creative support for environmental organisations

The Longest Burn

In a recent research piece for the Australian National University, we have been learning about the Global Energy Transition away from Coal.

Unless you are from England circa 1841, a naughty child at Christmas or into South African braai, you may never have considered the burning efficiency of coal. 

Coal is made up of old plants that have fallen to the ground and turned into peat, mud, rock and eventually a light weight honeycomb-like lump of carbon. Coal is mostly burnt for heat and energy, and today it provides 30% of the world's primary energy. Burning coal also contributes 45% of the earth’s energy-related CO2 emissions, and releases sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and mercury into the atmosphere. It is for this reason that the coal industry is being put into retirement.

Still, if you are living in Sydney there are a few places that you might go to see coal burning. You could attend a Korean BBQ restaurant, drive by one of 24 coal-fired power plants that keep 73% of Australia lit, or visit a remarkable natural and fascinating place called Mount Wingen, NSW.

Mount Wingen ('win-jen') is located on Wanaruah (Aboriginal Australian clan) country a little over 4 hours North of Sydney, if you take the scenic route via Putty Road. Surrounded by Burning Mountain National Park, Mount Wingen soars above the anthills at 520m above sea level... like most Australian ‘mountains’ it is, for all intents and purposes, a hill. What is astonishing about this particular mountain is that it hides an ancient coal seam, buried in sandstone, that has burned consistently for over 6000 years.

There are a few mountains like it in Australia, but all have come to blaze at the hand of man. This is the detail that differentiates Mount Wingen from its cohort. Mount Wingen is the oldest naturally occurring coal seam fire in the world. It was, according to western science, ignited via either lightning or bush fire, making it a very special (and probably toxic) place indeed. 

The Wanaruah people of Mount Wingen offer up a different understanding of the mountain’s history: A long time ago, the Gumaroi warriors took a trip to Wanaruah country to steal themselves some new wives. The Wiradjuri (another nearby clan) gave the Wanaruah a heads up about the approaching warriors, thus giving them time to prepare a response to the whole wife stealing thing... One Wanaruah woman waited on a cliff and watched for her warrior husband to return from the confrontation. After some time however, she realised that he wasn't coming back. Her heart broke, and she begged the God of the Skies, Biamie, to kill her dead. Biamie was a pretty compassionate sort, so he turned her into stone. As she was transformed, she wept for her husband and her tears, filled with anguish, turned into balls of fire. It was that stream of burning tears that set Mount Wingen alight.

If you visit the mountain today you will still see an underground fire that is nearly impossible to extinguish. It serves as a poignant reminder of our relationship with coal, as we transition into a cleaner future.

Unless, perhaps one day, the Wanaruah Warrior will return.

cover image credit: