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Geologic history of natural coal-bed fires, Powder River basin, USA

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Serial:

International Journal of Coal Geology, issue 1-2, volume 59

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Subjects:

Health safety and environment(19%), Geochemistry(16%)


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Abstract

Coal-bed fires ignited by natural processes have baked and fused overlying sediments to form clinker, a hard red or varicolored rock, through much of the northern Great Plains of the United States (USA). The gently dipping coal beds in the region burn when regional downwasting brings them above the local water table. The resulting clinker forms a rim along the exposed edge of the coal bed in an ongoing process through geologic time. The resistant clinker is left capping buttes and ridges after the softer unbaked strata erode away. Clinker outcrops cover more than 4100 km2 in the Powder River basin (PRB), which lies in Wyoming (WY) and Montana (MT). The clinker in place records tens of billions of tons of coal that have burned, releasing gases into the atmosphere. The amount of clinker that has eroded away was at least an order of magnitude greater than the clinker that remains in place. Fission-track and uranium–thorium/helium ages of detrital zircon crystals in clinker, and paleomagnetic ages of clinker, show that coal beds have burned naturally during at least the past 4 million years (Ma). The oldest in-place clinker that has been dated, collected from a high, isolated, clinker-capped ridge, has a fission track age of 2.8±0.6 Ma. Evidence of erosion and downcutting is also preserved by clinker clasts in gravel terraces. One clinker boulder in a terrace 360 m above the Yellowstone River has a fission track age of 4.0±0.7 Ma. Coal-bed fires are caused by lightning, wildfires, spontaneous combustion, or human activity on coal outcrops and in mines. Miners, government agencies, and ranchers have extinguished thousands of coal bed fires, but natural ignition continues where fresh coal has access to air. At any given time, hundreds of fires, mostly small, are burning. In the Powder River basin, the total amount of coal burned by natural fires in the last 2 Ma is one to two orders of magnitude greater than the total amount of coal removed by mining in the past century. However, current annual rates of coal mining are three to four orders of magnitude greater than estimated prehistoric annual rates of coal consumption by natural fires.

12th Jul 2004

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