Monday, 16 June 2014

Nature’s sport and the Burning Mountain

Figure 1. Newspaper excerpt from 1828 announcing an active volcano in Australia.
Thanks to his knowledge in geology and an investigation of the site, Reverend Charles Wilton ended the rumors of an active volcano in Australia (Fig. 1). In 1829, Rev. Wilton visited Mount Wingen in New South Wales, Australia, and pronounced the phenomenon to be unique, "one other example of nature’s sports", a fire that had been burning for a very long time, "far preceding the memory of man". Indeed, wingen is the word for fire in the aboriginal language of the local Wonaruah tribe.

Mount Wingen, 530 m above sea level, is the highest of two contiguous hills in the Upper Hunter Valley. It is located 25 km North of Scone via the New England Highway and approximately 4 hr drive from Sydney. Its official name is the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve, and I had the pleasure of visiting it in early February 2014 (Fig. 2). The visit fulfilled one of my most desired field trips. I was attending the 11th International Symposium on Fire Safety Science in New Zealand, and I could not forgive myself from a quick stop over to see the Burning Mountain.

Figure 2. Entry to the Nature Reserve of The Burning Mountain, including my symposium bag.

The nature's sport that Rev. Wilton was referring to is the smouldering combustion of a coal seam. The Burning Mountain is the best example of this natural phenomenon that slowly burns the underground coal when it becomes exposed to atmospheric air.  Smouldering is the slow, low-temperature, flameless burning that represents the most persistent type of combustion phenomena and leads to the largest and longest burning fires on Earth. This Australian coal seam started to burn more than 6,000 years ago, some scientists think more than 500,000 years ago. At least the British cannot be blame for it.

The fire is burning now about 30 m below ground. At a rate of 1 m per year, the fire has reached the top of the hill (shown in Figure 3). Because of the creeping spread rate, the slow and intense heat has created a landscape clear of any vegetation in an area 50 m around the hill top. The soil shows a beautiful colour palette of white sinter, yellow sulphate, black char and red iron oxide. Where the fire and heat has not reached yet, a healthy green forest of mature and tall trees can be seen on brown soil. Along the former trail of the fire path, the forest grows back slowly, and young and smaller trees can be seen on red soil. Once at the hilltop, it is easy to feel the hot combustion gases and the smell of sulfur released from multiple deep cracks. The site is surrounded by cracks, some are up to 0.5 m wide, which are more visible ahead of the fire than behind it. Further from the active site by about 20 m, the cracks do not emit gases which to me indicates that the airflow direction is into the seam, feeding the fire with vital oxygen.

Figure 3. The fire has now reached the top of the second hill, where the soil is also a multicolor palette of white sinter, yellow sulphate, black char and red iron oxide.
Some of the most interesting observations that the visitor can do are visually inspections of the trail the fire has left in the area as it has spread for centuries. The entry to the walking track is from the New England Highway, about 1km North of the current fire location (Fig 4). As the visitor walks in from the parking lot, the track goes up to the tallest of the two contiguous hills. Near the hill top, the visitor meets the first clear signs of the fire trail, and then the track follows it chronologically. The fire was burning below the hill top circa 1500s (my estimate). One can see a clear change to less dense vegetation, soil of a strong red colour and more large rocks on the ground. Then, the track goes down a few dozen meters to the saddle point between the two hills and then up to the current fire site. This saddle point is close to where the fire was when it was reported first and confused for a volcano in 1828. I think that the lower ground elevation at the saddle point means the distance between the free surface and the burning seam was at a minimum. Hence, I infer than the much increased air supply contributed to the ferocity of the burning and the plume of smoke ought to have been majestic. The depth to the seam might have been short enough that the coal walls could be seen glowing red. Lava they thought?. This would be nothing compared to the faint hot gases released now that the fire is again at a hill top and more than 30 m deep.

Fig 4. Google maps of the reserve showing the approximate track and the current location of the fire at the top of the second hill.

 An interesting observation that I could make during my visit is that after the hilltop, the forward path of the fire, just 20 m away, is on a very steep fall of 100 m down to the bed of a small river. If the coal seam is running just under the river, the fire could reach again massive proportions as in 1828. Or it could be that the coal seam does not continue after the hill top, and that the fire will naturally extinguish itself within my lifetime after more than 6,000 years burning. Either way, what a lucky historical coincidence for me to witness it happening. I will not miss another visit in the next decade.

The Burning Mountain is just one example. Thousands of underground coalmine fires have been identified around the world, especially in China, India and USA. Elusive, unpredictable and costly, coal fires burn indefinitely while there is fuel, choking the life out of a community and the environment while consuming a valuable energy resource. The associated financial costs run into millions of dollars including the loss of coal, closure of coal mines, damage to the environment and fire-fighting efforts. There are other well-documented cases like when in 1962 an abandoned mine pit in Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA was accidentally lit. Many unsuccessful attempts were made to extinguish it, letting the fire continue to burn until today after more than forty years. Geologist estimate that there is fuel for 250 years more of fire.

Recommended reading (and viewing) on smoldering fires:
  • Abbott, W.E., 1918. Mt. Wingen and the Wingen Coal Measures. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
  • Mayer, W. , 2009, Geological observations by the Reverend Charles P. N. Wilton (1795 -1859) in New South Wales and his views on the relationship between religion and science, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 310, p197-209. http://dx.doi.og/10.1144/SP310.20
  • Smouldering, Wikipedia,
  • Smouldering Fires and Natural Fuels, by Guillermo Rein, Chapter 2 in:
    Fire Phenomena in the Earth System – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Fire Science, pp. 15–34, Wiley and Sons, 2013.
  • Stracher, G.B., Prakash, A. & Sokol, E.V. (eds) (2010) Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective, 1st edn; vol. 1: Coal – Geology and Combustion. Elsevier Science
  • Pennsylvania's 50-Year-Old Coal Fire by SciShow.

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