4 July 2012

Plane views: Powder River Basin and Black Hills

Posted by Callan Bentley

Happy fourth of July! Here’s two scenes that are emblematic of America, as seen from my airplane window last March flying from Reno to Minneapolis.

Here’s the scene in the central Powder River Basin of eastern Wyoming:

If you zoom in, you’ll see what caught my eye – regular rectangular excavations into the surface. These are strip mining operations for coal laid down in the Paleogene period of geologic time. The coal is sub-bituminous in grade, but it is copious in quantity and low in sulfur, so it is economically viable to mine. This is approximately the location of the Black Thunder Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the world. It alone is responsible for about 8% of U.S. coal production. Much of this coal gets immediately loaded onto a round-the-clock coal train that runs down to Georgia, where it is combusted to provide Atlanta with electricity. This saga is well documented in John McPhee’s 2005 essay “Coal Train” in the New Yorker (Part I, Part II): highly recommended reading that was later included in his book Uncommon Carriers.

The mines have a geometry that is distinct from the naturally-occurring filigrees of dendritic drainages that otherwise decorate this sere land:

Shortly after spotting the Black Thunder Mine, our plain drifted over one final Laramide uplift, a dark oval on the Plains landscape:

That would be the Black Hills, straddling sidesaddle the Wyoming / South Dakota border. Somewhere down there in the “black” (pine trees) is Mount Rushmore, but I couldn’t find it from the plane.

Big coal and big presidents on the side of a mountain – American reality and American ideals. Food for thought on Independence Day.