Coal Mining and Strategic Water Source Areas

Note: these blogs appeared for the first time as columns in the Newcastle Advertiser (Caxton)

Acid mine drainage destroying a once beautiful river

“Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.  Well, they dug for the coal till the land was forsaken then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”  John Prine wrote these poignant lyrics in 1971 whilst lamenting the devastating impact coal mining was having in Kentucky. 

Coal mining is arguably the dirtiest form of mining leaving significant environmental and social legacy impacts in its path.  It’s no surprise that Prine was horrified by the destruction it caused.  How is this relevant to us in South Africa?  Some of our most important biodiversity-rich areas are located within what are called Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSA’s) – the 10% of South Africa’s surface area that provides 50% of the water critical for our survival.  Given the reality of climate change, it is predicted that increased strain will be put on SWSA’s to provide water in the future. 

Increasingly coal mining companies (particularly the smaller mining houses) seek to extract coal deposits wherever they may be found.  The long term impacts from mining in SWSA’s are massive and include acid mine drainage into river systems killing the life therein and rendering the water unsafe for use.  Technologies exist to treat some impacts but are not economically sustainable.  Additionally, given that the acceleration of climate change is driven primarily by our addiction to fossil fuel use (such as the use of coal for electricity production), extracting more of these destructive minerals is a really bad idea.

Perhaps it is time regulatory decisions were made in the interests of everyone and prevented coal mining in our SWSA’s?  After all, you can’t survive without water and you can’t drink coal…

*Angus Burns is a professional conservationist and works for WWF South Africa – he writes these blogs and columns in his personal capacity*

An abandoned coal mine and eroding channel through slag heaps

The Glorious Moon

Note: these blogs appeared for the first time as columns in the Newcastle Advertiser (Caxton)

Shakespeare likened Juliet’s beauty to the moon in the play Romeo and Juliet when he referred to “the envious moon,” in comparison to her.  The moon has been the focus of innumerable poems, songs, paintings, myths, legends and photographs for very good reason.  It is the most obvious celestial object besides our sun and because it has a massive influence over us (affecting our tides and much more), it is no wonder that it gets so much attention.

Observing the moon is easy with even a small pair of binoculars and / or a camera but it is with a telescope that its wonders are truly revealed.  Even a small telescope will allow you to see massive craters and mountains that were formed through impacts from meteors and geomorphological processes that happened millions of years ago and in the case of impacts, are still happening today.

The dark patches on the moon resemble seas from afar hence the Latin name for them: “Mare” meaning “sea” and giving rise to names such as, “the Sea of Crisis – Mare Crisium,” or “the Sea of Tranquillity – Mare Tranquillitatus,” wherein the first humans landed in 1969. 

The moon is approximately 378 881kms from Earth and orbits it every 27 days.  It does not emit but reflects sunlight.

The next time we have clear skies and the moon is visible have a good look at her – is it a rabbit or a man on the moon?

*Angus Burns uses primarily Celestron products as well as Sky-Watcher and Canon Cameras*

Close up of the moons surface taken with Iphone X through celestron Mak 90 telescope
Color version of the moon taken from Newcastle with Canon 60Da through Celestron mak90 goto scope
The moon taken from Newcastle KZN using a Canon 5D mark IV through a celestron SE8 telescope

Environment matters: our precious rivers

Note: these blogs appeared for the first time as columns in the Newcastle Advertiser (Caxton)

I was walking by the river one day and witnessed a truly sad scene, fish were floating everywhere and the water was bright green.  A smell like hell filled the air, everywhere was death and for a moment I thought to myself, this must be a nightmare…

Sadly this isn’t a bad dream and is in fact the fate of many rivers in South Africa.  The state of our rivers has been the focus of many articles and social media campaigns but the pollution persists and rivers that originate as clean streams in mountainous areas become cesspools when they enter most towns.

So why does this matter?  The answer is that our environment provides us with many free services that we take for granted.  From the air we breathe to the plants that rely on insect pollinators (to eventually provide us with food), and of course our water supply that originates in mountain streams before being piped to us after being further purified.  If we do not take responsibility for our destructive actions, we will perish as a species too.  It is everyone’s duty to keep our environment clean because besides being the right thing to do, it is also in our best interests as a species.

The famous Chief Seattle put it eloquently: “Humankind has not woven the web of life.  We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  All things are bound together.  All things connect.” 

What actions can you take?  Here are a few simple ideas to implement or inform others about…

  1. Don’t litter – anywhere!  (it eventually washes into storm water drains and ends up in the river further polluting it)
  2. Dispose of industrial oils and other waste via a proper landfill site and do not pour this form of waste into drains (which is also illegal to do)
  3. Spread awareness to friends, colleagues and authorities about illegal dumping and try to capture evidence of when it happens
  4. Report sewerage leaks whenever you see them – there is currently no guarantee that Municipalities will attend to your report but at least an official record is kept of the problem and hopefully it is addressed with enough people reporting the same problem
  5. Consider establishing an environmental action group to address the issues locally in your neighbourhood – strength in numbers does make a difference.

*Angus Burns is a professional conservationist and works for WWF South Africa. These blogs are done in his personal capacity*

Rivers are often clean at their source but end up as cesspools after they enter urban areas

Exploring the Universe with Angus Burns

Note: these blogs appeared for the first time as columns in the Newcastle Advertiser (Caxton)

“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently.  When you look into infinity, you realize there are more important things than what people do all day” (Calvin and Hobbes).  Profoundly true – the universe is humbling and gives us a sense of perspective… 

It was this sense of wonder that inspired me as a 9 year old to start exploring the universe with a pair of binoculars and later a telescope.  I will never forget seeing my first planet, gasping at the craters on the moon or watching my first meteor shower with the naked eye.  Anyone can start studying and observing the universe and with today’s technology it is far easier than most people realize.  An interest in astronomy is a journey that will take you to other worlds and hopefully inspire you to gain further knowledge about the origin of life and our place in the universe.

You only need your eyesight to begin with and from there, if your interest is sparked, invest in a portable telescope or pair of binoculars to take your journey further.  Always remember the best instrument to buy for a beginner is the one that is used often hence the need for portability

Over the coming months I hope to take you on a journey into the observable universe and hopefully inspire you to sit outside and look upwards at the stars a little more often.

*Angus Burns uses primarily Celestron products as well as Sky-Watcher and Canon Cameras*

Eta Carina nebula photographed from Newcastle South Africa through a Skywatcher 80ed Pro telescope