New Map Chronicles Three Decades of Surface Mining in Central Appalachia – by Jason Daley (Smithsonian Magazine – August 1, 2018)

Coal mining in Appalachia may bring to mind the archetypal soot-covered miner working deep underground. But in the last 30 years, a big percentage of coal mining has been done under the sun. Surface mining and a technique dubbed “mountaintop removal” have been controversial from the start for their use of explosives and heavy equipment to dig through soil and bedrock to get at coal seams from above.

Yet information about where and how much of this mining has taken place has been hard to come by. Now, reports Yessenia Funes at Earther, researchers have created a new mapping tool to quantify the impacts of surface mining in Appalachia.

Researchers from Duke University and the environmental nonprofits SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices used new web-based mapping tools and Landsat satellite imagery to study land use in the Appalachian coal belt over the last 31 years. They found that since the 1970s, surface mining has impacted 7.1 percent of central Appalachia. The research appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

To create their model, they focused on 74 counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. They then analysed more than 10,000 satellite images taken of both visible and invisible light in these counties over the last three decades with a computer algorithm.

It assessed each pixel to determine the “greenness” of each 100-square-foot by 100-square-foot section of the images. The algorithm was capable of identifying any area that was not a road or city and appeared devoid of vegetation as a potential mining site, with about 83 percent accuracy.

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