The Fire Down Below

Jennifer Elick (center) at work in the classroom.

Imagine a town where the ground is sinking, the roads are cracked, trees and plants have dried up, and poisonous gases leak from below. For the nine residents who remain in Centralia, Pa., site of one of the worst mine fires in U.S. history, this is a reality. For Susquehanna scientists, the site contains a treasure trove of research opportunities.

Their research caught the attention of German filmmakers who produced a documentary that aired earlier this year on ZDF television, Germany’s national public television channel. Amid filming, Jennifer Elick, associate professor of geology and environmental science, was invited to accompany the film crew as they flew over the Centralia mine fire. Using a thermal infrared aerial camera, Elick captured images of where heat was released from the fire. By combining these images with other materials from the Department of Environmental Protection library in Harrisburg, she developed a map that shows the spread of the fire from its outbreak in 1962 to the present.

Before now, infrared images were collected periodically by the government but never compiled into a map of the entire region, Elick says. Her map is pivotal for research at Centralia because it will help scientists understand the rate of the fire’s spread and the direction in which it will continue. It will help them to better determine how long the fire will burn and may also help scientists understand how the ecosystem will reestablish itself once the fire has passed through the region, Elick says.

Her map also initiates new lines of research that will have global impact, as the information garnered from Centralia can be used to understand underground mine fires that plague countries such as China and India, where mine fires are most numerous and concentrated.

Elick presented her research at the national Geological Society of America meeting in October and plans to submit two manuscripts for publication in Pennsylvania Geology and The Journal of Coal Geology.

The contributing writer for People & Places is Julie Buckingham '09.


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