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Mountains in Central Appalachia Flatter Post-Mining

Feb 05, 2016 02:17 PM EST
mountaintop mining images from West Virginia
These two maps allow us to compare the elevation of West Virginia's Mud River watershed pre- and post-mountaintop mining. It has only become widespread since 2010.
(Photo : Photo courtesy of Matthew Ross, Duke University)

Mining has not only moved mountains; it has made them flatter.

That's according to a new study from Duke University, which looked at data from 40 years of mountaintop coal mining in Central Appalachia. The research concluded that those mountain areas are now 60 percent more flat than they were before the excavation work.

In the research, scientists looked at topographic data of southern West Virginia sites from before and after the mining. In part, they were examining how such mines can affect water quality.
"[We found] the impact is deep and extensive," Matthew Ross at Duke said in a release. "It is locally large and more wide-ranging than other forms of mining."

For such mining on mountaintops, bedrock is blasted with explosives to reveal seams of coal beneath the surface. The leftover rock goes to nearby valleys and results in what are known as valley fills.

The team was looking at digital versions of topographic maps from a time before mining became extensive on mountaintops, collected by plane in 2010. They learned that, post-mining, the land's slope decreased by more than 10 degrees.

"We tend to measure the impact of human activity based on the area it affects on a map, but mountaintop mining is penetrating much more deeply into the earth than other land use in the region like forestry, agriculture or urbanization," Emily Bernhardt, a biology professor at Duke and study co-author, said in the release. "The depth of these impacts is changing the way the geology, water, and vegetation interact in fundamental ways that are likely to persist far longer than other forms of land use."

The impacts may be long-lasting and should affect planning for the land use, say the researchers. "We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years," Ross noted in the release. "Once you have these flat plateaus, it sets up a whole new erosion machine and a whole new way that the landscape will be shaped into the future."

The study findings were recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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