Underground coal fires around the world, an environmental problem

Photo courtesy of ibeginz at Flickr.com.

Did you know that there are hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of underground coal fires burning out of control? These fires can occur naturally, but most of them are caused by mining activity or industrial accidents near coal seams. These coal fires can cause dangerous subsidence, air pollution, and poisoning of the water table, all while consuming a valuable natural resource.

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.

Photo courtesy of njbruder at Flickr.com.

Underground coal fires are extremely difficult to put out once they start burning. They burn so hot that even pouring water on them will feed the flames (at extreme temperatures, water breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen gas). Coal is inherently unstable and will self ignite – that means that old abandoned mines are time bombs waiting to go off and all the tunnels act as a ventilation system!

Photo courtesy of radialmonster at Flickr.com.

Uncontrolled coal fires are a worldwide problem and they produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas:

Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn [in China] each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth… India, where large scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them.

Underground coal fires happen in the US too – check out this video about Pennsylvania coal mining. In Centralia, PA, underground fires have been burning since the 60’s! If you can come up with a way to put these fires out, I suspect that the MacArthur Foundation will come and knock down your door!