aerial detail of the same area

I tried to model the change in the continental divide in GIS using digital elevation models meshed with data layers ( I tried a variety of 3D modeling software at the time but none of them could handle the scale and complexity of the terrain without crashing).  The inadequate mismatches between the DEM and the continental divide shape file (dashed white line) proved telling of the temporal dynamics of human-derived geological processes.

section-elevation (click for larger images)

The dramatic earthworks have their obvious environmental effects (immense alteration of local hydrology, loss of vegetative cover, accelerated erosion, etc.) as well as veiled, sardonic cultural overtones.  I kept thinking of all the people who hike the entire continental divide for the scenic views, from Mexico to Canada as they encounter this, and being forced to trek an extra day to get around it on dusty roads loaded with over-sized trucks.  I thought of the Center for Land Use Interpretation and what a field day they could have with this one.

The ambiguous topographic puzzle of which water now flows to the Atlantic or to the Pacific (or sits in the toxic acid pool at the bottom of the pit) remains a mystery to anyone who might look at a map and notice it.


  1. this makes me think of shlomo aronson’s stuff in the negev desert. very interesting. i guess the question would be if this type of transformation could be seen as an opportunity, say, to direct rainfall.

    anyways, i like that the continental divide was just sketched in. that line is obviously representing a more complex environmental condition than a computer generated line. in some ways, the roughly sketched line just admits this. i appreciate that, unless i need to site a building.

  2. …this type of transformation as an opportunity…
    A particularly important question to ask before moving billions of tons of earth…an opportunity that seems to get missed in overly pragmatic, or uni-functional engineering practices. Tying in with your recent post, I think the ‘value added’ design in instances like this, and infrastructure in general, is the opportunity to identify synergistic or cross-programing possibilities at the outset, rather than cleaning up after the fact. Once these massive, constructed earth forms are in place there is little opportunity of going back or completely reshaping them. I’ve read about some gravel pit mines where they have brought in environmental scientists and landscape architects to collaboratively plan how the landforms are going to be distributed and shaped to minimize adverse environmental impacts, as well as to create functional and engaging spaces for community development to succeed the mine when operations terminate. There is a landscape architect that has been doing this for years who’s name escapes me right now.

  3. I totally agree with that, and that perspective I believe is what Rob means in the discussion over there when he says there is a fundamental difference in what earlier guys (like Shlomo) were doing and what contemporary practitioners are doing.

    But I think also, given that the place exists (or that thousands like it do), we may also be able to use dispersed or long-term strategies for remediating them. For instance, Berger’s Pontine marshes that Mammoth/Abitare profiled is an after-the-fact clean up (from the little I know) dealing with a nasty legacy. And Berger’s focus on waste cycles and ecology is also applicable before or after to some extent. Though not with billions of tons of earth… You’ve chosen a particularly difficult example.

    That is, I think there is opportunity for landscape design in both, both are necessary (pre- and post- approaches given our current condition), and both are somewhat fundamentally different, though are best approached with landscape strategies, not civil engineering strategies.

    In some ways, the situation is analogous to the terror conflict: an odious situation at present that requires severe and nuanced tactics; trying to get out in front of future situations; and an ongoing search for understanding regarding the underlying themes.

    [perhaps I’ve crossed a line with that analogy, so forgive me. It is one that is present in many issues of the day, I think, and that was the most readily available to my mind over lunch]

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