SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining work exposes threats to endangered species
As geospatial engineer Christian Thomas continues to track mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, his data adds to scientific understanding of the many impacts of this destructive practice.
SkyTruth has been monitoring the spread of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia for years, sharing this information with researchers, conservation groups, and others to analyze and expose its true impacts. In mountaintop mining, coal seams are accessed by clearing overlying forest and then using machinery and explosives to remove soil and bedrock. The leftover rock is then deposited into headwater stream valleys. It feels intuitive that this habitat destruction would harm local communities and wildlife. The video below, produced by Google, shows how local residents are using satellite imagery and SkyTruth data to monitor water quality and the impacts on their community. Now, working in conjunction with our partners at Defenders of Wildlife’s Center for Conservation Innovation, Christian has been able to help document just how severely mountaintop mining harms imperiled and endangered species.
This new research with Defenders, published this November in the peer reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE, used two large, public datasets to quantify the relationship between mountaintop removal mining and water quality measures important to the survival of imperiled species across the Central Appalachian landscape. The analysis combined SkyTruth’s annual map of the extent of surface mines in Central Appalachia from 1985 through 2015 (generated from Landsat satellite imagery), with water quality data collected over the same time period from 4,260 monitoring stations. The data shows that chronic and acute threshold levels for aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, conductivity, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, pH, selenium, and zinc that are safe for aquatic life were exceeded thousands of times in streams that are important to the survival and recovery of endangered species. Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, yet 50 aquatic species are listed as threatened or endangered on the federal Endangered Species Act. Many species – particularly those in local waterways – are found nowhere else on Earth.
You can read the study here.
SkyTruth is now analyzing whether, and how quickly, mined lands recover from years of intensive extraction. But we will continue to monitor the spread of mining in Central Appalachia (which persists, even with coal’s slow demise), to help protect these unique and vulnerable ecosystems. The most recent data (for the year 2020) will be available December 7, 2021 here.