Zooming in on Mountaintop Mining

If you want to get a sense of the scale of mountaintop mining (MTM), look no further than Google Maps. After spending the better part of a day going through satellite images pixel by pixel to train the lab computer to recognize a mountaintop mine, I was curious to see if I could visualize the impact of MTM from the comfort of my living room using Google Maps. Dinner baking in the oven, I embarked on my virtual exploration of Appalachia. With the frame still wide enough to see the state lines of North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland, bald patches dotting southern West Virginia looked like a marble countertop.


As I zoomed in further on individual mines, I got the eerie sense that I was breaking some sort of rule: that images showing this kind of destruction were supposed to be hidden away, far from public view.

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Scrolling above one particularly dark patch, I was surprised to find an upside down map of the United States staring back at me from the corner of my screen. I realized, after several moments of pure confusion, that what I was looking at was part of an elementary school playground. Sure enough, when I scrolled to the left, I saw a jungle gym and swing set not even a tenth of a mile away from a coal silo, likely containing coal waste with high levels of toxic heavy metals. My mind was flooded with scenes of coughing children being sent home after playing outside in the coal dust.

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After a week of wading through studies about extirpation conductivity and EPT richness, this discovery served as a stark reminder of the greater context in which our science is conducted. While I can’t wait to dive into the world of academic research, I want to stay grounded with an awareness that mountaintop mining is a human issue as well as an environmental one.