by Tas Walker
South-East Australia’s Latrobe Valley has some extremely thick deposits of brown coal which are mined to fuel several huge power stations. One bucket-wheel excavator removes the relatively thin overburden and exposes the coal seam. Another excavator digs the coal and drops it onto a moving conveyor belt for the power-station boilers.1
The machines are immense, towering over the people who work on them. Indeed, a person could easily disappear inside one of the many buckets. Each excavator can dig up to 60,000 tonnes of coal each day.1 Yet the coal seams are so thick that they dwarf these massive excavators, which must traverse the seam several times before the coal is completely removed.
Huge coal basin
The coal seams occur within thick layers of clay, sand and basaltic lava, which together form a 700-metre (2,300-foot) sequence of rocks, known as the Latrobe Valley Coal Measures.2 These lie in a large, deep depression, called a ‘basin’, shaped like a triangle 300 km (190 miles) long and 300 km (190 miles) wide (see diagram below). Most of the basin lies under the ocean off the southern coast of Australia. Offshore the coal measures are estimated to be almost 5 km (3 miles) thick.
Latrobe Valley coal consists of a mass of very fine plant debris containing partly-decomposed plant remains.1 It is clear that a great quantity of plant material accumulated in the past to produce such huge deposits of coal.
How did the coal get there?
How would such a great amount of vegetation collect together in one place? No-one alive today has ever observed such a process. All scientists can do is to invent plausible explanations based on what they think may have happened….
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