Mountaintop coal mining is a major cause of land cover changes in the central Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. The landscape disturbance mountaintop mining causes is different from others (such as forestry, urbanization, or agriculture) in that it can extend deeply into the ground, disturbing even the bedrock. Landsat imagery from the 1970s has catalogued the changes.
These false color images show the natural landscape of the area: forested mountains are bright green, and numerous streams and valleys give the land a wrinkled appearance. Mining areas are pink, and reclaimed mining land is usually light green.
The reason for the large-scale change caused by this type of mining is that one ton of coal is extracted for every 16 tons of terrain displaced. In the mountainous Appalachian landscape, the displaced material ends up in river valleys. More than just the look of the landscape changes—the drainage network itself is altered.
First mined in the 19th century, low-sulfur Appalachian coal can be extracted relatively cost-effectively by the mountaintop removal process. This method allows almost all of the coal in a seam to be removed. Understanding the hydrologic changes brought on by this mining practice is key to the future of the communities in the region.
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