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'Rivers of gold' rush through the Peruvian Amazon in stunning NASA photo

Mining pits glitter like gold in this aerial photo of the Peruvian Amazon
Mining pits glitter like gold in this aerial photo of the Peruvian Amazon (Image credit: NASA/ ISS)

The Peruvian Amazon glitters like gold in a gorgeous new photo taken aboard the International Space Station.

While that glow is just sunlight reflecting off hundreds of pits of muddy water, there is plenty of gold in them thar hills. Each glistening pool is a gold-prospecting pit, according to NASA's Earth Observatory website, likely dug by independent miners looking to unearth some of the Amazon's ancient treasures.

"Each pit is surrounded by de-vegetated areas of muddy soil," Justin Wilkinson, a grant specialist at Texas State University, wrote for Earth Observatory. "These deforested tracts follow the courses of ancient rivers that deposited sediments, including gold."

Peru's Madre de Dios state, shown in this picture, is home to one of the largest independent gold mining industries on Earth, Wilkinson wrote. As many as 30,000 small-scale miners (working outside of government regulations) prospect illegally in the area, tearing up the rainforest with excavators and dump trucks in order to unearth the gold underneath.

Illegal mining can be a boon to impoverished workers in Madre de Dios, but a detriment to the Amazon; according to a 2011 study in the journal PLOS One, gold mining is the single greatest cause of deforestation in the region.

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These unregulated operations also pose a risk to local communities. Miners mix sediments with boiled mercury in order to separate gold from other minerals, according to Nature.com. As a result, up to 55 tons (50 metric tons) of mercury end up in rivers or the atmosphere every year. Locals who eat a lot of fish from these polluted rivers are more than three times as likely to have mercury poisoning than non-fish-eaters, a 2012 PLOS One study found.

But from space, these harsh realities blur out of focus. For the astronaut who took this photo on Dec. 24, 2020, the world far below was just a river of gold.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor
Brandon Specktor writes about the science of everyday life for Live Science, and previously for Reader's Digest magazine, where he served as an editor for five years. He grew up in the Sonoran Desert, but believes Sonoran hot dogs are trying way too hard.