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Pennsylvania town coal mine has been on fire since 1962 (wikipedia.org)
60 points by fireball_blaze 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments

I'll always remember Centralia fondly as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of my childhood. Before the state was forced to close off the section of Route 61 that later became known as the "Graffiti Highway," you were likely to encounter abrupt drops and ridges in the pavement as you drove through, the result of subsidence caused by the fires burning through the coal veins below. You were also treated to the sight of smoke wafting up from fissures in the ground, and sometimes even flames.

I took my girlfriend for a visit 7 or 8 years ago. At that point the town had been almost completely razed. Without explanation to an uninitiated viewer, curbs and fire hydrants bizarrely poked out from a field of weeds that had grown over much of the town's streets, the houses behind them long bulldozed and abandoned. The strangest thing to me, though, was the juxtaposition of the newly-constructed Locust Ridge Wind Farm high on a neighboring mountain, its enormous windmills plainly visible from the rubble on the hill in town, all offering a stark and beautiful reminder that even after the apocalypse things can get better.

See also Brennender Berg[0], which has been burning since 1662.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brennender_Berg

I wonder if this type of phenomena is the origin of the dragon under mountain type of myth. E.g. Tolkien's Smaug

Or hell

There are nuclear reactors that have been around a while too. Don't know if they've been going the entire 1.8 billion years though:


IIRC, this could not happen today, as the concentration of U235 in natural uranium has decreased (by decay) to the point where there's not enough for a chain reaction to be sustained with any naturally-occurring moderator.

Some of the mined uranium was found to have a lower concentration of uranium-235 than expected, as if it had already been in a reactor. When geologists investigated they also found products typical of a reactor. They concluded that the deposit had been in a reactor: a natural nuclear fission reactor, around 1.8 to 1.7 billion years BP – in the Paleoproterozoic Era during Precambrian times. At that time the natural uranium had a concentration of about 3% 235U, and could have reached criticality with natural water as neutron moderator allowed by the special geometry of the deposit.

It sputtered on and off for hundreds of thousands of years:


Wow, I assumed the GP was talking about stars

Ha, didn't think of that. There's a fusion reactor we all see every day.

20 years ago or so we would drive through the area and smell it. We went back there about 5 years ago and wandered around the graffiti highway with the family. It was an interesting experience. You just pulled along basically an old road and wandered around some abandoned graffiti'd up roads and woods. It didn't really smell like before.

There were still homes on the edges, which I was surprised to see. Good to read the article to understand why they were still there. I imagine they're happy that the 'attraction' has been shut down.

In the 80s and 90s many row homes in Centralia had ad hock supports keeping them standing upright- their next-door neighbors had already been evacuated and demolished due to subsidence from the fire depleting coal veins below. It was impressive. Besides the smoke and odor, on the outskirts of town you could sometimes see fire coming up out of the ground.

What exactly is burning at this point? I would suspect there is little oxygen left down there. Is it some other form of chemical reaction? They can't just dump boatloads of water to douse the flames? There appears to be enough water for things like fracking, we can't do the same here?

The scope of the problem is huge. Oxygen can enter from a highly elaborate network of abandoned mines and boreholes that stretch for miles, as well as any number of surface fissures. As far as the coal component, keep in mind that this region has the highest concentration of anthracite in the world.

If there's smoke coming out, wouldn't it mean that there's a route for oxygen to get in?

If that's the only route in, then no. Because most of that is expelled gasses due to heat, there's no way that oxygen could go in if the gasses and smoke were being driven out by the fire.

Is t burning hot enough that the heat could be harnessed like geothermal energy?

I wonder what the effect on the plant life around it is like Doesn't seem like there is anything in the wikipedia about CO2 ppm

From my wandering around the ruins, the plant life looked the same as the rest of the area. My hunch is that the difference from the CO2 is smaller than if the plants were being actively fertilized, for example.

Compared to the damage done to the ground and surface water in that area due to mining, probably little-to-none. The fire is burning slowly, if indefinitely, and anthracite coal is relatively clean-burning.

I was thinking it would be beneficial to have an abundance of co2

Gotcha. Given how ecologically screwed up that area is, it seems like it'd be tough to separate that effect. We can at least hope for a silver lining.

Here is the Wikipedia article about coal seam fires, apparently there are over 1000 active fires. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal-seam_fire

Anecdote: I went there two months ago with a shovel, and couldn’t find any burning sites.

Why not just put it out?

Presumably it's burning hot enough and with enough fuel that putting it out is difficult using conventional methods (ie cooling). You see a similar problem with field fires or battery fires. That being said, in this case, I'm surprised you couldn't say its supply of oxygen, unless I missed something in the article?

Depriving it of oxygen and cooling run into the same issue, namely after burning this long heat has penetrated deep into the surroundings. To the point where it likely takes years to cool off.

If that's even possible, it would be extremely expensive to do so. To make things more complicated politically, the problem is very localized and the town has already been abandoned. But hopefully, at some point we'll have the technology to do this, because otherwise it's hard not to imagine the fire will continue to burn forever.

The linked article describes multiple attempts to do just that. However, it's pretty difficult (if not impossible) to do.

Should be an easy way to reduce carbon emissions at least.

Not exactly news then, is it?

I'm not sure I follow, but is that questioning whether it's on-topic for HN? If so, worth a quick recheck of the guidelines.

I personally found the wiki article interesting from beginning to end.

this is my first time hearing of it. only other thing similar I'm familiar with is the Springfield tire fire on The Simpsons, and I always thought that was hyperbole, until now.

Non-AMP version for anyone who wants it:


If you're ever in the area, it's worth driving over and walking around. It's a bizarre place.

News != something being interesting

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