Why is coal seen as an environmental disaster

The smoldering environmental disaster

When John van Genderen took the train through the central Chinese province of Shaanxi in 1987, the geoscientist did not yet know that he was about to uncover a creeping environmental disaster. At that time, however, the world did not yet take notice of China's economic development and the country was almost uninteresting for daily reporting.

Nevertheless, the trip will bring valuable new knowledge - and van Genderen's home institute, the Dutch Institute for Geoinformation and Earth Observation (ITC), a new research topic for several years.


Coal fire mining risk

During his trip, the geoscientist discovers an extensive fire on a mountain slope, several kilometers wide and apparently unnoticed by the Chinese themselves. A Chinese colleague who is traveling with him explains to van Genderen: It was a coal fire, nothing special, according to the Chinese professor, “against it we are powerless ”.

Van Genderen learns that coal fires are part of mining in China. In many places in the mining areas of the north, the seams are only a few meters underground. Here steam and combustion gases rise from crevices in the earth, in some places the glowing coal can be seen directly on the surface. Even roads are unsafe because they melt from below or the ground is burned out and voids are formed. Road construction teams that knock down slopes at risk of collapsing and, under certain circumstances, bring them to collapse themselves, are part of everyday life in China's coal mining regions.

Little knowledge - great damage

Until the Dutch researcher's visit to China, the phenomenon of underground coal seam fires was almost unnoticed by Western science, although it existed worldwide. Van Genderen, magically attracted by the glowing subsoil, and his Chinese colleagues count over one hundred fires, each several hectares in size, on China's northern border alone. The seam fires reach up to several hundred meters into the earth, and it is not uncommon for them to extend over a length of up to 20 kilometers.

And it gives the impetus to investigate the fires more closely. Because we know next to nothing about how it spreads. The ITC in Enschede, the Netherlands, is now one of the most renowned research institutes dealing with the phenomenon.

Today the researchers at the ITC assume that in China alone, which produces almost one billion tons of coal annually, around 20 to 30 million tons of coal are burned annually by such uncontrolled fires and that around 90 to 300 million tons are unusable for mining. By way of comparison - around 25 million tons of coal are mined every year across Germany.

Research project for climate protection

Germany is now also involved in research into the seam fires in China. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been funding a German-Chinese research initiative to investigate the coal fires in North China since 2003 - as a contribution to climate protection. Because when coal is burned, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides are produced in huge quantities.

Status: 06/13/2008

June 13, 2008