Untold billions of dollars have been spent on reducing the CO2 emissions of cars and trucks, with government and private programs researching everything from hydrogen to hybrids. The issue has gotten plenty of attention. People are encouraged to carpool, to buy lightweight and efficient cars and avoid unnecessary driving. Environmental organizations sneer at SUV’s and low carbon fuels like ethanol are being subsidized and produced in vast quantities. There’s no doubt that much effort has gone into trying to address the problem.
But what if there were another source of CO2 which worldwide produced far more CO2 than all the cars and light trucks in North America combined and more than the power generation of most of Europe? What if there were a source of vast amounts of CO2 which did not even have any benefit or produce any usable energy? Something which nobody would ever miss?
There is. And it gets a lot less attention that you might think.
That source is underground coal fires. These uncontrolled fires occur when an underground coal seem with sufficiently porous and fractured material is ignited. Sometimes they are naturally occurring, but more often they are the result of human activity. In areas which have been mined for coal they burn far worse than most natural formations, due to the tunneling which allows in ample oxygen. These fires can burn for decades, centuries or more and not only produce massive amounts of CO2, but also sulfur dioxides, toxic runoff and untold local environmental damage.
Hundreds of these fires burn worldwide, with China having the most of any country, largely due to the dependence on coal for power generation and the inadequate controls on mining methods. In the US, dozens of coal fires burn in Pennsylvania alone. Other states have their share as well. These fires smolder and occasionally flare up to the surface. They poison water tables, kill forests and create dangerous sink holes. The smoke and gasses from such fires can sometimes be seen billowing from openings or seeping from the ground. In Australia, one coal fire, thought to have been caused by lightning, has been burning for six thousand years.
The best known example example is Centralia Pennsylvania. This small coal mining community’s problems began in 1962 when a a fire in the garbage dump spread to the opening of an abandoned coal mine. Early attempts to control the fire failed and before long it had spread deep into the coal seem. From then on, the town faced increasing problems from the fire. Trees died, homes had to be reinforced to prevent them from caving into the unstable burned-out ground. Carbon Monoxide detectors and ventilation systems were installed as gases seeped into basements. The fires caused dangerous sinkholes and unstable ground and created concerns about health problems.
By the 1980’s the town was nearly in ruins and a decision was made by the federal government to buy the properties and relocate residents. Today Centralia is a ghost town. Less than ten full time residents stubbornly remain in the area and the only visitors are a few families who return to the cemetery and the occasional curious explorer.
The problem with such fires is that conventional methods do not work in extinguishing them. The only established method of dealing with underground fires is to dig them out and pour water on the burning material. This is only of use in the smallest blazes. Thus, as in Centralia, the lack of state funding and the federal governments decision to simply write off the town has left the fires burning. There are, however, methods which have been developed or proposed for fighting such fires. Some include cutting off oxygen to the fires by sealing off openings and paving over porous ground. Fissures and crevices could also be targeted by filling them with grout or cement or injecting large amounts of slurry. Extinguishing the flames by methods other than water is also a proposed option. High pressure steam or gases like CO2 could displace oxygen and have been used before in fighting fires. Other methods involve dividing and isolating burning areas by creating underground firebreaks or creating controlled, encapsulated fires to starve the main blaze of oxygen.
Given the severity of the problem, one might think that such possible solutions are actively being perused, but in reality, few resources have been allocated to such attempts to combat underground fires. And so while obvious sources of CO2 like cars and power generation receive most of the attention and efforts to reduce emissions, a less noticable but equally severe source of CO2 burns unchecked in locations around the world. If techniques could be established that could combat these fires effectively, it could be like taking millions of cars and trucks off the road.
Coal Fires From Encyclopedia of Earth
BBC: Coal fires are ‘global catastrophe’
Smithsonian: Fire in a Hole
Wikipedia: Mine Fires
Exploring Centralia From Offroaders
The Smoldering Ruins of Centralia
Official History of Centralia Page
Underground Coal Fires a Culprit in Global Warming
Info on Mine Fires
China’s Coal Fires Emit as Much CO2 As US Cars and Trucks
BBC: China’s Dependence on Coal
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 27th, 2007 at 11:45 am and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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