Underground Coal Fires

Over this past summer, Russia experienced a series of wildfires.  The first one broke out in July 29th; the last was extinguished on September 2nd.  In total, fires burned for over a month, by most standards an extremely long time.

Compared to some infernos in China, however, a month-plus is pedestrian at best.   There, underground coal fires have been raging since 1962 — approaching forty years.

Nearly three quarters of China’s energy comes from coal, making mining of the resource a particularly important industry there.  China produces 2.5 billion tons of coal each year, and when it closes mines, mistakes can happen.  Coal dust can ignite at relatively low temperatures (as low as 104 degrees Fahrenheit), so sometimes, the fires start naturally when coal dust is allowed to vent to the surface.  Others start more nefariously, when coal mines are sealed using explosives (igniting coal within the mine) or, as discussed in the bonus fact below, other activities near the mine involve controlled, above-ground fires which get out of hand.  In any event, the coal fires are more than mere inconveniences.  Underground coal fires end up venting to the surface, pollute the surrounding air, causing often overwhelming odors, and making it hot enough at the surface to cook a potato over a vent.

How rampant are China’s coal fires?  By one estimate, the fires consume 20 million tons of coal each year, wasting roughly the amount of coal used by Germany each year.  The coal fires cover an area over 3,000 miles long, a distance greater than that between New York and Los Angeles.  And the environmental damage is significant:  some Dutch researchers informally estimate that 2 to 3% of the world’s fossil fuel-based carbon emissions come from the Chinese underground coal fires.

A brief video with some imagery of the coal fires can be seen here.


Bonus fact:  Underground coal fires are not unique to China — in fact, they exist on six continents, all except Antarctica.  The town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, also has an underground coal fire which has been burning since the early 1960s.   It mostly started when a nearby landfill fire was not properly extinguished, and a small mistake lead to the downfall of the town.  In 1981, Centralia’s population was roughly 1,000.  Today, only seven people live there.

From the Archives: Building, Apart: Another byproduct of Chinese expansion.

Related: “Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire” by David DeKok. Five stars on eight reviews. Available on Kindle.