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The Explosive Growth of the World's Largest Coal Mine

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin has seen tremendous development in the last few decades.

If you ever pass by one of the roughly 600 coal-firing power plants in the U.S. and wonder, Where are they getting that stuff?—there’s a good chance some of it came from the ground in Wyoming, which provides 40 percent of the country’s total coal production.

In fact, two of the biggest coal mines in existence are found in the state’s Powder River Basin: Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle complex, the largest coal mine on the planet, and the Black Thunder Mine, the “first coal mine in the world to ship 1 billion tons,” according to its owner, Arch Coal.

Given their prodigious output, you’d think these facilities have been around forever. But as seen in this comparison of satellite images, they went from virtually nothing to landscape-devouring behemoths in a span of three decades. First, here’s the Powder River Basin in June 1984:

USGS/Landsat 5

And this is the same region in June 2016:

USGS/Landsat 8

Despite their immensity, these particular mines are not expected to last (though not for the reasons climate activists might hope). NASA, which recently highlighted the above images, writes:

Together, they produced 22 percent of the U.S. coal supply in 2014. These images show the landscape’s change from predominantly agricultural use to open-pit mining. USGS officials estimate that these mines have less than 20 years of economically recoverable coal remaining, after which the companies will be required to reclaim the land.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.