Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Deadly Coal Fires That Threaten the Globe

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Deadly Coal Fires That Threaten the Globe

Article excerpt

Winter comes swiftly to China's far west, and the firefighters of Xinjiang are striking camp. For eight months a year, before snow and ice make their work impossible, they battle a deadly menace--raging coal fires, which throw up as much greenhouse gas as all the cars and trucks in the US.


At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, starting on 3 December, China's reliance on coal will come under closer examination than ever before. Yet few other than specialists realise that (according to the Netherlands Earth Observation Network), China's coal fires produce between 1 and 3 per cent of global carbon emissions.

China is blessed--or cursed--with abundant coal reserves. Rich seams run for 3,000 miles from the border with Kazakhstan to the East China Sea. Under the right conditions, coal ignites spontaneously, and fires burn downwards, acquiring oxygen through fissures in the rock and tiny spaces in the earth. Some fires have been blazing for centuries; Marco Polo wrote of "burning mountains along the Silk Road".

In shallow fires, flames lick up from caverns and smoke rises from vents. But others burn unseen far below, sometimes reaching temperatures of 1,000[degrees]C, travelling several metres a month and consuming millions of tonnes of coal.

The firefighters manoeuvre bulldozers over the burning surface coals, billowing dust mingling with smoke in a haze of methane, sulphur and other toxic gases, the temperature in the cab rising to 50[degrees]C in summer. Men in flimsy masks pump water to cool the ground, injecting mud and slurry down cracks in the rock to block the oxygen that feeds the fires. They cover the ground with soil, and measure the underground temperature through a tube until it has cooled to 70[degrees]C, when the fire can be deemed extinguished.

"The Chinese government is under pressure to reduce emissions, so we firefighters are also under pressure to speed up our work," said Cao Jianwen, a geologist with the Xinjiang Coal Fire Administration. In the past, the emphasis was on the pollutants produced, the hazards to people who lived in the vicinity and the wasted coal reserves, but now, with climate change in mind, the whole world is watching.

In Beijing, 1,500 miles away, Professor Li Jing stared at his computer screen, in effect looking down on the fires from on high. He is involved in a Sino-German project using remote sensing from satellites and aircraft to pinpoint coal fires. "When coal burns underground, the temperature rises on the surface. …

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