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February 05, 2006

The Worst Problem You Never Heard Of: Coal Fires Environment

It's astonishing — and somewhat disheartening — that a problem this important remains largely unknown: enormous underground coal fires, some of which have burned for decades or even centuries, emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the cars and light trucks in the US combined. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via WorldChanging):

Underground coal fires are relentlessly incinerating millions of tons of coal around the world.

The blazes spew out huge amounts of air pollutants, force residents to flee their homes, send toxic runoff flowing into waterways, and leave the land above as scarred as a battlefield.

"A global environmental catastrophe" is how geologist Glenn B. Stracher described the situation. [...]

[S]ome of the fires have been burning for centuries with few people aware of the problem.

Concern and action is needed...because of the environmental impact — especially of mega-fires burning in India, China and elsewhere in Asia. One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

"The direct and indirect economic losses from coal fires are huge," said Paul M. van Dijk, a Dutch scientist who is tracking the Chinese blazes via satellite.

He estimated that the Chinese fires alone consume 120 million tons of coal annually. That's almost as much as the annual coal production in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois combined.

The Chinese fires also make a big, hidden contribution to global warming through the greenhouse effect, scientists said. Each year they release 360 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as much as all the cars and light trucks in the United States.

Soot from the fires in China, India and other Asian countries are a source of the "Asian Brown Haze." It's a 2-mile thick cloud of soot, acid droplets and other material that sometimes stretches across South Asia from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.

The cloud causes acid rain that damages crops, cuts sunlight reaching the ground by 10 to 15 percent, and has been implicated in thousands of annual lung disease deaths.

Mine fires are frustratingly difficult and costly to extinguish, panelists said.

Weapons range from backfilling mine shafts to cutting off the oxygen supply with a new foam-like grout that's squirted into mine shafts like shaving cream and then expands to sniff out the fire.

Most are simply left alone to burn until they eventually exhaust their fuel supply. [Emphasis added]

Simply amazing. A fire over an area 3000 miles by 450 miles, underground, obviously poses a staggering fire-fighting problem. But ignoring it gets us nowhere. The emissions of CO2 and other pollutants make these fires a global problem. Fighting them needs to be an international priority.

Posted by Jonathan at February 5, 2006 02:19 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


The conservative's skepticism is appealing to me for this reason. How can you argue that 100 years of industrial emmisions contribute in any way to global warming in comparrison with millions of years of gargantuan subterranian coal fires? See DeFranco's quote below.

Reducing emissions is nice for clean breathing nonetheless.

Posted by: throwaway at February 6, 2006 09:56 AM

I'm no expert, but poking around on the web (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mine_fire and http://www.gi.alaska.edu/~prakash/coalfires/introduction.html) it looks like most of the fires are the result of coal-mining and related human activity. I.e., they haven't been going on for millions of years at anything like the scale they're happening at currently: they're a side-effect of the world's voracious appetite for energy.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 6, 2006 01:16 PM


Posted by: throwaway at February 6, 2006 05:14 PM